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A voice silenced: Paul Sherwen (1956-2018)

From issue 84 • Words by John Wilcockson with images from Graham Watson

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“When a mountain is in your path, do not sit at its foot and cry. Get up and climb it.” —One of Paul Sherwen’s favorite African proverbs

The majority of American cycling fans have grown up learning about the Tour de France from “Phil and Paul” in their live commentaries for network television. In total, the Phil Liggett-Paul Sherwen partnership extended through 33 Tours de France, five Olympic Games and countless editions of pro bike races around the world. But with Sherwen’s sudden death late last year, watching bike racing on TV will never be the same for U.S. viewers.

The suddenness of Sherwen’s passing can be gauged by a tweet he wrote three days before he died: “Got my ticket booked already [for the Tour Down Under]—can’t wait….” Instead, longtime partner Liggett would give a personal tribute to Sherwen at the TDU’s Legends’ Night Dinner in Adelaide, South Australia, on January 19, followed by a eulogy on February 6 at a memorial and celebration of Sherwen’s life in Manchester Cathedral that was attended by hundreds, including his family and many of his former colleagues.

The international cycling community was in shock when it learned that Sherwen, the ever-youthful 62-year-old Englishman, died in his sleep from heart failure at his colonial-style home in Kampala, Uganda, on December 2. Over the following hours and days, there was an unprecedented outpouring of grief for a man so immensely popular with millions from his TV appearances; to thousands more from his time as a bike racer, team media representative, mining engineer and advocate for conservation and bicycle empowerment; and to the dozens of his closest friends and family members—notably his American-born wife Katherine Love Sherwen, a yoga instructor, and their teen-age children, Alex and Margaux.

The depth of the sorrow felt around the world was emphasized when Liggett, like Sherwen a native of northwest England, tweeted the morning after his friend’s passing: “I have scrolled through Tweets for 45 minutes and then went back to the top and found 600 new ones.” He’d receive some 10,000 messages in the following days. Liggett added that Sherwen would have been “so proud” to learn how much people thought of him. And that is one of the saddest aspects of a man dying suddenly in the prime of life—he can’t experience (or savor) the love and gratitude coming from so many people.

Another of Sherwen’s commentating buddies, Bob Roll, posted a trademark scrawled notebook entry: “The relentless agony of losing Paul will never end. But the sustained and astounding outpouring of love and affection for Paul and his family has helped soothe the pain….” Just 10 weeks before his passing, Sherwen co-commentated with Roll at the 2018 Vuelta a España, where they’d go riding when they weren’t working.

Among the tributes that swamped the internet was a beautiful one by American cycling legends Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney: “Paul Sherwen had the capacity to make everyone that he met feel like he was their new best friend. Or in the case of those of us who knew him for decades…his all-time best friends. He always took time to visit, always had a joke or a story, always upbeat, and genuine. Always present. … His legacy should highlight his otherworldly far-reaching and far-flung life while staying down to earth and earnest. A man of the world, and now of another world. He will always be with us. Missed but never forgotten.”

Born at Widnes, just south of Liverpool, Sherwen spent his childhood in the county of Cheshire. At age 7, he moved with his family to East Africa when his father, who worked for ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), began a longterm contract to manage a fertilizer and insecticide factory at Tororo in northeast Uganda. In an interview with Men’s Journal, Sherwen later said: “I went to [boarding] school in Kenya but I lived in Uganda right on the border. I grew up going into the real bush and sleeping in the back of a pickup and surrounded by lions and elephants.”

Besides a love for the outdoors, the teen-age Sherwen learned to speak Swahili and proved to be a pretty good swimmer, a sport he continued when his family returned to England—though his parents John and Margaret divorced shortly thereafter and he moved into a housing project with his mother. That was probably the hardest period of Sherwen’s life, but it was also one that saw him begin cycling.

“I used to go and ride on my own,” he remembered. “I just needed to get out, because it was a really tough time at home.” Perhaps missing the wildness he was familiar with in Africa, he discovered the joys of riding into the Cheshire countryside from his home in Frodsham, a small market town. And when he joined the local Weaver Valley Cycling Club, he proved to be a pretty strong rider on club runs into the hills of nearby North Wales. At high school, like his father, Sherwen showed an aptitude for science and went on to attend Manchester University’s Institute for Science & Technology to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in paper technology.

