Essays / s /

Paul Sherwen 1956-2018

Paul Sherwen in 1992

"I'll remember Paul for many things - as a pioneering professional cyclist, a TV commentator, a hors-category PR officer and general laugh-a-minute entertainer. But most of all I'll remember him as a friend of almost forty years. When I first ventured to continental Europe with my cameras in the late-1970's, Paul was the one cyclist who took an interest in what I was doing. Without realising it at the time, both of us were running parallel adventures in the world of cycling, Paul as a determined young bike-rider, me as an ambitious yet dreamy photographer. I noticed how Paul had set up his shop by living with the French, embedding himself in the very French world of cycling, and building deeper foundations than if he had just hung out with his fellow British colleagues. I too saw the importance of mixing in with the French photographers, so too the Belgians, Dutch, Spanish and even Italians, as I made my way into the business. Paul was my go-to cyclist if I needed advice on an up-coming race, or simply someone to ask about the myriad of tactics out there. Or someone to crack a joke with just before the race began. I realised much later in life that we were, in many ways, kindred spirits back then, just that neither of us knew it.

A whole grupetto of English-speaking riders followed Paul into the professional ranks in the early-1980’s, and he became their beacon, their talisman, as the European-based hardmen struggled to adapt to this ‘foreign’ influx. It helped the cause that most of the mercurial Scandinavians had joined forces with the Anglophones to smooth their way in. And as each and every one of them took their first steps, there was I, meeting them and photographing them as a friend of Paul Sherwen. I soon realised that Paul was a leader amongst this band of brothers in the sport. No matter if he was engaging with a fellow-Anglophone or a French superstar like Bernard Hinault, Paul could swing things when it mattered the most. Just as Paul had benefitted from the wisened knowledge of Britain’s Barry Hoban, already a seasoned veteran when Paul turned ‘pro in 1978, so did he take just about every young dude under his wing and point him in the right direction. There were two key elements to Paul’s status. For one, as a loyal team worker he was no threat to anyone in a competitive way, and therefore his advice was utterly selfless – and he led by example on the bike. Secondly, Paul commanded so much respect from teammates and colleagues that there was no-one better to turn to. 

Like all best mates, we had a few misunderstandings in the early days. I once committed a dire error in the 1981 Paris-Nice, when I photographed Paul after he'd punctured and then blown up in his effort to get back on a long climb called the Col de l'Espigoulier. I'd been desperate all week to get some 'strong' shots of Paul near the head of the G.C battle, and ordered my moto-driver to pull right in front of Paul as his strengths and morale wavered. But instead of action, what I actually saw in the viewfinder was Paul giving me the rudest of rude hand signals - yes, I captured the full force of his anger that day. A handshake at the next day's stage-start set our relationship back on course, but even to this day I can hear Paul's exaggerated mimicry of that moment: "Listen to an old pro' - never, ever, photograph a cyclist when he's just got into difficulties, it's not cool."

The Kellogg’s series of criterium races kicked off in the UK and Ireland in 1983, with Paul somewhat in the driving seat when it came to deciding how the exciting races would pan out. I never did figure out which camp he was in, but someone had to apply serious diplomacy in order that the UK-based pros’ won at least as much as their European invaders. In fact, there were three sets of people to appease – those who were UK-based, those who formed a Dutch/Belgian axis, and then the likes of Paul, Sean Yates, Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Graham Jones, Robert Millar, Phil Anderson, Allan Peiper and many, many more. I got the impression the UK riders didn’t trust the English-speaking euro-based riders led by Paul, who were more likely to be in bed with the Dutch and Belgians. I think Paul thrived on teasing his colleagues on both sides of the fence, and as the iconic series of races fizzled out in the mid-1980’s, to be overlapped and then replaced by the Tour of Britain and Tour of Ireland, Paul had had the intelligence to look after his own future – he would ultimately end his racing career in the colours of the UK-based Raleigh-Banana team. 

The 1985 Tour of Ireland was one of Paul’s last races for a continental team. By then, I must have gained his trust to the point where he suggested I drive a team car from Dublin back to France with Paul and two of his La Redoute teammates in it – they all had a circuit race to cope with near their sponsor's mail-order premises in Roubaix the next afternoon, and Paul for one didn’t fancy driving through the night. I was working back then for ‘Winning’, who’s offices in Brussels awaited my un-developed films by Monday lunchtime to meet the magazine’s tight deadline. I even had a plane ticket booked for the Dublin-Brussels journey. Ever the persuasive one, Paul suggested I drive with them to Lille and then take a train to Brussels, and I couldn’t resist the hint of adventure and so agreed. A smooth ferry ride to Holyhead in Wales, no problem, nor the fog-shrouded drive across England towards London and a chance to test the partially-opened M25 orbital motorway around the UK capital. All the time, Paul and his teammates slept on the back seat while this stranger drove them through the night. The Dover-Calais ferry gave me too little time to nap and the 120-kilometre leg to Lille seemingly took hours. Almost into Lille as the morning rush-hour began, we stopped at a red-light – and I fell asleep at the wheel, luckily stationary and with the handbrake on. It wasn’t the sound of angry car horns waking me up, it was Paul’s big hand slapping my shoulder from the back. “Bloody hell Watson, you’ve failed me!”. Paul took over for the last minutes’ drive, dropped me at Lille-Europe train station – then took his teammates home for a few hours’ sleep.

