A cult figure, Paul Sherwen brought cycling to the world

With his infectious enthusiasm for and knowledge of cycling Paul Sherwen expanded the frontiers of the sport

Paul Sherwen interviews Edward King of team Cannondale-Garmin during team presentations ahead of the 2015 USA Pro Challenge. Photograph: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

During his cycling career, Paul Sherwen liked the hard stuff. Riding for French team La Redoute in the 1980s, the Englishman gained a reputation for his willingness to suffer on grueling climbs. One of his most-memorable performances at the Tour de France, a race he rode seven times and later commentated for three decades, was a six-hour solo breakaway.

It was no surprise, then, that Sherwen relished another kind of challenge upon picking up the microphone in the late 1980s: teaching the world to love cycling as much as he did.

While the two-wheeled sport has been immensely popular in its European heartland for over a century, in-roads into Australia, the United States and other new frontiers had been slow. But from Sherwen’s first race call until his passing on Sunday aged 62, the commentator has been inextricably linked with the global rise of cycling and its pinnacle event: the Tour de France.

Alongside commentary partner Phil Liggett, Sherwen’s dulcet tones have been a long-term companion for cycling fans each July. The duo made their first joint commentary appearance in 1986 while Sherwen was still riding professionally, before he joined Britain’s Channel 4 full-time in 1989. Sherwen and Liggett became the collective voice of the station’s initial forays into cycling, and only two years later the pair’s Tour de France broadcast graced Australian screens via state channel SBS.

Their on-air chemistry, racing insight and soliloquies to scenic French chateaus have helped SBS’s coverage of the Tour become a staple of Australian television. With each stage lasting five or six hours, fans in Australia and elsewhere became intimately familiar with Sherwen and Liggett.

The duo’s infectious enthusiasm and light humour – together with the Tour de France’s stunning scenic backdrop – have consistently drawn millions of viewers with little interest in cycling itself. For some, hearing Sherwen’s commentary was the first step in a lifelong obsession with the sport.

For others the interest remained passive, but they would nevertheless watch cycling for three weeks every year. That a very large class of non-cyclists know the difference between the peloton and a gruppetto, between the maillot jaune and the maillot vert, is largely attributable to Sherwen.

The commentator also helped develop domestic cycling in Australia, becoming a permanent fixture at the Tour Down Under – Australia’s first event on the World Tour calendar, now entering its 21st year. Just last week he posted on Twitter that his trip was booked to Adelaide for January 2019. Personable and generous with his time, Sherwen mentored many in the cycling media to develop the next generation of commentators and journalists.

When Tour de France organisers decided to expedite generational change last year and replace Sherwen and Liggett with Australian pair Robbie McEwen and Matthew Keenan, a vocal public backlash showed the depth of affection for the duo.

Ironically, their removal was also a testament to Sherwen and Liggett’s success developing global understanding of the sport; changing to McEwen and Keenan was seen in part as a move towards more technical commentary for informed cycling fans. Sherwen demonstrated his typical grace in stepping away quietly from centre stage, and providing ample support to his successors.

The Sherwen-Liggett double act also grew a cult following in the United States, providing the soundtrack as Lance Armstrong took the sport mainstream in the early 2000s. While the Texan rider became a pariah following doping revelations, the scandal barely dented Americans’ love of the Tour de France and those two softly-accented British voices that brought it into their homes. Armstrong took to Twitter to offer his condolences, describing Sherwen as “a class act and a great friend.”

Even when the world feed swapped commentators, American broadcaster NBC persisted with Sherwen and Liggett. The former’s last call of the race he loved was Geraint Thomas’s unexpected yellow jersey victory in July.

When not travelling, Sherwen lived in Kampala, Uganda, and was a vocal supporter of African cycling. He supported South African-registered Team Dimension Data, the first African team in the World Tour, and cheered on Daryl Impey when he became the first African to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey in 2013.

Sherwen was also passionate about grass roots cycling, working with charity Bicycles for Humanity to improve access to bicycles across the continent. His absence will be noticeable at the first UCI Road World Championships to take place in Africa, slated for 2025.

Sherwen was highly-regarded among the press pack that descends on France annually for the biggest cycling race on the planet. He was known for jovially and repeatedly asking colleagues: “Enjoying the Tour?” Thanks to Sherwen, millions more cycling fans enjoy it every year.

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