While at college, Sherwen joined the racing-oriented Altrincham Road Club and hooked up with the inspirational Manchester-based cycling coach Harold “H” Nelson—who worked with the British national amateur team for many years. “He took me from a third-category rider to an international amateur,” Sherwen said in a Cycling Weekly interview. “He guided me in lots of ways, but most important was that he instilled discipline in me, and he was ahead of his time as a trainer. Even in those days, well before anyone had heart-rate monitors, ‘H’ somehow knew intuitively how long we should train for at our lactic-acid thresholds.”

That high-level coaching, along with challenging training rides into the Pennine Hills with Nelson’s other top athletes, Graham Jones and John Herety, saw full-time student Sherwen progress rapidly in his cycling career. In 1976, at age 19, he won the early-season Pernod GP in southern England, the country’s top one-day amateur classic. That year’s event attracted a team from the leading French club, ACBB of Paris, whose coach was greatly impressed by Sherwen—who went on that year to win Britain’s season-long points competition, the Star Trophy.

Sherwen began the 1977 season with two more domestic victories: Folkestone–London and a second Pernod GP. Encouraged by coach “H” he accepted an offer to join the ACBB, replacing American rider Jock Boyer on the French squad. Despite completing his finals at university that year, Sherwen won a handful of French amateur classics and took third in the espoirs Paris–Roubaix. His successes encouraged the ACBB to recruit many more promising “Anglo” riders—including Jones in 1978; Aussie Phil Anderson and Scot Robert Millar in 1979; Herety and Irishman Stephen Roche in 1980; Englishman Sean Yates in 1981; and Aussie Allan Peiper in 1982. All of these men went on to successful careers as professionals, riding multiple Tours de France—while three decades later Herety, Yates, Peiper and Millar (now Pippa York) would come together at Sherwen’s memorial, along with such cycling luminaries as Sean Kelly, Michael Rogers and Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme.

Unlike the sport’s top stars, Sherwen didn’t succeed through pure talent; he was a more cerebral athlete who did well because of his unlimited determination, strong tactical skills and a great team spirit. Teammates and journalists alike discovered his warm character and wry sense of humor. Whether it was riding with him on a training run, watching him at international stage races or interviewing him after his successes, he was always polite, cooperative and informative.

After less than a year of amateur racing in France, Sherwen earned a two-year pro contract with Fiat of France. He soon rewarded the team with a fourth place overall at the Mediterranean Tour, which helped him get selected for the Tour de France in his rookie season. Sherwen was strong in bunch finishes, but wasn’t much of a climber or time trialist. Even so, he battled through his first Tour, taking five top-20 stage finishes and ending the race in 70th place. Most of all, he proved he was a superb teammate, both on and off the bike; so when the Fiat team folded after the 1979 season, he had no problem being signed by a stronger French team, La Redoute.

La Redoute was a mail-order company headquartered in Roubaix, not far from the Belgian border, so that’s where Sherwen lived for most of the following six years, riding the northern classics and stage races. His top results included rare victories at Belgium’s Hainaut Occidentale (beating Sean Kelly into second place) in 1981 and a gritty stage of the 1983 Quatre Jours de Dunkerque (where he finished second overall). One of his most memorable performances came at the 1983 Paris–Roubaix. Sherwen was one of only eight riders who could respond to a sharp acceleration by three-time winner Francesco Moser over the cobblestones in the Forest of Arenberg on a day of mud and rain. A crash saw Sherwen fall out of that lead group, but he still managed to complete the 274 kilometers, taking 15th place in Roubaix, 13 minutes down on solo winner Hennie Kuiper. Only 32 of the 193 starters managed to finish that epic edition of the world’s toughest classic.

Sherwen normally worked as a domestique, riding for classics specialists Alain Bondue and Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke, and then (in his last two years with La Redoute) for team leader Stephen Roche—notably at the Tour de France. Sherwen’s racing career is best remembered for his heroics at the Tour. Typical was stage 18 of the 1984 Tour when on the first of three hors-catégorie climbs in the Alps Peiper was knocked over by a fan—and Sherwen helped out. After Peiper fell, his Peugeot teammate Yates encouraged him with the words: “Don’t worry, the climber’s behind you.” His mates jokingly called Sherwen “the climber” just because he wasn’t one. On that seven-hour day, Sherwen rode the rest of the 247-kilometer stage alongside Peiper to finish at La Plagne 42 minutes behind stage (and Tour) winner Laurent Fignon—and just three minutes inside the day’s time limit.

