What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Talk: Paul Sherwen!

It may have been Good Friday during the Easter holidays, but Paul Shewen was in his Kampala office and ready to answer our questions before he jetted off to cover Paris-Roubaix for NBC Sports. As always, Paul had lots to say, and – as usual – it was all very interesting and insightful. Paul and I have not spoken for quite a few years, but it felt like just yesterday that we were together in a team car somewhere in Europe.

When the PEZ suggested it would be a good idea if I interview Paul Sherwen, I had to agree, but was a little nervous. I worked for Paul as a mechanic on the British Pro team Raleigh-Banana and spent many days sat behind him in the team car, some of them awake. Since the team folded, we hadn’t spoken much, bumping into each other in places like Manchester (a cycling dinner) and Palermo (a World Championships). Apart from that, nothing. Paul was a pivotal person in my life, and I can honestly say I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, if he hadn’t asked me to work for him. Maybe one day I’ll write about my experiences with Paul, and I’m sure we could have chewed the fat over old times for hours, but we need to know Paul’s thoughts on a few serious cycling questions. So, here goes:

PEZ: Straight in at the deep end: Are the UCI doing a good job?

Paul Sherwen: It depends…doing a good job? That’s a strange question. Doing a good job on what? I think they are doing a good job promoting global cycling and I think they realise for cycling to succeed it has to get away from the old nucleus of Europe and like a lot of the races the Phil Liggett and I go to; the Santos Tour Down Under, the Amgen Tour of California, the USA ProCycling Challenge and the Tour of Langkawi, when you see the crowds that go to cycling – in, if I can call it “The New World” – it just goes to show that cycling and the UCI from that point of view are doing a great job.

As you know, from the time I was involved with Motorola, they were a multi-national sponsor and they wanted to get multi-national coverage, which is why they had a multi-national team, so from that point of view, yes. From the point of view of handling doping in the sport; I think they have done a great job. Looking at the races I don’t think there is the “deux vitesses” as they used to talk about it. The only bad thing about the sport, and you can’t blame the UCI for this, but there are some people in the sport, I believe, who have this desire to destroy it. The Contador information, at 40 pico grams, if it was Rafa Nadal or Roger Federer, 40 pico grammes of clenbuteral would never have made the newspapers, it wouldn’t even have come out of the laboratory.

So my question is why that sort of information leaked? Just now I’m reading the David Millar book – why was David Millar’s private confession to the police made public through a National newspaper, what’s going on? That’s not the UCI, but the UCI could possibly do a better job in controlling confidential information.

Pat McQuaid – for better or worse, the number one person we think of when we think UCI.

PEZ: What about their handling of the Contador affair?

Paul: Ridiculous. The World’s biggest annual sporting event, and it took two years to find out who won it. None of us have access to all of the facts, but I believe it was handled badly. If they really believed he was guilty, then he shouldn’t have been able to race for those eighteen months – that falsified the races results. If you look at the Tour he didn’t win, it would have been ridden in a different manner if Contador hadn’t been in that event and the other events. Even the Giro d’Italia would have been ridden in a different manner if Contador hadn’t been in that event. So I would have thought, and I know everyone is scared of litigation in this day and age, I would have thought they should have put all of their force into getting a result relatively quickly, instead of delaying, delaying, delaying. It just makes the sport look stupid, it’s the biggest name, the biggest event and it took a year and a half to get a result.

Alberto Contador.

PEZ: And was there any point in digging up history to retroactively ban Jan Ullrich?

Paul: Again, it makes the sport look a little stupid. Actually, I hadn’t thought about Jan Ullrich that much, internationally I don’t think it made that much of a ripple in the water. Once you’ve gone past the statutes of limitation, which I believe it had gone by, unless they kept the case open or it was started before the statute of limitations, what’s the point of it dragging on? The guy, I believe, was punished and served his time. There were other people involved in that affair (Puerto) whose names never came to light, and I don’t mean cyclists, tennis players, athletes and soccer players, their names never came out into the press. Once the guy has left the sport, why continue to go after the case? I’ve not thought about that one too much, sorry.

