Reported By: Guy Wilson-Roberts
For a good part of the year, Paul Sherwen runs a mining corporation and a logistics company for the oil industry in Uganda.
“When I’m not commentating, I’m quite a busy chap,” he told PEZ via telephone from his office in Kampala recently, all in good humour.
“Commentating is a break from the real work,” Sherwen said, and explained that the former takes up about 120 days of his year, excluding travel.
Sherwen has done a bit of cycling in his time, one could say, having finished the Tour de France five times, amongst other achievements in a professional career that started in 1978. In his last year on the road in 1987 he won the British road race championship. He has also been a team manager and worked in PR for the Motorola team in the early 1990s.
Now it is his race commentary duties that keep him engaged with cycling, alongside another well-known and busy chap that PEZ spoke to recently, Phil Liggett.
Like Liggett, Sherwen had the best seat in the house for watching the racing action throughout the season this year, with never a dull moment. With the racing now over, with the recent news that Telekom was ceasing its long-standing sponsorship of the T-Mobile team, and with the Tour and Giro routes for 2008 announced, PEZ was looking forward to getting Sherwen’s inside view on the entire year.
PEZ: It’s been a rollercoaster year for pro cycling, with sponsors pulling out, doping confessions and scandals, and plenty of political infighting between teams and between the sport’s governing bodies. What do you make of it all?
Paul: It hasn’t just been a bad year for cycling, it’s been a bad year for sport. The Tour had a hectic month of July, but what about Marion Jones?
PEZ: For cycling, do you see the glass as half full or half empty?
Paul: I see it at a point where we’re actually turning a corner. People have to get hurt sometimes to make things better. In any war there has to be casualties. I’ve always advocated that cycling has been at the forefront of this war against doping. While many of us are critical of the UCI and the way they handle these issues, many other sporting organizations are much more secretive. In one way naively, but also transparently, the UCI has opened its doors, but many times that’s come back and smacked them in the face.
The Rasmussen affair was highly embarrassing. At the end of the day, it’s very difficult to make decisions when you’ve got a gun to your head. Hypothetically, with three days to go until the start of the Tour, say, what do you do? After the Tour we had access to more information, more than the team had at the time. Ultimately, Rasmussen should never have started the Tour and there would have been one less scandal.
What Vinokourov proved is that the UCI is on the cutting edge so when riders think, ‘Yeah, no problem, I can get away with that’, the UCI has proved that, ‘Sorry, mate – but you actually can’t get away with that any more’.
PEZ: Were you disappointed when the revelations about Vino came out, given he’s been such a classy rider throughout his career?
Paul: Yes, you feel like a prat as a journalist, on the TV for a week talking about how brave he is, wondering how he slept at night with his injuries, how courageous. Then, the next minute you find out he had a blood transfusion.
It’s difficult because Phil and I commentate, but we don’t critique. We’ll tell the story of the game as it’s unfolding, analyzing what you see without being investigative journalists. And it’s like a good book: you get caught up in the story on chapters one to eight, but come chapter nine there’s a twist in the tale that you weren’t thinking about. Still, that makes a good book sometimes!
PEZ: And it seems like everyone has been reading that book and that cycling has been under intense scrutiny from the international media.
Paul: That’s the downside to the transparency, unfortunately. When you see a sponsor like T-Mobile/Telekom, who has been such a great sponsor, pull out, it’s because they just cannot be linked to the doping scandals any more, even though they have a new ‘clean’ program moving forward.
PEZ: Which is a shame, because it seems like they pulled out just as the team had turned a corner and become a different organization.
Paul: Still, you have to understand it from a corporate perspective. They have to make decisions based on their own employees and customers, no matter what individuals in the company think about cycling personally. Cycling now has to prove to its sponsors that it has turned a corner. The guys that want to cheat have to realize that they will get caught, and that their cheating will affect their colleagues and 75 odd people who are on the team. This new mentality is coming through with the youngsters coming into the sport.
