One of sports television’s most recognizable duos broke apart abruptly Sunday. No one was more stung by the news of Paul Sherwen’s passing than his longtime commentating partner Phil Liggett.
“Phil and Paul,” as the pair were billed, became the voice of an entire generation of English-speaking fans discovering the magic of the Tour de France. Liggett was the smooth professional, Sherwen was his informed sidekick. They worked 33 editions of the Tour together.
On Sunday, Liggett received a shocking call from Sherwen’s wife. Family members confirmed Monday that Sherwen died of heart failure overnight while sleeping. He was 62.
“When I woke up this morning, my computer was almost locked down,” Liggett told VeloNews. “It was overflowing with messages and emails, and there were more than 1,000 tweets to my account alone. Just the quality of people who have expressed their condolences reveals the respect the man had. From riders to federations, to fans and media, they’re all telling stories about how they met him and how they grew up with cycling with Paul. It’s such a moving tribute to the man.”
Liggett and Sherwen were more than professional coworkers. They were lifelong friends who soon became the summer soundtrack of millions of cycling fans worldwide. The pair, separated by about a decade in age, were born about 30 miles from each other in northwest England. They shared a passion for cycling and together they formed one of the longest-running commentating duos in TV broadcast history.
“We never took that for granted,” Liggett said in the telephone interview. “We always spoke with feeling, we always spoke with heart. Paul did his homework and knew the riders and their results, but everything was spontaneous and authentic.”
Liggett approached Sherwen, who was then a professional rider, about joining him in the commentary booth as his career was winding down in the mid-1980s. It was a conversation that led to Sherwen celebrating his 40th Tour in 2018, seven as a racer and 33 inside the TV booth.
Sherwen never won a Tour stage, but during the course of his announcing career, he converted legions of fans and helped turn the Tour into an international phenomenon.
“We realized we were broadcasting to 150 million people. We knew our challenge was to keep the average viewer engaged,” Liggett said. “We knew the hard-core cycling fan could just turn off the volume. Our goal was to keep the little old lady from putting on the teapot until the commercial break came on. We knew we needed to educate new fans about this wonderful sport. And to keep the viewers, we knew we had to talk about France.”
As a commentator, Liggett said Sherwen was a “natural.” The pair had instant chemistry. Sherwen brought the insider knowledge and Liggett delivered the drama and scope of the Tour. Liggett and Sherwen had a system where one would squeeze the other’s leg when they wanted to speak.
“We never tripped over each other in the booth,” he said. “We complemented each other. His legacy is that he made it entertaining. It wasn’t just sport and results. He brought the race and the racers alive for the viewers.”
Liggett recounted how an inside joke was born early in their career during one of those inevitable lulls in a transition stage. The helicopter was panning to a run-down chateau with a dilapidated roof and abandoned garden, and Liggett commented that the place looked like it needed a renovation. Without missing a beat, Sherwen chimed in that it deserved it because “Louis the 14th lived there once.” It became a running gag, kind of like a “George Washington slept here” moment.
“Of course, we didn’t know if Louis XIV lived there or not, but organization realized what they were selling,” he said with a laugh. “It wasn’t just a bike race, but it was their country.”
Back then, Sherwen and Liggett were going off their acquired knowledge of racing and traveling the back roads of France. These days, the Tour is a three-week rolling postcard for France and TV announcers have the help of a road bible that highlights every significant cultural, historical, and geographical feature along each day’s stage. And in fact, in the case of a few of those places, Louis XIV actually did stay there.
Liggett recalls the first time he met Sherwen was in 1970 when the promising young rider was about to head across the Channel to join one of France’s top amateur teams.
“I told him he’d be a great pro because he had the ability, the character and the sense of humor,” Liggett said. “One reason the pro teams kept him around because his morale never went down. When one of the top riders was suffering or wanted to abandon, they would send Paul into their room for the night. His French was impeccable and he was able to talk them back up and keep them in the race.”
When Sherwen’s pro career was winding down in the mid-1980s, Liggett approached him on the Promenade des Anglais, the finishing straight of Paris-Nice, and asked him if he was interested in working in TV. Sherwen raced two more seasons in the UK but freed up the month of July to call the Tour. That was the birth of a working relationship that lasted 33 summers.
“He was a natural,” Liggett said. “We were like teammates. We did everything together. He’d drive, I’d sleep. We never argued or fell out. He loved the racers and he did his homework.”
Liggett said one of Sherwen’s early highlights was when he calculated how much time Greg LeMond would need to win the Tour in the final-day showdown against Laurent Fignon in 1989.
“He was good in math and he plotted how many seconds LeMond needed per kilometer,” he said. “We were calling it live, predicting based on Paul’s calculations, ‘We’re seeing a new winner of the Tour de France!’ I told him, you might want to retire right now because it will never get better than that. Thank heavens he didn’t listen to me.”
As the Tour became more international in the 1990s, Liggett and Sherwen were poised to bring cycling to an ever-growing international audience. Live broadcasts and the arrival of the controversial and brash Lance Armstrong pushed Tour ratings even higher. The pair was still active going into their fourth decade together and were planning on working the Santos Tour Down Under together at the start of the 2019 WorldTour calendar in January.
“His legacy is that he entertained,” Liggett continued. “He loved people and he would never call out a rider as bad. He was always a voice of reason and he understood what it meant to be struggling in the peloton.”
Liggett said they last spoke in October. Liggett, who spends the winter months at his property in South Africa near the Kruger National Park, shared his passion for Africa with Sherwen, who spent part of his youth in Uganda and later moved there after his racing career. Before his death, Sherwen was telling Liggett about his plans to work with a local tribe to promote tourism in the region.
“We are all devastated. I feel so hollow and useless,” Liggett said. “Paul loves Africa as much as I do, and while I am only about four hours away by plane, he’s died and there’s nothing I can do right now.”