The Last Paul Sherwen PEZ Interview
Interview: In January 2016 Paul Sherwen had just returned from Australia and the 18th Tour Down Under, so Alastair Hamilton got hold of him at home in Uganda to hear his impressions of the latest edition of the season opener. Obviously the chat didn’t end there; predictions were made for the coming year and the ASO/UCI battle got a good airing.
Is the Tour Down Under dominated by the home riders? Who will be the big winners’ this season? What is going on with the UCI and ASO? All these questions answered by the Paul Sherwen half of the ‘Voice of Cycling’.
PEZ: What was your impression of the 2016 Tour Down Under?
Paul Sherwen: It’s always a great race. Obviously the Australian riders get half a wheel ahead of everyone else, coming off their summer, they are always better prepared. I think Matt White summed it up when he said: “When it came down to winning it, at the end of the day, they wanted it more than anyone else.” But I think it just reflects how successful cycling is in the English speaking World, when you look at the AMGEN Tour of California or the US Pro Challenge, the English speaking fans love to come to a good bike race and the Santos race is just so good because you are in the same hotel every night. Adelaide is scared that the race will be stolen by Melbourne or Sydney, as the Formula 1 was stolen. I think Adelaide is such a rare place that has so many different terrains only 20 minutes from the city centre. You have flat lands, you have the hills, the valleys with the vineyards, so it would be very difficult to relocate anywhere else in the World.
I think I probably talked to you about this, this time last year, that the race was better than the year before. It sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it continues to get better every year. The organization, the route, the way the race unfolds, I mean it has gone – since I started going – from a race that was dominated by André Greipel, or a sprinter, to a race that’s got… the Willunga Hill stage is an iconic stage. It’s amazing; within 30 kilometers you have the magnificent beaches of South Australia, you have McLaren Vale and a hill top finish. That hill top is like a Tour de France stage finish with the crowds and the excitement and they really get into it.
PEZ: Don’t you think the domination by the Australians will put off the foreign riders, none of the top Europeans were there.
You could say that for this year, but it’s one of those things that are very difficult. Why didn’t Chris Froome ride the Santos Tour Down Under? People have different objectives and so it’s difficult for Alberto Contador, it was always difficult for Cadel Evans to ride the Santos Tour Down Under and he got stick for it. The way the program and the World calendar is, there are horses for courses and Classics season riders can definitely use the race to get fit.
I think you also have to look at the names that have come out of this race. The first time I ever saw this bloke in a lime green jersey, coming out of the pack riding against Cadel Evans; Richie Porte and there was a kid of 20 years of age, at the time, called Peter something, and now he is World champion. And again this year; Caleb Ewan. Obviously he’s slightly different in the English speaking World because we have been following him for a couple of years, but it’s always a race that brings the new names to the fore. You can say the top riders were not there, but you had Richie Porte who is a Tour de France candidate and Rohan Dennis who one day could be a Tour de France candidate. Okay, Simon Gerrans is never going to win the Tour de France, but he is a guy who will be vying for victory in Milan-Sanremo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Amstel Gold Race. So you cannot have every big rider in every big race the way the calendar is at the moment.
PEZ: The Tour de San Luis seems to be getting fairly popular, they had Nibali, Sagan and Quintana.
I think there is a slightly different reason why they go down there. There is financial encouragement at the Tour de San Luis for teams to go there. It was quite funny, at the Legends Tour we had Paolo Bettini as the guest and I had never sat down and talked to Bettini for any length of time, even though I’ve commentated on lots of his races. Like a lot of riders, he put his hands up and said: “The first year I wanted to come and ride the Tour Down Under and then the next year, but the team said ‘Tom Boonen goes there, you have to go to Spain’.” Very often the riders want to go, but there are other influences as to why they don’t go to the race. But still, the racing was full on every day, it’s a great recipe, 130 to 150 kilometers a day and it was not a boring race, some races these days can be a bit of a bore.
PEZ: It was the European based Australians who came out on top in the end anyway.
Well, because they are in Australia they have extra motivation to race on home soil, plus they have been there from October or November, so they have been able to train a lot easier than a lot of the Europeans. I was looking at some of the guys putting their stuff out on Strava and photographs of their power meters and they were saying minus 5 and minus 7 degrees centigrade in Europe. Aussies have been training in ideal conditions for the six weeks before the Santos Tour Down Under.
PEZ: Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis had been in Spain with BMC since November.