Jan Ullrich.

PEZ: You must have seen the list, maybe not to the public via the press, but it was out there?

Paul: It went reasonably public, again the question is, going back to the Contador affair; if it had been tried in a court of law, could it have been proven beyond reasonable doubt that Contador was positive and that’s how courts of law operate.

PEZ: Do you think there should be a point in time that we should draw a line and say; “OK, we know what was going on in those days, but now we have a different World”?

Paul: I believe, some people disagree with it, that the biological passport with longitudinal testing, I think a lot of guys got seriously caught out. We have not seen many being punished through that, but I believe that system allows the international bodies to target people who are cheating, and if you look at the races, it is having an effect. Instead of going back and digging up the old can of worms, I believe they should have drawn a line in the sand and said lets go forward. In business we have hiccups some times and it’s not a case of we had a problem and we didn’t do that very well, I say forget about what we did in the past, let’s go forward.

If you talk to the young guys in the sport, they are coming in with a different attitude. It takes a while for the bad guys and for the bad attitudes to disappear, but with a period of time those guys retire. They’ve gone, and when you look at Team Sky and their philosophy and you look at Garmin-Barracuda and their philosophy and BMC – the teams themselves are coming to this. After the Festina Affair I don’t think there were any teams that any kind of organised doping, but some teams might have turned a blind eye, thinking “this guy is riding pretty well” and not asking themselves the question why? Nowadays the teams are very proactive in keeping a close eye to make sure nobody is being naughty.

Paul Sherwen calling the action.

PEZ: Do you still believe that you can’t make a racehorse out of a donkey?

Paul: Yep, I do. After I retired, I lost touch with what was going on and how it was being done, but I think in the 80’s and 90’s there was so much stuff going on that basically everyone was racing at the same level anyway – the same names came to the top.

PEZ: Cycling in Europe is in crisis, is this due to the general World crisis or is it a cycling problem?

Paul: Well I think it’s like business, the businesses that are doing well are still doing well. People say to me “the Tour de France is dying; it’s been dying since 1998.” I go to the Tour every year, and I tell you I’ve not seen any decrease in the crowds. I haven’t seen any decrease in enthusiasm and same goes for the Tour of Flanders last weekend, and I’m certain that this weekend in Paris-Roubaix will see phenomenal crowds as well. Some of the European events I’ve been to are different though – there’s no one at the side of the roads, there’s no one watching the races. So as a sponsor, why would you want to get involved with that, why would you not get involved with the Santos Tour Down Under that’s got Adelaide with a population of a million people and a hundred thousand people turn out to watch a city centre race, to me that’s a big success.

When you look at some famous races that have been on the calendar for 50-60 years and you’ve got fifteen thousand people at the finish line, it’s an economic decision. I think there were maybe too many races and good big races had to be concentrated on and that’s why the WorldTour has all had great spectator participation.

Phil and Paul.

PEZ: I’m thinking of here in Spain where it’s gone from six big teams to two in a couple of years.

Paul: I think Spain went through that period when there were too many teams and too many events, in fact at one time they had to limit the amount of foreigners going into Spanish event because there weren’t enough places for the Spanish teams.

PEZ: Is your choice of favourite race different as a TV commentator than from when you were a rider?

Paul: This particular week that we are in at the moment (Flanders & Roubaix) was always my favourite week as a professional bike rider. The Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix are two of the greatest one day races, which I still get excited and nervous about. Those two races are fantastic. They are old fashioned, they are archaic, but they have remained in the modern World. Those are the one day races, but the same as a bike rider the Tour de France always was and still is the biggest and the best, to this day there’s nothing that comes near it. For a bike rider and from a journalist’s point of view, the Tour is huge, but you can still enjoy the Tour of Italy, it’s at a slightly lower level, it’s a purists event if you like, much more a cyclists event than the Tour which is a Global event.

