Talking Tour de France with Paul Sherwen of Versus TV

Interview by Jen See.

David Zabriskie, Garmin-Cervélo, Tour de France, stage 7. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty

If you are an English-speaking cycling fan, you almost certainly recognize the voice of Paul Sherwen. Together with Phil Liggett, Sherwen has spent the past thirty years telling tales of riders dancing on the pedals across the roads of France. This year, Liggett and Sherwen are covering the race for Versus, who broadcasts the Tour de France in the United States.

Live commentary is a cross between journalistic reporting and story telling. The commentators tell us what’s happening in the bike race. But they also create the legends of the sport, the moments that we tell and retell and that weave the fabric of our collective memory. The live commentators are the bards of our community, drawing us close around the glow of our television screens to hear tales of the great victories and the agonizing defeats and of the fate and luck and skill that determines the difference between two.

I had the chance to chat with Paul Sherwen over the phone on Friday after the stage finish. Together with Liggett, he was driving the three hour transfer to Saturday’s start in Aigurande. As an journalist can tell you, covering the Tour de France means quite a lot of time in the car. Of course, the long transfers offer a perfect opportunity to talk cycling.

Join me below the fold for a conversation with Paul Sherwen. I have edited the transcript for readability, and in particular, to add clarity to my questions. Sherwen, who sounds much the same on the telephone as he does on television, needed very little editing at all.

First Week Crashes

Podium Cafe: The first week of this year’s Tour has included its share of crashes, including a dramatic crash on Friday which ended the race for both Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky and Chris Horner of RadioShack. Do you think there is anything unique about this year’s race in terms of crashes? Are the riders racing differently in your view?

Paul Sherwen: No, not really. I’ve been at the Tour de France for an excess of thirty years, and Phil for forty years. There’s been years where -- a few years ago, we dubbed that the year of the crash.

It’s maybe related to the race route, with the first part of the race route being in the Vendée, Brittany, and Normandy, where there’s a lot of narrow roads, intensified by the fact that there’s been a lot of wind as well, which makes everyone really nervous and they take risks to stay as close to the front as front. If you do the math, you have 180 riders trying to ride in the first thirty places, and it’s never going to work.

Podium Cafe: And even if you ride at the front, there’s no guarantees.

Sherwen: Very sad news out of Great Britain today, because Bradley Wiggins who had been riding exceptionally well near the front of the peloton surrounded by his Sky team, he went down in crash, broke his collarbone and had to abandon the Tour de France. It’s quite sad. We really sincerely believed he had a good shot at a podium finish at the Tour de France this year.

Podium Cafe: Wiggins rode a beautiful Dauphiné, really, and he seemed very well-prepared for the Tour this year.

Sherwen: Yes, he did. And from the end of the Dauphiné where we watched him on Versus, he shed off another kilo of weight, which is 2.5 pounds. He was really looking extremely lean. He was looking really ready to go.

All of the team stopped for him to wait to pace him back to the main field. For them, they lost everything. They lost the white jersey with Geraint Thomas and they lost any chance of the team classification, and now they have to try to get their heads together and just fight for individual stage victories. It really is a blow for Team Sky.

[At the time I talked toSherwen, the extent of Chris Horner’s injuries weren’t yet known. ~gav.]

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Teams and Tactics

Podium Cafe: It seems like BMC Racing Team has done an especially good job at keeping their general classification leader Cadel Evans out of trouble during this first week.

Sherwen: Well, the brains of that team is George Hincapie riding his sixteenth Tour de France, which equals the Tour record held by Joop Zoetemelk. Cadel has had a great season so far, he’s come out when he’s needed to and he’s shown people that he’s ready and on track. He won the Tirreno race and he won Tour of Romandie, and then, second in the Dauphiné. Cadel has so far, touch a foot on ground, he’d done absolutely nothing wrong.

So too have Trek-Leopard, they’ve been been in the right place at the right time. They’ve, touch foot on ground, missed all the crashes. Some people are criticizing Andy Schleck for losing 8 seconds on the top of the Mûr de Bretagne, but you know it’s one kilometer out of the 4000 kilometers of the race. I think he didn’t enjoy the really steeps of that climb, and the climbs that suit him are farther down the road.

Podium Cafe: So you think Andy Schleck is playing a smart tactic in being patient on these early finishes and waiting until the later mountains to make his move?