Southern Europe; southern Spain, southern Italy has also had perfect training weather.
PEZ: The San Luis race is obviously very popular and does look an interesting race.
You have to remember that we always talk about the English speaking World where cycling is huge, but South America has an enormous following when it comes to professional cycling. We talk about the resurgence of the English speaking cycling, when I raced there was me, Sean Kelly, Phil Anderson and then Allan Piper and a few other guys came along. We talk about all the Australians and Brits on the International circuit, but now you have all the Colombians coming through. There are a lot of South American riders coming through because they have a strong calendar down there.
PEZ: How will the Spring Classics turn out this year, can you see anyone dominating? We have probably lost Degenkolb and what will Boonen and Cancellara do?
That’s very, very sad for Degenkolb and for Giant-Alpecin. Degenkolb was an amazing rider last year and he would have been looking to confirm this year. That might give a chance to the two senior statesmen to come back form their disastrous seasons last year. I think Boonen would have been brilliant last year if he hadn’t had that crazy crash in Paris-Nice. And then Cancellara; I spent a lot of time talking to Jens Voigt in Australia and he thinks that Cancellara wouldn’t try to do this in his final season if he couldn’t do it correctly. To me Cancellara and Boonen are the ultimate specialists at the moment, the question mark is; is one year extra too much? In Europe it can depend on the climatic conditions. I was looking at some old photos of the Paris-Roubaix that I rode when it was really, really wet and I think if we have a really wet and muddy Tour of Flanders and a wet and muddy Paris-Roubaix, it would make it iconic for the young kids coming through and then the two old masters…
PEZ: There hasn’t been a wet Roubaix for a long time.
I’ve been talking to the rain gods here, a few effigies and stuff like that, and I think we might be on for it this year. I’ve asked Graham Watson if he has any bones that I could throw on the fire, so that might work. I think it’s too early to see who will emerge, I think Kristoff will be on fire again and there is always the armada of Belgians. But the first two races don’t give you time to see who’s really going to do well in the one day Classics. I think Simon Gerrans was very, very impressive and after the bad year he had last year, I think he’s laid down some pretty solid foundations for another crack at Liege. I’d really like to know how Dan Martin is, I haven’t seen anything of Dan yet and I really think, talking to Bettini who spent most of his career with either Mapei and then Quick-Step, it’s a really good move for Dan Martin. I’m a big fan of Patrick Lefevere, going back to the days when we both raced together in the Tour of Malaga in 1976! Patrick is still the enthusiast and as Bettini said; a Belgian team and the Belgian mentality has this incredible motivation for the one day Classics. It is so important and everybody feeds on that and I would think that Dan Martin going into Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Etixx – Quick-Step, is a great career change, a new direction for him, It’s good.
PEZ: How do you see the Grand Tours going?
The Tour of Italy is always the big question, you never really know what will come out of the Tour of Italy, For the Tour; Froome will obviously be the man to beat. I think Contador is dangerous, Contador is the kind of guy I really appreciate because he is a racer and I think with it being his last year and without trying to do the Giro before, everybody who tries to do the Giro and Tour falters in this day and age, I think if Contador manages his final bit of energy, he’ll be a very dangerous guy in July and then he will go on to ride the Tour of Spain.
If he does well at the Tour de France, then I don’t see him not riding the Tour of Spain.
PEZ: And if he doesn’t do well in France, he will also ride the Tour of Spain.
There you go.
PEZ: The Vuelta looks pretty tough.
Ooft! But, again this is a complicated year for a lot of athletes as well, because of the Olympic Games. You want to come out of the Tour and hold that form through to the Olympics, everybody wants an Olympic title. I always find an Olympic year very complicated. You’re going to have the guys looking at the Worlds and they are special this year, in Qatar. Talking of weather conditions, like it or not, it’s still going to be pretty hot in Qatar in September/October. You’ve got so many guys trying to put together their program: Is it going to be Tour/Olympics, Tour/Vuelta, Games/Worlds, it’s a complicated year.
PEZ: Most riders agree that if you are going to do anything at the Olympics, you have to ride the Tour.
Yeah. And they say, if you look at the Worlds in recent years, you nearly always had to do the Vuelta. I haven’t got the stats in front of me, but there is a high percentage of guys’ who have done well in the Worlds have ridden the Vuelta.
PEZ: But this year the Vuelta is mega hard from the beginning and the Worlds are flat.