The Koppenberg.

PEZ: I remember you telling me of the fighting for position before the cobbled climbs in races like the Tour of Flanders, do you think racing has changed since your day in the late 70’s and 80’s?

Paul: No, not at all. You’ll see exactly the same fights on Sunday to get into the first section of cobble stones and the subsequent sections of cobble stones and again the strategic sections of cobble stones you will still see that great battle for those points in the race, that’s not changed its exactly the same and again it’s the same kind of rider who wants to ride those races. You have to have that mentality, you have to get up in the morning of Roubaix and if it’s raining you say “yes! That’s what I want.” Obviously it’s not made for everybody, “it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, you know” (Done in an upper class English accent).

Here is proof that Paul still rides a bike!

PEZ: What did you think of the changed Tour of Flanders finish?

Paul: It was good, and again it comes back to what I said at the start about broadening the horizons of cycling, getting away from the old school; Europe is where it’s at, that’s the only place. When the change in the Tour of Flanders came up, they were saying “what about the Muur, eh! We have to have the Muur, godverdomme!” (In a Flemish accent.) I think it made a different race and I think again next year will be different race, but it made it a tougher race and a more nervous race. People are saying “did you see how many were left at the end?” Yes, but did you see how many got eliminated as soon as someone put the hammer down on the Oude Kwaremont for the second time? A lot of the riders said it was a strange race and you didn’t actually notice you were getting weak towards the end, it sapped you. I hope they keep it that way for the next five years to come as I think we will see some incredible battles over that type of finish. Interestingly enough, the Oude Kwaremont is exactly the same amount of kilometres from the finish as the Mur de Grammont used to be, sixteen kilometres.

Alessandro Ballan igniting the race the last time up the Oude Kwaremont.

PEZ: Is it better to be in Europe to do the race coverage?

Paul: Yea, you cannot beat being on site to do the commentary. In this day and age of internet connection you have a lot of information to hand if you are commentating from Stamford, Connecticut, which is where Phil and I cover a lot of the races from in television jargon; off tube. You’ve got access to a lot of live tickets, but there is nothing as good as the real race radio to keep you up to date with what is happening

PEZ: Who’s going to win this Sunday?

Paul: I’d have to say Boonen. I don’t know how he can be beaten, because it’s much more his kind of race. I actually think that Paris-Roubaix suits him more than the Tour of Flanders does.

That was a good pick, Paul!

PEZ: Do you wish there had been a Sky team when you were a rider?

Paul: We’ve all talked about that; all the English speaking guys have talked about that. You know we could have had a great team; I would still have been a great domestique! Think about Kelly, Roche, Anderson, Peiper, and those are just the first names that come to mind. We’ve all talked about it in our time and the fact that it’s all come to fruition now is great, it’s also great for the Australians (GreenEdge). I can’t understand how it took Australia so long to get their own National team, because they have been such a dominant factor on the track for so long, but it takes a guy like Gerry Ryan to come into the sport when there is bit of a Global depression financially. I think it’s fantastic for Britain, instead of concentrating just on the track, which they could have done, the fact that they descended to look for a sponsor for the top end, I think it’s great. People in England now talk about professional cycling, it’s got the house hold name, plus you’ve got the way to get the information out to the general public; you’ve got a news channel and a sports channel, what better way to promote your team. Look at American cycling; last year they had four Pro teams on the international circuit, this year they have three, and those teams are no longer looking at getting a wildcard invite to the Tour de France as it was in the 90’s, it’s got Mega teams on the international circuit.

PEZ: When you finished your European career you went from what these days would be a ProTour team (La Redoute) to a British domestic professional team (Raleigh). Was there a big difference in those days?

Paul: At that time Britain had some great riders. When I came back to the United Kingdom from racing in Europe there were five or six well structured teams. Look at the guys who were racing in those days; Sid Barras, Keith Lambert and the other guys could have had their places on any Professional team in the World, but it was difficult for them to cross the channel. Coming back to the David Millar book, it was up until David Millar’s time the only way to get into a team was to go to Spain, to go to Belgium, go to France as an individual, get into a club and try to get a professional contract, so it wasn’t easy. I’m not saying it’s easy to get into a professional team now, but then it was a lot more difficult to go to Europe and be on your own with no support at all.

