What's Cool In Road Cycling

Catching Up With Paul Sherwen!

The mark of a truly great tv commentator – Paul Sherwen is never short for words. And a good thing as we got his inside view on 2008 and a preview of 2009 – everything from Contador’s ‘sheer class’, the rise of Mark Cavendish, and Armstrong’s return, plus the challenges of commentating during a tumultuous season.

“It helps to keep my feet on the ground,” Sherwen told PEZ on the phone from his home in Uganda.

He was speaking metaphorically, in reference to his double life as a prominent cycling commentator and a successful African gold mine operator, and how he enjoys jumping between the two worlds.

The irony is that his feet are hardly on the ground these days. His busy schedule keeps him often in the air – some 450,000 air miles this year alone. In the last month, he was in the north of Uganda, working with the British charity Edukid to produce a promotional documentary on the charity’s efforts in getting children affected by the local civil war back into school.

Sherwen has been calling the shots for a long, long time, and there’s no one better to look back at the season that was and the season that will be.

It was certainly a far cry from European and international cycling, but sufficiently fascinating that PEZ almost forgot to ask Sherwen about his other passion. But what better way than to turn the conversation from the peace process in northern Uganda to the peace process in cycling with another tough year of thrilling racing but the continued spectre of doping and a tentative reconciliation between the warring factions of the ASO and the UCI.

“We’ve got a sport that has built up some massive foundations,” Sherwen said. “It’s already survived two world wars. I really believe we’re still moving in the right direction. What has been done, especially at the Tour de France, with regard to targeting doping suspects, for example, is the way to go.”

One could say that this year proved just as bad for doping as last year, with high-profile stars busted and race results rewritten. Sherwen remained optimistic, however, and was quick to dismiss claims of widespread doping.

“We know who’s cheating, but it’s a longitudinal process – cheaters can’t be caught right before big races like the Giro. It takes time,” he explained.

Yep, it has always been true and always will be: if it seems like it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

“The majority of riders don’t want to go down the drug abuse route, they want a level playing field. When Bernard Kohl says, ‘50 percent of the main field are on CERA’, I don’t believe that; that’s just the conscience of a guilty man trying to tarnish everybody and set up an excuse for why he was doing it.”

For Sherwen, exceptional performances – like Kohl’s at the Tour – stood out. But how to commentate on such performances proved a challenge.

“His performance was out of the ordinary. Similarly for Ricco, when he broke away on the final climb and stayed away from a group of sixty guys, that’s just not possible. Looking back in retrospect it’s clear. At the time, though, you don’t analyse. Phil and I are telling a story, we’re talking about what we see – we’re not analytical journalists. It was funny this year as Phil and I had done the Giro for Versus and we went back to it for the DVD for World Cycling Productions. When you look at something retrospectively, such as the riding of Emmanuelle Sella, you’re looking at it in a different light.

Ditto the last picture comment.

“At the Giro, riders like Andreas Kloden were saying ‘you should test that [Sella’s] team’ as something was not right. Riders are now happy to point the finger. Eighty or ninety percent of riders in the international peloton want a clean sport. And keep in mind that the retroactive testing from the Tour didn’t catch as many riders as some had predicted. The positives were not good but the numbers are falling.”

PEZ agreed with Sherwen’s comment that the will of the riders for a clean sport was the big difference this year, which helped to compensate for some of the disappointments, such as the doping positives at the Tour.

What else is there to say? Carlos was magnificent on Alpe D’Huez.

“It was great Tour, an exciting Tour,” he concurred. “For example, CSC rode a great race, the perfect race. Carlos Sastre hit them hard on one day; he probably marked that day off in his diary from the presentation the year before.”

Sastre undoubtedly was brilliant in 2008 and a Tour victory is certainly not something to scoff at. But how about that Alberto Contador with his Giro and Vuelta double?

“Outstanding – he’s the rider for the next five years,” was Sherwen’s view. “His class came out to me when he was thrown into the deep end at the Giro. He rose to the occasion, improved throughout the event, and then he won on sheer class. He was even more dominant at the Vuelta.

The Number One Favorite for next year’s Tour de France.

“I was happy for Carlos Sastre for him to win the Tour; he’s been consistent for many years and always an outside chance to win. But given his results from his last three Grand Tours, Contador is a very special rider indeed.”

PEZ wondered, given Contador’s relatively young age compared to other great champions, whether he is going to be dominant for many years.

“His climbing is second to none,” Sherwen added. “What is impressive is how his time-trialling ability has improved at the top level of the sport. The final time trial in 2007 put him on the ropes, but he went away, worked with Bruyneel and the team structure, worked on his position in the wind tunnel, so that he could finish in the top five in any time-trial event.”

So, the favourite for next year’s Tour?

“To me he’s the number one favourite,” Sherwen agreed. “But you’re all going to speculate, of course, whether in 8-months his major challenger is going to be his teammate.”

Sherwen was not on this occasion referring to Levi Leipheimer, which seemed the perfect opportunity to segue into the cycling story du jour: the return of Lance Armstrong to the peloton. PEZ wanted to check how Sherwen saw Armstrong’s program shaping up, given that he’d just announced his intention to ride the Giro and the Tour.