The following year, Sherwen’s troubles came before the Tour reached the Alps. He crashed heavily in the first kilometer of the 204.5-kilometer stage 10, ending up on his back against a metal crash barrier. In pain, he bravely continued, assisted by two La Redoute teammates. Far behind the peloton and with a strong chance that they’d all be eliminated on time, Sherwen urged his colleagues to leave him behind and save their Tour. But it wasn’t until he told them to “bugger off” that they picked up their pace with 120 kilometers to go. Those two teammates reached the hilltop finish above Pontarlier just one minute inside the time limit. Behind, Sherwen doggedly continued, knowing this was likely his final Tour. He had to weave a way through the traffic descending from the finish before crossing the line a half-hour outside the time limit. La Redoute appealed his elimination and, because of the circumstances, the Tour’s technical director Albert Bouvet graciously reinstated Sherwen. “But you’d better finish the Tour,” he added. And 12 stages later, the Englishman duly ended his last Tour in 141st place.

That wasn’t the end of Sherwen’s competitive career. He joined a small British domestic team, sponsored by Raleigh, and raced with them for two years—winning the national circuit championship in 1986 and British pro road title (ahead of Herety) in ’87. That team proved the perfect life transition for Sherwen. Knowing that U.K. television’s Channel 4 was starting live Tour coverage in 1986, Liggett asked Sherwen to join him on the commentating team and got him to write a clause into his contract with Raleigh that allowed him not to race in July. It was the start of their long broadcasting partnership.

Sherwen quit racing in 1988, but remained with the Raleigh-Banana team as its team manager for another two years. He was then offered a job by the Motorola team’s American boss Jim Ochowicz as its publicity director—while retaining his TV commentary gig. It was work that suited Sherwen’s upbeat personality and gift of the gab, bringing him into daily contact with the next generation of racers (including a youthful Lance Armstrong), corporate sponsors and the media world.

Despite his early life in Africa Sherwen always exuded “Englishness” and developed a wonderful way with words, while his sparkling eyes and mischievous smile endeared him to all. It was when commentating at the 1989 Tour that he met his future wife Katherine Love, a production assistant for ABC Sports, who grew up in South Carolina. They would honeymoon in East Africa; so when the Motorola team lost its title sponsor in 1996 and Sherwen was out of his day job, it wasn’t a hard decision for them to settle in Uganda and start a family.

Sherwen partnered with one of his father’s best friends, Frank Howett, to acquire the lease to a 140-acre goldmine at Busitema in eastern Uganda. Among the other investors were a few members of the Motorola team, including Ochowicz and Armstrong. For the first three years in Uganda, Sherwen oversaw the rehabilitation of the Tira mining site and then became the president and managing director of the mining company, responsible for the day-to-day operations. And despite his extensive travel for TV work, he went on to become the first chairman of the Uganda Chamber of Mines and helped start companies that developed Uganda’s oil and mineral resources.

The Sherwens first lived close to the goldmine in a house that overlooked Lake Victoria, the largest of the African continent’s Great Lakes. “I’m pretty happy to bring up my kids in Africa in a similar way to the way I grew up in the outdoors,” said Sherwen, whose love of the vast landscapes, the mountains and the wildlife extended to his support for campaigns against elephant and rhino poachers—which led him to become chairman of the Uganda Conservation Foundation. His passion for the wildlife was something he shared with Liggett, who lives in South Africa for much of the year.

Besides their life in Uganda, the Sherwens had a house on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where Katherine stayed when Paul was working at the Tour each July. Sherwen often rode a bike on the island. He told the Hilton Head Monthly in 2013 how The Bike Doctor, a local bike store, “looks after my bikes when I’m gone. He had my [1987] championship bike on the wall at the shop.”