Sherwen has been a part of everything in professional cycling it seems – a professional rider, manager, voice, and more.

PEZ: In the last couple of years it’s been more difficult to predict race winners; could this be a reflection of a cleaner sport?

Paul: Yea I think so. I think what happens now; at the start of a race and it depends on the race, you have fifteen to twenty favourites in a one day race. However last weekend in the Tour of Flanders to me there were only two big favourites, which was tom Boonen and Cancellara and this weekend there is one big favourite and that’s Tom Boonen, but to me those are speciality races, but don’t ask me who is the favourite for the Tour de France this year. I think there are around five or six contenders for the overall standings.

PEZ: Will it be a poorer Tour de France without Alberto Contador?

Paul: Na, the Tour’s the Tour and always will be. People always say “what’s your favourite Tour?” It’s a bit scary as this year will be my thirty-fourth Tour de France and every Tour de France has its story and stories. There are very rarely mistakes that happen when it comes to winning the Tour. Even less these days, you could go back and say; Roger Walkowaik and Lucien Aimar were lucky to win the Tour de France, but nobody is lucky to win the Tour de France, you’ve got to get round it. Cadel Evans will start as the favourite as defending champion, but what happens if he falls off in the prologue? The stories are there, what about the new kid that we don’t know about who’s going to come out as a possible Tour favourite? Last week I was extremely impressed by Peter Sagan, I actually said on NBC Sports in the stand up before the race that, yes I thought he was a favourite, but I thought he was too young and lacked the experience to put in a good ride, well he knew the winning move and he tried to get across on his own and at twenty-two years of age that kid has an incredible head on his shoulders.

French cycling for years has been in the doldrums, but look at the French last year. Take away Voeckler, because he has been an international standard rider for a long time, but look behind him there is a bunch of French kids now that this might be their break through Tour for the French. I put that down to the fact that the French were the first to be very, very strict on the longitudinal testing. You have to take your hat off to guys like Roger Legay who ran a very strict ship for a very long time and they were at the forefront and I think we are coming to a level playing field and the French are coming back to the fore.

PEZ: So, would you put your neck out and say who will win this year’s Tour de France?

Paul: Mmmm….because of the time trialling, don’t discount RadioShack-Nissan-Trek-Leopard-Johan Bruyneel etc. etc. because of Bruyneel. Frank and Andy have an Achilles heel because of the time trial, but in the past, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but they were silly to ride together the other year when they finished second and third, tactically I think they should have ridden differently on a couple of occasions, but then 20/20 vision is easy with hind-sight. I think if you look at the team that they will take to the Tour, it will be the biggest strongest team they will ever had to support them, then Johan Bruyneel will know he has to get five minutes from somewhere for Andy Schleck to win the Tour.

Will this be Andy Schleck’s year to stand on the top step of the podium in Paris?

Silly little stages, like that one into the South of France where Lance took thirty or forty seconds out of everybody, including his team mate Contador. So Johan will look at the map of the route and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek will go into the Tour with a plan, on the other hand BMC is a stronger team than it was last year, but they will go in to the Tour with one plan and that’s Cadel.

PEZ: Are J.J. Cale and Fairground Attraction still favourites? As I remember you used to play them in the team car a lot.

Paul: Oh! I now have a much wider and broader taste in music. I like a lot of African music, West African; Mali, Congolese and also Congolese/Cuban fusion music and the Blues.

PEZ: Who would you say has been influential in your careers and your different lives?