Sherwen: Yep, I think that’s right. Andy Schleck right now, into the Pyrénées in a few days time, and with a 1:40 advantage over Alberto Contador, it puts the responsibility on Contador to attack. And Contador will have, every time there’s an uphill finish, every time there’s a climb near the finish, Contador will have to try to pull back time on Andy Schleck and Andy Schleck just has to sit back and either accompany him or maybe try and launch a little ambush himself. And he has brother Fränk Schleck, who I reckon is also in great form this year.

Podium Cafe: Do you expect Andy Schleck and Fränk Schleck to double-up on Contador?

Sherwen: I think they’ll be like they were two years ago. I think they’ll both be at the same kind of level. You’ll see situations where on the run-in to the finish where you’ll have Contador and Andy Schleck and Fränk Schleck together, and that I think could be a real spearhead for the two riders at Leopard Trek.

Podium Cafe: Of the general classification riders, it seems that Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck have done good rides to stay out of trouble. Are there any riders who have especially impressed you with their first week’s riding?

Sherwen: Robert Gesink, although he did have a rather nasty tumble, but he inherited the White Jersey of best young rider from Geraint Thomas. I think he’s far enough away from the mountains to recover. He’s based his whole year on the Tour de France. He had a great start to the year with his victory in the Tour of Oman, and he’s basically prepared specifically for the Tour. I think he’s another guy that you can’t discount.

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Looking Ahead

Podium Cafe: What do you expect to see in the next few stages? Will there be a play among the general classification riders?

Sherwen: I think the next couple of days, I don’t expect the major contenders to actually do anything.

I think that they’re going to wait until they get down toward the Pyrénées. I think the French will have a chance, because so far the French have nothing to shout about in this Tour de France. We’ve had a Belgian team in the first stage, and since then, the stages have all been dominated by American teams or a British team.

Watch out for Thomas Voeckler tomorrow and David Moncoutié, those are guys who will look for the long breakaway.

The breakaways have all been caught so far, and that’s because HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervélo have been doing the pace-making. They’ve had a reason to, and now I think they don’t have a reason to. And, we’ll have to see if the other teams have the firepower to chase down the breakaways. Tomorrow or the next day, I think the breakaway will succeed.

Podium Cafe: The roads in the Massif Centrale tend to be pretty narrow, that should help the breakaway, right?

Sherwen: Yeah, but the thing is, they are very heavy roads, they don’t have good rolling resistance. They’re really tough roads and it’s tough to get going. They’re real wearing down roads.

I think we will also probably get the first little bit of heat on the Tour de France, as well. This is where we start to get into the southern part of France. We’ve left the Loire behind us, and they always say that once you go south of the Loire, the weather changes. I can tell just driving down the motorway tonight, the weather has changed to 25C (75F). [It was around 8pm French time when I was talking toSherwen. ~gav.]

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Putting the Tour de France on Television

Podium Cafe: Turning the subject to the process of putting the race on the air, what role do you have in deciding things like screen graphics?

Sherwen: We have a big crew here, we have two separate crews here producing the show in the background. All Phil and I have to do is talk.

We have one crew to look after the live show, then we have the guys to draw up the graphics and some final statistics and do the small cameos and the little stories that go into the prime time show.

And simultaneously that we’re commentating the live show, they’re also recording the prime time show as well. The goes out a bit later. If we have to get off the air on the live show, that gives us a chance to include interviews from the American riders, and the winners of the stage and the overall leaders.

We have to get the live show off the air at a specific time, because we have the rest of the Versus programs to get out. They take some of the same stories from the live feed and package it together for the prime time show. We have a crew of about eighty people out here.

Podium Cafe: There’s been a move recently toward more cameras in the team cars and wattage and heartrate information from the riders. Do you expect to see that trend continue and expand?

Sherwen: We’ve already put some pretty good in-car and in-team meeting footage up, with BMC, during the team time trial, we had a camera in the team car. We had a camera in the HTC car, and we very often get into the Garmin-Cervélo team car. We’ve been talking to Jonathan Vaughters, we’ve been Team Sky car.

It’s difficult to get everything in. We try to get the wattage and heartrates in as much as possible, but when there’s riders crashing all the time, that is a more important story than Danny Pate putting out 322 watts.

The thing is, Phil and I will be commentating for like, today it was 4 hours and 15 minutes. And there’s so much going on. We’re going into the cars, onto the telephone, on to the bikes, on to the heartrate, that four hours goes by very quickly.

Podium Cafe: How do you handle commercial breaks? What do you do when something important happens during a commercial break?

Sherwen: We’ve got very good producers who over the years have really started to learn the sport. We’ve got Joe Felicio who started out very interested in baseball and hockey, but since he’s been on the Tour de France for a number of years, he has a feeling for when to take the ad breaks. That’s something that he’s learned over a long period of time. What we’ll do is replay something.

