Paul Sherwen by Wiscot


Lead photo by Cycling Archives

With the recent, and way-too-soon, passing of Paul Sherwen, this article commemorates a rider who, while not a superstar on the bike, became one talking about the bike. In the days since his death, no-one has had a bad word to say about Sherwen. He was a pro’s pro. I vaguely remember seeing a documentary back in the late 70s when Sherwen was riding with Fiat (probably his first Tour). It covered his experiences at the Tour de France and I vividly remember two things: the riders had to wash their own kit at the end of the day, and chamois inserts were so bad, some riders put a thin piece of steak down there to soften the ride. How times have changed.

Paul Sherwen’s career as a rider and commentator covered those changing times, from steel bikes and riders washing their own kits to carbon fiber and team buses with laundry facilities. One thing never changed, that the sport still shows respect to tough-as-nails professionals – such as Sherwen.

As we all know, a certain rider from a southern US state famously threw out a “look” at Jan Ullrich on L’Alpe d’Huez during the Tour de France in 2001. It was a look that said “I’m outta here and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Given the Texan’s masterfully measured intake of pharmaceuticals, there was indeed little Ullrich could do.

Let’s turn the clock back to 1978 and the Tour de France. Two young professionals are lined up at the stage start, ready to do the bidding of their team leaders. English-speaking riders were still relatively scarce at the time so these two had something in common besides their status as domestiques.

On the right we have the 22 year old Paul Sherwen from England. He turned professional in 1978 for Fiat-La France, a French team and whose teammates in the 1978 Tour included no-one of any real accomplishment, although the directeur sportif was the legendary Raphael Geminiani. Sherwen would win seven races as a professional, establishing himself as an excellent and tough domestique who fully earned his few opportunities to win.

On the left is the 22 year old Sean Kelly from Carrick-on-Suir in the Irish Republic. He turned professional a year earlier than Sherwen in 1977 and rode the 1978 Tour for Flandria, a Belgian team containing such hard men as Marc DeMayer, Michel Pollentier, Freddy Maertens, Joaquim Agostinho, Rene Bittinger and Marcel Tinazzi. He would win a stage of the Tour that year, outsprinting Gerrie Knetemann on stage six to Poitiers. He would go on to lead teams for 12 years and win Paris-Nice seven times.

However, in 1978, both riders’ palmares were very slim indeed as their job was not to win for themselves, but to assist others in doing so. Their futures were unknown, but surely neither could guess that they would both later land gigs as commentators – and both in English. At the time that would have been regarded as highly unlikely as Kelly’s grasp of the English language was famously difficult to ascertain. He was a rider who, legend has it, nodded in affirmation to a question asked on radio. English-speaking teammates found it easier to communicate with Kelly in French.

But back to the expression on Sherwen’s face. The look Sherwen is giving Kelly is, to me, one of pure disdain. “Who is this barely intelligible tattie-howking peasant from Ireland, and why is he next to me? I rode for the Altringham Road Club, he rode for the Carrick Wheelers.”

Kelly, on the other hand, does a great job of not caring. His crystal ball says “I will become an all-time great. I will win five stages of the Tour, four green jerseys, nine Monuments, podium twice in World Championships and win a Grand Tour. In 1984 alone I will win 33 races, you will become an apologist for one of the greatest cheaters in the history of sport.”

Be careful who you give the evil eye to.

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December 12, 2018 12:41 am

Did I miss something, or perhaps get a censored version of the article ? What’s with all the wiscot hate? I don’t read it as Sherwen-bashing at all, nor do I see any references to Paul defending Pharmy. Looking at the photo, I can imagine two relatively unknown young athletes being cocky and sizing each other up.

December 12, 2018 10:20 pm
Reply to  MangoDave

As wrote: “In 1984 alone I [Kelly] will win 33 races, you [Sherwen] will become an apologist for one of the greatest cheaters in the history of sport.” Hard not to interpret the latter half of the sentence as a reference to Paul defending Pharmy.

December 13, 2018 12:34 pm
Reply to  chuckp

Yes that is undoubtedly a reference to his defence of Armstrong. And why not… many people loved Sherwen for his riding and commentating, many people also can’t forget his alliance to Armstrong. He didn’t just ignore the evidence, he chose not to even engage with it and dismissed those who said otherwise. Sure he wasn’t a journalist, he was a commentator, but he still had a duty to be fair and I don’t think he was. I thought Wiscot’s article was pretty balanced. It made one reference to Armstrong and had many points of appreciation for Sherwen. But, see my… Read more »

December 13, 2018 11:40 pm
Reply to  ChrisO

FWIW, I wasn’t defending Sherwen or criticizing Wiscot. Just pointing out to MangoDave that Wiscot did indeed reference Sherwen defending Armstrong. I agree with you that Sherwen (and Ligget and Samuel Abt and a lot of others) shouldn’t have accepted the Armstrong myth lock, stock, and barrel without any question whatsoever. At least not after David Walsh’s book came out. Unfortunately, it will be a blemish on his career.

December 15, 2018 6:50 pm
Reply to  chuckp

Hmm, I did gloss over that, sorry. I locked in to the sentence about The Look and how Ulrich had no chance of going with the juiced Texan. I’ll blame it on my poor vision.

December 15, 2018 6:54 pm
Reply to  MangoDave

No worries. I assume most of us here are … ahem … old.

December 11, 2018 1:30 am

This is just mean spirited and totally uncalled for. I feel very sorry for you Wiscot.

December 8, 2018 5:30 pm

“no-one has had a bad word to say about Sherwen.- except you, Wiscot! Your lovely first two paragraphs to commemorate a “superstar” in the broadcast booth are gutted by your snide comments about Kelly and Pharmstrong. The picture was great but your Anatomy Of A Photo missed the mark. After 30 years of listening to Phil & Paul wind up to a fevered pitch in the last hour of every tour stage coverage, I cannot imagine that “disdain” for Sean Kelly is what that look is. As to Sherwen’s beyond-all-reasonable-doubt defense of Lance until the very end? His loyalty was… Read more »

December 9, 2018 1:38 pm
Reply to  davidbeers

@davidbeers – I tend to lean more your direction than @Wiscot’s. Sherwen’s “transgression” WRT Pharmstrong was the same as Samuel Abt’s during that era. He believed what he wanted to believe and didn’t want to critically question the Lance myth for fear of losing access. From “The Comeback” (I just posted my review for PEZ): “If you write negatively about Lance, you lose all access.” If you view Sherwen’s role as a TV commentator to simply comment on the race, interview riders, and be a “cheerleader” for the sport, then his lack of not wanting to be more questioning is… Read more »

December 7, 2018 6:30 pm

And what a study in cap-wearing too ! Glad you mentioned the Armstrong thing. I haven’t made any comments on the various tributes others have posted on Facebook on the grounds of not speaking ill of the dead, certainly not the recently deceased. You’re never going to have a reasoned discussion. But Sherwen for me just doesn’t have a lot of emotional resonance. He wasn’t my ‘first voice of cycling’, that was David Duffield so I don’t have that connection. Having grown up in Australia where cycling didn’t get a whole lot of interest I had no idea who he… Read more »