Paul: That’s a very difficult question to answer, if you are talking about my African life, my cycling life or business life? First of all one of the most influential guys in my life would be Frank Howitt, who was my surrogate African father, he taught me everything I know about Africa, living and surviving in the bush, all about wildlife, tribes and African culture. I have to say my mother as well, you knew my mother, she was a tough lady and made the right decisions at the right time, for example, despite being a single parent family, she was quite adamant that I had to finish my University degree before I even thought about a professional cycling career and so, obviously, she was a very strong part in my growing up. Then in cycling the first really important person in my cycling career would have to be “H” of course being Harold Nelson BEM, British Empire Medal. (Harold Nelson coached many famous riders in the North of England and many not so famous). After that it would have to be Philippe Crepel, who I rode for as a professional at La Redoute, he came from a business background, he brought a professionalism into cycling, in those days, from basketball and I think that La Redoute was a very well organised and a well run professional team before its time and as you will know, I tried to bring that professionalism to the Raleigh-Banana squad that we worked together on it in ’88 and 89 and then after that, probably Jim Ochowicz who I worked with from ’91 with the Motorola cycling team, so you’ve got about half a dozen people there.

PEZ: And the most impressive bike rider?

Paul: Eddy Merckx. Without a doubt I would like to have seen Fausto Coppi, I actually raced with Eddy, I didn’t race with Coppi, unfortunately he died of malaria before I started racing, yes I’m older than most people these days, except Phil Liggett! Eddy was a god, as much as the Americans will talk about how fantastic Lance was as a bike rider, Lance was the greatest Tour de France rider of all time, Eddy was the greatest rider of all time because Eddy put his bike on the starting line to race and win everything, it was ridiculous what he did; fifteen hundred races and he won more than five hundred.

The best rider of all-time – Eddy Merckx.

These days we talk about Cavendish, Greipel; oh! They won twenty-twentyfive races and think that’s phenomenal, Eddy used to win 50 a year and what I love about Eddy is that he still has that passion for the sport. I was very lucky to work with his son, Axel on the Motorola team for a long time, so that gave me the opportunity to get close to a guy who was always my hero, I had Eddy’s picture on my wall at home as a kid growing up. Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel, we talk about them winning Milan-San Remo, Eddy won it seven times. So I was very lucky to work with Axel, fancy having the name Merckx and then deciding to be a professional bike rider. This all allowed me to get close to the Merckx family and both Eddy and Claudine are still very keen cycling supporters, they still love the sport and they have helped a lot of bike riders along with their careers and still do today.

PEZ: Bike rider, team manager, TV commentator, journalist, mine owner, insurance salesman and graduate in paper technology…is there anything more to come?

Paul: Yes!….I still see Africa as the expanding continent and I have one little dream I have left that I would like to achieve; tourism. There was one thing you missed out there, by the way. The charity, I’m involved with what I think is a magnificent charitable organisation called Bicycles for Humanity and last year we sent one thousand bicycles to Karamoja, in the Northern part of Uganda. We plan to take twenty five thousand bicycles to Karamoja in the next three to five years, we have the support of a guy called Ben Stiller, who you might have heard of, who is also very, very keen to help and support the organisation and Karamoja is a region that is probably fifty years behind Kampala and the rest of Uganda, maybe even a hundred years behind. This is a charity where we collect used bicycles in the United States and Canada, and also now from Australia and we ship them to Africa, we buy the container and it becomes either a clinic or a school or a bicycle workshop, take a look at the web-site; bicycles-for-humanity.org.

PEZ: So that’s the future?

Paul: No, that’s for fun, the future is that I’d like to open a really up-market lodge in the Northern part of Uganda, but we can do that next week after Paris-Roubaix, I’m off to catch a plane tonight at 11 for Amsterdam then to change to go to Paris, then Saturday morning to Compiegne to do interviews and then to the stadium for NBC’s live coverage of Paris-Roubaix, last week NBC Sport covered Flanders live for the first time on American television, so I’m quite busy at the moment.

Even though I was talking to Paul with the help of Skype, him in Kampala, Africa and me in Spain, some of the old memories came back to me, but many are lost in time…like tears in rain. Thanks for the memories Paul.

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.