By the time Paul retired in the mid-1980's and joined Phil Liggett as a rookie co-commentator at the Tour de France, my archive had swelled with shots of Paul in all forms of races and situations. As a die-hard battler in a series of muddy Paris-Roubaix, afoot on the Koppenberg in the Tour of Flanders, racing the home-based British pros in rain-soaked circuits all over the UK - and, best of all, riding to his limits to stay in the 1985 Tour (he succeeded), I thought I'd seen just about every side of Paul's character in those race-shots. Not so... One of my favourite memories of Paul's racing career was the 1982 Giro del Piemonte, a late-season event that a non-climber like Paul probably hated. I was trailing the remnants of the peloton in my beat-up Ford Escort, waiting for a short-cut to make the finish ahead of the race, when Paul suddenly jumped off his bike and stood in the middle of the road, blocking my way ahead. He must have spotted me and the UK-registered car at a previous passing shot I'd made. Paul's massive right hand went up like a British ‘bobby’ at a road-junction, ordering me to stop, there was no way around the man. Somehow, we crammed his Motobecane bicycle into the Escort's boot, and I became Paul's chauffeur as far as the finish and his team's lakeside hotel. I never did get the finish shot that day. 

Barely into his apprenticeship as a TV commentator, Paul took up a dual role as PR officer for the new Motorola team, for whom I was contracted as their photographer. The quality time together began to build as Paul flourished in his new role, and in doing so afforded me with some enviable behind-the-scenes imagery of the teams' famous cyclists preparing for races all over the world. It was during this phase of our shared adventure that, I have to confess, Paul and I often slept together. In the same bed... But always, always, in the course of our working together. It was a touch disconcerting to fall asleep next to such a legendary man who I used to photograph in races, but if he didn't mind then neither did I. Even back then, hotel rooms were hard to come by if a big team like Motorola was staying there, and rather than shove me down the road in a motel, Paul found space in his bedroom, and often in his bed. After Lance Armstrong had won the '93 Worlds and Motorola had invited the world's media to visit Lance in his hometown of Austin, there I was in Paul's luxury Four Season's hotel room, while 20 others were settled into roadside motels. When Sean Yates won the yellow jersey in the 1994 Tour, Paul made sure I was the only photographer inside Sean's room when the celebrations began. Paul's professionalism was so admired by the Motorola team and because of this my job was made that much easier because all the riders and staff afforded me with similar respect.

Compared with today’s aloof and nervy PR men, life with Paul at Motorola was a laugh-a-minute era. A PR guy acts as the team’s public face, issuing official statements, organising interviews, schooling the teams’ cyclists how to deal with the media and the fans, and basically making sure the cyclists are afforded some much-needed privacy when the race is over. The more skilled ones – and Paul established himself as a master in this role – act as a firm but polite barrier to enable the team to go about their business of training, organising, eating and racing with as few distractions as possible. Certainly, Paul had the right credentials to take the pressure of sports directors like Jim Ochowicz and Hennie Kuiper. Paul could sense the team’s pulse on an hour-by-hour basis, and gauge his own actions accordingly. For example, he didn’t need to be told when a team rider had had a bad day and wanted to dodge a media interview. Paul’s method of apology was often to take the waiting journalist into the bar and regale him with a few funny tales of the Tour or of Africa, while the dejected interviewer drank a nice cold beer and eventually forgave Paul and Motorola. Paul’s hardest task was shepherding a corporate Motorola executive for a few days, explaining the tactics that might lead to a win, but then explaining why Motorola hadn’t won. Typically, Paul turned bullying corporate beasts into fans, and had most Motorola guests eating out of his hands. Only rarely did he need to use a last-resort tactic – treating the awkward executive to the scariest of drives in a team Volvo in order to gain the upper hand.