With his deep knowledge of the sport and understated commentary style, Sherwen became the perfect foil to Liggett, providing insights, thoughtful asides and, sometimes, gentle corrections for his partner’s faux-pas, starting with that infamous interjection: “Well, Phil…” Over the years, Sherwen’s repartee endeared him to worldwide audiences with such colorful lines as “the pendulum of pain” and “pedaling in squares.” About breakaway riders trying to avoid being caught by the pack, he’d use phrases like “he’s opened his suitcase of courage,” “he’s turning himself inside out” or “bridge to engine room: more power please.” Regarding tactics, Sherwen might muse: “One man’s tactic is another man’s derision.” As for sprint finishers, he might say they “kick in the turbo, open the nitrogen and then boom!”

Sherwen was at his best when interviewing riders before and after races, having always remained close with the athletes. Typically, in early 1997, when Armstrong was in an Indianapolis hospital having a third round of chemotherapy for prostate cancer, Sherwen paid a visit to encourage the Texan. Recalling that visit, Sherwen said, “Seeing this skinny guy walking down a corridor wearing black tracksuit pants and pushing a drip…. I thought that was going to be my last image of him.”

“Wherever a man goes to dwell, his spirit goes with him.” — African proverb quoted by Sherwen’s son Alex at his dad’s memorial service

Besides his affinity with fellow bike racers, Sherwen could communicate on their level, especially because he could speak their language, whether it was English, French, Dutch or whatever. In Africa, according to Africa Rising’s director of marketing Kimberly Coats, “Paul would always speak Swahili with our riders. He always made them feel important.” Indeed, after Sherwen sold his goldmine a decade ago, he became a strong proponent for helping black African riders gain traction in pro cycling.

“Paul never lost an opportunity to talk about Team Rwanda Cycling and the growth of African cycling,” Coats said in a tribute to Sherwen. “We were always on his radar, and he was still our biggest fan and supporter.” When Sherwen visited the 2015 Tour of Rwanda, a country that borders Uganda, he told cyclingnews: “We need to see these countries as part of a big region, the Great Lakes Africa. There’s a strong potential in tourism and economics. A race from Rwanda to Tanzania, going through various countries of the area, that would definitely be great!”

In his quest to grow the sport of cycling in Africa, Sherwen helped the Bicycles for Humanity founder, Canadian Pat Montani, get the global grassroots movement started in Uganda. Over the past 13 years, the nonprofit has delivered 160,000 bicycles to developing African countries, including some 5,000 bikes to Karamoja in northeast Uganda where Sherwen spent much of his life. Talking of that region, Montani said, “I was lucky enough to be a part of this journey of empowerment and helping an incredible people take the first steps to a better life. Today, Paul is not only a legend there, but one of the most respected elders. His attention to detail, to respect and honor the traditions of the people, to create programs that the people could carry forward and grow, allowing change and opportunity to come from within, honestly might be his greatest legacy.”

With help from the local Karamajong and Tepeth peoples, Sherwen opened a safari lodge and in 2017 founded the Tour of Karamoja mountain bike event—which has become the largest cycling event in Uganda. After participating in the 2018 edition last October, Sherwen tweeted: “I didn’t think it could get any better after the 1st Tour of Karamoja—but the [people] never cease to amaze me…50 riders from 10 countries took part.” A month later, Sherwen was back in his favorite part of the world, wearing his characteristic bush hat and khaki shorts. A photo shows him sitting at a table beneath a hurricane lantern in a straw-roofed hut with four other organizers studying a laptop computer “mapping trails around Mount Moroto for [the next] Tour of Karamoja.”

The next day, November 22, Sherwen said he was looking forward to digging into “The Road Book,” the new 1,000-page almanac edited by British TV sports presenter Ned Boulting that chronicles the 2018 cycling season. “Mine is sitting in my son’s digs at university in the UK!!” Sherwen wrote. “But it will be hand carried out to Africa for Xmas—waiting impatiently!!” Such enthusiasm was typical of Sherwen, who never showed signs of slowing down his hectic lifestyle. He often joked with friends about his high level of cholesterol, whether munching on a Belgian chocolate bar at the spring classics, sipping a coffee while working or enjoying a post-stage glass of wine at the Tour.

Ten days after he tweeted about his son’s homecoming, and three weeks before Christmas, Paul Sherwen died. We will never again hear his heart-warming voice telling us about the intricacies of the Tour. But we’ll always remember him. And, as his fellow Africans say: “Kurudi, ndugu.” Farewell, brother.

From issue 84. Buy it here.