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Paul Sherwen, who died in his sleep Sunday at the age of 62 at his home in Uganda, had a long career as a television commentator — 33 years with Phil Liggett as the Tour de France voices for Channel 4 in England and NBC in the United States.
Before that he was one of the first Englishmen in what became known as the Foreign Legion in European cycling, breaking in as an amateur in 1977 with the vaunted ACBB team in France and joining the professional ranks a year later with Fiat.
Although he was a domestique, not a team leader, he was strong enough to finish 11th in the 1980 Milano-Sanremo and 15th in the 1984 Paris-Roubaix. In 1986, at the start of his Channel 4 microphone duties, he also won the British National Circuit Race championship and, the next year, the British National Road Race championship.
In all, he rode the Tour de France seven times, most memorably in 1985. That year, on stage 11 in the Alps, the 29-year-old Sherwen wrote his name into the Tour’s list of legends.
“It was a normal day,” he said afterward, “for everyone but me.”
Sherwen was alongside his La Redoute teammate Jerome Simon when another rider bumped Simon, who began to wobble. “I grabbed Jerome by the jersey and tried to hold him on,” Sherwen remembered. “In trying to help him, we touched wheels and I fell on the side of the road atop a crash barrier.” That was after one kilometer of the 204-kilometer stage.
“I was quite stunned and in a lot of pain. I landed on my head as well as my back, but it was the back that hurt.” By the time Sherwen was rolling again, the pack was nearly 15 minutes ahead except for two teammates, Alain Bondue and Regis Simon, Jerome’s brother, who shepherded Sherwen slowly.
“After 30 kilometers, I told them to leave me,” Sherwen said. “I had so much pain in my back I had trouble following them and I thought there was no reason they should stay and throw away their race on an invalid. I told them to leave me, but they wouldn’t go, so I had to tell them two or three times.”
After 80 kilometers, Bondue and Simon obeyed. “We decided we had to respect the man. We went off thinking that was the end of him,” one of them said. Sherwen was alone.
“A lot of times I felt like getting off but I kept thinking it was probably my last Tour de France and that was no way to end it. ‘Carry on, carry on,’ I kept saying to myself. “What a futile effort’ I kept thinking, but what I was saying was ‘Carry on.’”
He finished the stage 63 minutes behind the winner and half an hour behind Simon, the next-to-last rider.
By the rules, Sherwen should have been put out of the Tour. “There are four reasons to avoid eliminating a rider,” he explained. “The general speed of the stage, the point where the accident occurred, the effort the rider made to finish and the amount of traffic blocking the road. They cited all four reasons to put me back in the race.
“But first I went straight to hospital for X-rays. They showed extremely large bruisings of the head and shoulders. I was back in the race by the next morning’s start but I had a pretty rough two or three days afterward. And I finished, didn’t I?”
Sherwen made it to Paris, 141st of 144 riders.
“People say it was a fantastic feat,” he said of his long solitary ride, “but for me, it was nothing except exceptional. I think it was part of what the Tour de France is all about.”