Time spent with Paul at the team’s January training camp was time well spent. Together with a corporate director from Motorola, Paul had to oversee my publicity photography of the team, which included doing the nerve-wracking team photo. Whether it be California or Italy, it was certain to be freezing in January as the riders awaited this photographer’s preparations. It’s hard to get all twenty cyclists and staff to smile when they’re either cold or bored, or both. On one such occasion in Tuscany, only a few managed a smile as I stared hopefully through the viewfinder and kept shouting encouragement. Then, suddenly, they all broke into laughter, and I later found out that Paul had stood behind me and made some highly suggestive signals to his all-male audience. Paul knew how get the best from the cyclists. Nearing the end of a long training ride in Sonoma, California, the group of eight Motorola cyclists I’d been photographing from Paul’s car was suddenly directed into a boutique vineyard. Paul had arranged this surprise visit, and when their tough ride ended with plates of biscotti and red wines being consumed on a sunny terrace high above the valley, Paul had secured their co-operation for the next European season! Some even managed to ride back to the hotel. Many of the best tales of Paul are simply un-tellable, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that over the life of the Motorola Cycling Team - from 1991 to 1996 - so much fun was had by one and all. And I’d experienced a different, grander side of Paul’s unique character.

If there was ever any doubt that our friendship had surpassed that of mere colleagues, it came in 1996 when Motorola were staying at the romantic Villa Flori, alongside Lake Como. Rooms were at a premium in this luxury establishment, so Paul smuggled me into his room after dinner with the team, where-upon he produced a bottle of Champagne and two glasses. Paul's famous grin had spread even wider as he poured the first glasses, and I was probably one of the first people to be told he'd proposed marriage to fiancée Katherine Love - and that she'd said Yes. Drunk on happiness and Champagne, we shared a bed for the last time that night, for I knew Paul's life was about to change! One of Paul’s last duties for Motorola was to deal with the news that Lance Armstrong had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in late-1996. Even I was left out of the loop when the diagnosis was announced privately, but later I was able to acknowledge Paul’s skills when the public had to be told. He was quite brilliant in front of a prying media, but the fact is very few people dared to question Paul’s wisdom on the subject: he had spent the last six years winning the media’s trust and confidence.

For the last twenty years, in fact since Motorola pulled out of the sport, I was still able to enjoy Paul's company at races all over the world. Whether he was a TV commentator, or multi-linguist translator, or just being 'Paul', he was one of the most gregarious characters one could ever meet. Ironically, Paul's burgeoning TV career meant I saw a lot less of him. I'd see him and Phil the day before the Tour began and then not again until the following January in Australia or even April in Belgium. Occasionally, I'd walk past the TV cabins on the Tour's finish-area and make a rude face to Paul and Phil as they talked their talk on the microphones. I never did manage to ruin their commentary. Luckily, Paul was the type that made sure we enjoyed a nice dinner two or three times a year, and he'd often stay with me in London if he had a day between flights into and out of Heathrow. Inevitably, talk was of Africa rather than cycling, and particularly of a trip we'd made together way back in the late-1990's. He'd taken me and a few friends on a safari trip in Kenya's Masai Mara, where ice-cold beers were served around the campfires each evening while lions roared their threats from within the bush. We walked with the camels each and every day, and spotted a family of cheetahs, a dozing leopard, and a fair few giraffes along the way. We were friends of course, but acting as pretend guests for some future business Paul and Katherine were planning. Like friends we ate and drank wholeheartedly, and, like paying guests, we refused to help Paul fix a Land Rover's flat tire in a torrential rainstorm one afternoon. Typically, he took it all in his stride.

I’ve no doubt we would all have made a repeat visit in the coming years, perhaps after Paul had retired as well, when he’d have had more time to show us his preferred adventure playground. Yes, maybe we should get all his best mates together anyway, to safari again and celebrate Paul's life the way he’d have liked us to. That trip to Kenya allowed me to see and understand Paul's love affair with all things African. He lived and breathed its beauty and wilderness and inherent danger, but most especially the pressure-less lifestyle. Seeing Paul stroll towards you, his bush-hat perched so perfectly on his head, his R.M Williams pants and boots dressing him so well for the role, he gave a passing likeness to Crocodile Dundee – even the big knife was there if it was ever needed. Yet as deeply as he embedded himself in a Ugandan way of life, so did Paul love travelling across the globe to commentate on his favourite races, almost always in a popular partnership with Phil Liggett. Paul would show up in Adelaide after a 30-hour journey and go straight to the microphone with just a shower and change of clothes - needless to say, his commentary was as clear as a bell, and always animated. Paul was one of those rare and fortunate creatures who simply made friends wherever he went. He had time for everyone, for his colleagues, his many fans, his professional subjects on bicycles, and of course for his friends. Perhaps the most striking feature of Paul's sad death was the outpouring of grief and heart-felt tributes from those that knew him, or just knew of him. As I write, the news still hasn't sunk in properly, it just doesn't seem real – Paul was always there, no matter which race was going on, or in which country. He will be so missed."