“He’s admitted he’ll ride the Tour, but with an escape clause if he’s too tired,” Sherwen offered. “I haven’t spoken to him for many months, but it suggests to me that he has had discussions with the ASO and that those discussions have come out to his satisfaction.

He’s back.

“Still, I was shocked that he decided to come back. To retire the way he did, winning seven Tours, retiring on the Champs-Йlysйes was the perfect end to a long and mixed career – from a Classics rider, World Champion, and the greatest Tour rider of modern times.

“Knowing Armstrong, though, the only reason to come back would be to come back to be competitive. He will have the stamina to ride two Grand Tours without any difficulty at all. The problem is no one knows if he’ll be competitive. I’ll see him at the Tour Down Under and the Tour of California, which will be an indication if he’ll be competitive come May and July.

“Still, Armstrong knows himself. He has the best team in the world, and they know exactly what they have to do. The only question mark is what three years out of cycling has done to his body.”

The Tour Down Under is not so far away at all, but before talking about 2009, PEZ wondered if there was anyone else who made an impression on Sherwen in 2008.

“The whole Great Britain team at the Olympics – what they achieved,” he suggested. “And it wasn’t just that it was a fairy tale year, it was eight years of hard work to get there, to lift the bar for the whole team.”

We’ll be looking at many a Cavendish picture over the next decade. Get used to it.

And talking of British riders: how about Mark Cavendish?

“I felt sorry for Cavendish not getting a medal at the Olympics,” Sherwen said. “He had dreamed about it and dedicated himself to it. But he’s announced himself as the new sprinting star; his sprinting is as exciting as Robbie McEwen’s was a few years ago. He can win from 15th or from 2nd position and to me that’s the sign of a great sprinter. We’ll be talking about Cavendish for the next ten years at least.”

Sherwen also singled out Cavendish’s team, Team Columbia, and manager Bob Stapleton in particular.

“I’ve great respect for Bob Stapleton, who I’ve known for many years,” Sherwen explained. “He stuck by the sport. It’s only because of people like him, who believe in the sport, who believe that you can ride honestly and cleanly that the sport has held itself together.”

PEZ could not help but agree and suggested that along with the bad news from the year there was plenty of positive moves in the right direction, especially from sponsors sticking with cycling. But for racing next year, we could hardly wait to get Sherwen’s views on the exciting and innovative Tour route that the organizers have revealed for the 2009 edition.

“The Tour de France is bloody scary next year,” Sherwen suggested, colloquially. “Phil and I talked a while ago about the commentary we did on the ’89 Tour and it being one of the most epic finishes that the Tour could ever have. We thought we might as well walk away from commentary right then and there. But now we’ve got next year.

Maybe Lance will get the chance to exorcise some demons on the Ventoux…or maybe he won’t and he’ll lose two minutes in the final kilometer.

“The one thing that scared Lance Armstrong was Mont Ventoux. There is no mountain comparable in the sport. On the penultimate day of the Tour you can hide in a 40 to 50-kilometre time trial. On the Mont Ventoux, in the last kilometre, you can lose 2 minutes if you pop. You could be leading the Tour by four-and-a-half minutes at the bottom of the mountain and still finish fifth overall by the end of the climb.”

The Team Time Trial returns for next year and Sherwen agreed that, without limits on the time losses, it could be crucial to the overall result.

“You could lose five minutes,” he suggested. “Which will make it crucial for teams to pick the right riders for their Tour squads.”

PEZ suggested that there were some very strong time-trialling teams on paper for next year, but Sherwen was quick to offer a reminder.

“Bear in mind, one guy loves team time trials,” he said. “And he’s making his comeback to the sport next year.”

The TTT – it’s back.

Sherwen’s year for cycling will start early in the season with the Tour Down Under in Australia, then on to the Tour of California where he expects the crowds to be just “crazy” with Armstrong’s presence. Once the season gets into full swing he will also be doing the ‘Cyclysm on Sunday’ shows for Versus, covering all the major races that don’t involve an on-site presence, which involves flying from Uganda to New York – adding to no doubt another year of enormous air miles.

When PEZ talked to Sherwen last year, he suggested that his cycling commentating was his holiday from his regular work. With all his business commitments weighing heavily on his time, PEZ wondered if he’d had time to start looking forward to the 2009 season getting underway?

“I’m already excited about the Tour de France next year,” he said. “And I can’t wait to get down to the Tour Down Under: it’s gotten bigger and bigger every year. And this year we’ll see a lot more people coming from overseas because Lance Armstrong will be there. They’ll get to have a great holiday in Australia and see one of the greatest cycling athletes of all time start his comeback right there.

“The excitement is going to start right there on the first Sunday.”

The Tour Down Under begins on January 18 and, like Sherwen, PEZ can hardly wait. Paul was as always enormously generous with his time to give us his insights. Hopefully we’ll be able to catch him out on the road in the commentary box during the ’09 season for some on-site views. But if not, keep it tuned to PEZ this time next year for another season in review – and perhaps we’ll hear just how that Mont Ventoux finish compared to 1989.

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