You do ten to twelve days and then you bail out. Although the Vuelta is going for the World record for mountain top finishes. Anyway, it comes back to my point; it’s a complicated year.
PEZ: What about the battle between ASO and the UCI?
It’s a pity that Prudomme missed the plane, maybe on neutral turf in Australia they might have been able to sit down and have a chat. It’s a very difficult situation, ASO, if they really wanted to, could pull all their races out to have their own ‘ASOTour’ but you can’t have a theater without the actors. So, the Tour de France is the theater, but if you don’t have the actors on the stage there isn’t any point going to the theater, is there. So maybe the key for the whole thing is maybe not the UCI, but the teams and the sponsors.
I try to keep away from the political side, but I think the UCI really should look at governing the sport, rather than trying to run it and leave it to the professionals who are involved in the sport or involved in the media side of the sport or involved in organizing the team side of the sport, who know what they need to do and what they can do.
When I was in Australia, I went to see my first my first ever 20/20 cricket match. I’m going to have to explain it to you because you are Scottish, but you play 20 overs and then the other team play 20 overs. So you get a cricket match in 3 hours. Cricket is a boring game, unless you are an aficionado and you want to go to the test match for five days. 20/20 is full of razzamatazz and they have changed the rules. There are some interesting rules: If you bowl a wide and it goes out, then you get a free ball and you can’t be out on a free ball. Now the teams could come up with proposals and they have come up with them in the past, but for a long time the UCI have banned innovations on the bikes, but it’s the teams who are the guys using the bikes on the road and they know if its safe or not. Its like the superman position of Boardman, they said ‘it’s not cycling’. Still, its pretty fast riding round in a stupid position at 57 kilometers an hour. It’s a pretty complicated situation and unfortunately somebody has got to back down. I get the feeling from the teams, that the teams were very concerned that the interaction between ASO and the UCI was less than friendly.
PEZ: The UCI and ASO appear to be all powerful and the teams don’t seem to be a collective.
That’s another problem, they have tried to form this Velon, which initially is a good idea and Velon have come up with the innovation of getting the cameras in the peloton, but ASO did that 10 or 12 years ago. ASO also got the cameras in the cars so you could see the team manager, that was always a big battle. Then there is the teams want the radios, but the UCI don’t want the radios. I don’t know, as a business person, if you have the biggest jewel, you just hand it over to somebody. You say; “okay you carry on, you take our jewel and do what you want with it even though we have taken 100 years to build it up to where it is now.” Or you say we all get around the table and you bring this in, you bring that in, we all bring it in together and make the pie a little bit bigger. For example ASO gets 60% of their pie, the teams get 30% of their pie and the UCI get their percentage. If everyone works together instead of fighting, the pie is a bit bigger. Instead of keeping your little pie or your packet of biscuits, look at the bigger picture.
PEZ: But they all want to keep their own pie, they don’t want to give any of their pie away.
So you need somebody who can lead the dance, if you like. If you look at some of the sponsors, a lot of the teams are sponsored by… I don’t want to use the word fans, because that’s not correct, because they are all very good businessmen in their own right; benefactors would be a better term and teams would not exist without them. These guys are in the position they are at in life by being extremely astute businessmen and I think a certain amount of business credence should be given to these guys to help the sport go forward. They have created their industries, their companies, they are not stupid, the fact that they are still there is because they are able to reinvent themselves.
PEZ: A big company would probably only sponsor a sports team of three years or possibly five, but no longer than that. Quick-Step has been a sponsor for nearly 20 years, but he loves cycling.
The problem is, with a team, the team relies only on its sponsorship. You put together a fantastic infrastructure, you and I worked together on this, you put together a fantastic infrastructure, but the moment the sponsor pulls the plug, that fantastic working machine that you put together falls apart. It’s like Formula 1, you have a bunch of teams in Formula 1, but it’s only the top teams that win week in and week out and they bring in the 20 million dollars for a sticker on a car, but you cant have a Formula 1 race with only two cars. It always comes back to the teams saying they want a cut of the TV money, OK fine. But if you want some of the TV money from the Tour de France are you prepared to share in the losses of Paris-Nice. A number of events are a loss leader and some of the events, and people tend to forget this, the events and the sponsors pay for it to be on TV. So do they want to be part of the contribution for those events. That’s what happened with the TV coverage of the Tour of Spain. There has to be new ways of generation revenue.