PEZ: Will it take a generational change?
Paul: I think that generational change is happening right now. Because there’s a bunch of young guys coming through, 25 to 27 years old, like Michael Rogers for example, reaching the optimum age of 25 to 30 for pro cyclists, who are about to assume the mantle. These guys are relieved, I think, as to what’s happened. That said, there could be some tough money times ahead.
The funny thing is, if you discount Germany, the TV viewing figures in the rest of the world have increased dramatically. One door closes and another opens. In South Africa, Australia, even in the US, viewers have been fanatical about the Tour coverage.
PEZ: Not to dwell on doping for too long, as apparently there was actually some racing going on during the year as well. Alberto Contador received the French journalists’ Palme d’Or award, but who was your pick for the top rider of 2008?
Paul: Always difficult to pick out one rider. Contador, though, early on in the year, at Paris-Nice, when the team rallied around him, they really believed in him. They were setting him up for the win. I was going through my mind, while commentating on the stage, the tactics for the final road stage and, having ridden that course, ridden those climbs, thought that the place to get 10 or 15 seconds [Davide Rebellin was leading the race going into the penultimate stage over Contador by only 6 seconds] was in the last few kilometres of the last climb. But this kid attacked as soon as the climb started. He just didn’t want to let the team down.
Alberto Contador started the season in fine fashion with a win at Paris-Nice, and then pulled off an incredible win at the Tour in July.
Later in the year Phil and I met Contador with Johan Bruyneel, who said he’d rarely seen someone accelerate on the climbs like Contador can. So we had him tipped as an outsider for the Tour. Although the Tour was a little strange, he just wanted to attack on the climbs. Even when he was riding against Rasmussen, he kept attacking until you could see through his body language, his shoulders collapsing, that there was nothing left in the engine room. So I appreciated his style of racing.
PEZ: One of the best rides of the season was surely Stuart O’Grady at Paris-Roubaix?
Paul: Yes, for me it was one of the great exploits of the year. Phil and I have commented on Stuart going back to when he was an amateur on the track, when he was one of the great international track riders. People forget about Stuart’s long history on both sides of the sport, that he won the Commonwealth Games road race in Manchester [in 2002] when he just took off up the road against a really good field, that he went to Athens [the 2004 Olympic Games] and rode the road race very admirably, then did three days on the track in Germany and came back and won the Madison with Brownie [Graeme Brown].
Stuart and Henk Vogels have always had an affinity for the one-day Classics. He and Henk were mad for Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. The commentary was very difficult this year, and there can be breakdowns in race radio, with fast camera cuts, it’s very difficult to follow – am I looking at group 1 or group 2… And I remember just seeing this sea of dust, and out of the dust comes Stuart O’Grady!
Watching that ride was a real pleasure, but I know for him that it was one of the big goals of his career. And then the rest of the season was a disaster with his horrific crash in the Tour.
PEZ: You’re mostly anchored to the commentary box these days, do you still get much of a chance to interact with the riders?
Paul: It depends on the event. At the Tour de France we never see a rider, unless by accident. The other events we cover during the year give us much more chance to interact with the riders. At the Tour Down Under, for example, Phil and I stay at the same hotel as the riders, and everyone is more relaxed at the beginning of the season. It gives you a chance to catch up with the stories.
The Tour Down Under provides not only good racing, but a chance for Phil and Paul to stay with the riders.
The Tour of California is a bit different, because of the TV coverage schedule, but there is still a chance to interact. At the one-day Classics, also, we usually stay in-and-around the area. After that, it’s pretty much the studio, although we look forward to ahead of the Tour, for example, with Versus, where we go to specific locations and do the interviews with the riders. It gives you a chance to chat with the riders ahead of the Tour, such as when we talked to Contador this year.
We’d much rather do commentary from on-site, because of the interaction, but now there’s so much television coverage. In the old days of the Tour, we’d go to the start, do the interviews, drive the race route, then commentate for the last hour. Now we’ll start the commentary four hours before the end of the stage. It’s impossible now to do it like we used to, so we now drive ahead to the finish of the following day’s stage.