This year, we’ve developed the ability, that if something dramatic happens, we can cut away from the ad and go straight back to the action. We haven’t done it yet, fingers crossed that we won’t have to do it, but we have been told by the producers that if there’s an ad break, just be aware that you can go straight back to live pictures.

Podium Cafe: How do you handle corrections? Say, you see something differently from how Phil calls it?

Sherwen: We never correct each other, because we never make mistakes. (laughing) We don’t correct each other on air, we point and make notes and if there’s a rider getting to the front, I’ll point to him on the roster. Phil does it for me. If we’re looking at a page the book, and I’m on the wrong page, Phil will show me.

The thing about the commentary team is that Phil and I are a commentary team. We never try to trip the other guy up, we work together. Some of the other commentators, they’re trying to pull each other up, and I don’t see the point of that.

Podium Cafe: Do you have a favorite non-English commentator?

Sherwen: I’m not sure, let me ask Phil. [They chat in the background, then Sherwen comes back on, speaking for Liggett.] Laurent Fignon. I used to like Laurent Fignon, because he said it like it is.

[Speaking for himself again, Sherwen continues:] And I do like Sean Kelly. He’s very insightful, although my wife being an American from South Carolina, has a very hard time actually understanding him. What I do like, is Sean, he was such a great rider and he always knows exactly what’s going to happen. And the guy who comments with him is quite an enthusiast and Sean likes to put him straight every once in again.

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Favorite Tours and the Source of Liggetism

Podium Cafe: Among the many Tours de France you have covered, do you have a favorite edition?

Sherwen: Nah, it’s impossible, because every Tour is a story, every one is a book, every day is a different chapter. I think Phil and I will always talk about the 1989 Tour de France when Greg LeMond won. Because that was changing the jersey on the final day in the last 200 meters. It was just incredible. We were scribbling, making notes, calculating as we went, and as Fignon crossed the line, Phil called that LeMond had won the Tour by 8 seconds. You know that was pretty exciting, getting it spot on, because it could have gone either way.

Podium Cafe: You and Phil are both famous for your turns of phrase. How do you come up with those? Is it something that happens in the moment, or do you plan them ahead of time?

Sherwen: Phil comes up with the turn of phrase more than I do. They’re spontaneous. You can’t practice for them. I know certain commentators write things down that they want to work into the commentary and they wait the whole day to get in one line. Whatever we do, just comes spontaneously.

I listen to a lot of blues music, and sometimes, I’ll have been listening to a blues record a few days ago or a few weeks ago, and it comes out. Just all of the sudden, it’s the right thing.

None of the Liggetisms have ever been written before. They just come out. Some people would say it’s verbal diarrhea. (more laughing)

Podium Cafe: What does Phil say to that, sitting next to you? Did he just elbow you in the ribs?

Sherwen: Yeah, that’s why I lost my breath for a minute. He just slapped me upside the head. (laughing) But he can’t let go of the steering wheel so I’m fortunate.

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Contador, le Patron?

Podium Cafe: Alberto Contador has won six grand tours now. Would you consider him le patron of the grand tours?

Sherwen: I would not call him le patron of the peloton, because I think that’s something that disappeared at the time of Bernard Hinault, who really was a guy who could bang on the table and decide who was in the break. Miguel Indurain was a quiet character.

Even Lance Armstrong, he didn’t dictate things in the peloton because he was the boss. He dictated it because he just put his team on the front and silenced everybody.

Contador is a quiet rider, but I think he is very decisive. The fact is, as Johann Bruyneel said when he brought him on board as a young rider, he said he’d never seen anybody who could accelerate on the slopes of a mountain like Contador, not just one occasion, but two, and maybe three.

I think that’s the special thing about Contador, his ability to accelerate. He’s improved his achilles heel, which was the individual time trial and in fact, now he’s turned himself on to becoming a very good time trialist. He’s good in all terrains.

Podium Cafe: Contador has an amazing talent in the high mountains. I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen anyone who has that style. Marco Pantani had the ability to accelerate, but not that lightness on the pedals.

Sherwen: And not just even in the high mountains. The finish yesterday, the way he was dancing, and this was only a short kilometer climb. And the Mûr de Bretagne, which was a short climb, he had that springy little wiry pedaling action, as soon as the road tilted slightly upwards.

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And with that, I let Sherwen continue his journey south deeper into the heart of France and the bike race that runs through it. On Saturday, Liggett and Sherwen will read us another chapter in the long-running story of the Tour de France.

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