PEZ: The Tour and the Giro routes for 2008 have been released over the last couple of weeks, with some interesting changes. Which race will give us the most excitement next year – or are they even comparable?
Paul: They’re very different! And don’t forget the Vuelta. I love all three Grand Tours, but in different ways. The Tour is the biggest and the best, the one everyone wants to do well in – it’s world renowned. The Giro is the aficionados’ tour; it’s the tour that people who love the sport and want to get close to the sport go to – given that it’s a lot more difficult to get close to the Tour these days. The Giro has the Italian flair. There’s great hotels, great food, and the tifosi – the Italian fans – really make it something special.
I never discount the Vuelta as an event. Spain is a great country that seems a long way away from the rest of Europe. Because I live in Africa, I appreciate the size of Spain compared to the rest of Europe. Spain has the grandiose vistas, and I get a real kick out of the Vuelta given the massive views on some of the stages.
PEZ: Christian Prudhomme has made some changes for the Tour de France for next year, with less time trials and no time bonuses, for example. He’s also talked about limiting the use of radios, which is something that Phil has supported. Will that make for a more exciting race?
Paul: That’s the age-old discussion that Phil and I always have. I was with Motorola when they were developing the radios, which were then adopted by all the teams. I understand that it changes the tactics, but I’ve always looked at it from a safety point of view. It’s so much more important, given that a guy can lose a race with a badly-timed flat tyre, 10 to 15 kms to go, with the pack charging along at 60 km/h, that the team manager can get the news that, say, Alberto Contador needs a new front wheel, and the team car can be ready. That communication can save 30 seconds.
Phil will complain that it takes the brain away from the riders. But the great riders, like Armstrong or Bettini, or the other top champions, they know how to make decisions. If you watch the TV coverage, they will even have the earphone out. Without radios it might change the way a break will develop, or the way it might get caught, but when it comes down to crunch time on Alpe d’Huez there’s no radio that will make you go up it faster.
The initial goal with the two-way radios, with Motorola, was safety, given that team managers would often drive up to the front of the main field in the team car to talk to their riders. The sport has increased in its level of competitiveness from then to now; trying to drive to the front of the main field now is almost impossible.
PEZ: Finally, Paul, and this is a question PEZ asked Phil as well: it’s been a difficult year for fans, trying to maintain their allegiance, to stick with cycling – do you have any words of support?
Paul: It’s a great sport. The icons of the sport, like the Tour, or Paris-Roubaix, are just that: icons. When I see the Alps, and think about Hannibal crossing them, I’m not thinking, ‘how many of these riders are on EPO, how many have done THG, how many are BALCO clients in San Francisco’. I’m thinking about the beauty of the sport that we all love. And this will carry the sport through the bad times.
Let’s not forget that cycling has been around for 100 years. It’s had its ups and downs. Right now we feel that this is the most important time in cycling. But we’ve had riders worrying if they’d get hijacked riding through the night in the early tours, we’ve had the death of Tom Simpson. I’m sure in years to come we’ll look back and say that the early part of this century was very difficult for the Tour de France, but it will go on.
I’m very positive about the future, as I think Phil is as well. The UCI, despite its own ups and downs, is doing a very good job battling the scourge of our sport – and many other sports – which is doping. I read somewhere that we’ll be looking next year at the cleanest Tour in history. Well, I think the 2007 Tour was pretty clean overall – the UCI knew exactly who to target, to pinpoint the cheats, which they haven’t done before. That’s the big change to bear in mind. We’ve got to have some bad press. But think about that young kid, Alberto Contador: he battled and fought a great race at the Tour.
There will be more great battles and more great stories for the 2008 season. I’m looking forward to it!
Thanks for taking a break from the ‘real work’, Paul, to bring PEZ up-to-date. We look forward to catching up with you again next year.