If you’ve watched the Tour de France in the past 29 years, you have probably heard NBC commentator Paul Sherwen giving insights on the race, the history of the towns and monuments along the course, and on his own Tour experiences when he was a pro rider. Sherwen has been the Tour de France commentator alongside Phil Liggett since 1985 – one of the longest running commentator duos in sports – and was a professional cyclist for years before that. By his estimate, this will be the 36th tour he’s attended. We caught up with Sherwen traveling between stages to talk about Froome’s unexpected drop from the ride, his riding heroes, the rise of the Tour selfie, and cycling in Africa.
How do you pivot from professional racing into being a commentator?
I was very lucky because I raced at the time when there wasn’t too much cycling on English speaking television. There was a journalist from Channel 4 television who needed an expert commentator so in my last two years of racing I actually commentated with Phil [Liggett] while riding the Tour. We’ve been a team ever since. This is my 36th Tour de France, and Phil’s 42nd and we’ve been together for 29 years. We are probably one of the longest serving commentary teams in any sport.
How has the sport changed over the years?
When I raced, our training preparation was empirical, but not like now. When I was finishing my career they were just starting to put together heart rate monitors. Now you can put enough equipment on the bike – without altering the weight – to measure the power, the amount of calories used in a day, heart rate, cadence, and it can be downloaded onto a computer. All that minimization has changed the approach and the preparation of the riders. We all wanted to be able to train more specifically but in my career you couldn’t actually do that.
What makes a great racer now?
Dedication. I remember when I raced we would have two months off during the winter; nowadays the guys are so dedicated to their sport if the guys have 15 days off in a year its quite remarkable.
Do you have racers that you have admired historically?
Each different era has a special cyclist. I was very lucky – I have on many occasions met Eddy Merckx. Even today if I sit down at a table with Merckx I’m still in awe of him because he was the greatest and always will be the greatest cyclist of all time. I raced in the era then of Bernard Hinault, who won the Tour de France five times and his personality was so dramatic – people listen to him. I used to love Mario Cipollini because he is such a showman. I remember one year he had his uniform dressed up as a Roman gladiator and he got fined about $2,000 dollars but he didn’t care and it was all for show and people loved him for that.
And what about today’s riders?
If you ask me tonight, I would say Peter Sagan because he’s a fighter. Like Alberto Contador, Sagan is a guy who likes to ride races with his heart and his guts. Just take stage seven as an example; he could have sat in the group and bided his time to try and get himself to stay pretty [in the overall rankings] but he was prepared to take the risk and try and win the race with panache. That’s what I appreciate the guys who don’t calculate who ride on guts.
Froome is great. Of course, I love his story because I live in Africa and went to school in Kenya [where Froome was born]. Although he rides for Great Britain he hasn’t forgotten his link to the African continent. He went back to Kenya last year to start a cycling academy to help the cyclists that helped him on his road to where he is now. I like to think I’m the only journalist that can interview him in Swahili, which I did at the USA Pro challenge at the start of the race in Colorado.
This year, Froome withdrew after three crashes. How does this change this Tour?
This, I think, is going to be a very open race. You’ve got a lot of youngsters coming through. Tejay Van Garderen crashed again – had a bit of bad luck. But there’s also a lot of other youngsters, a lot of young French guys like Thibault Pinot. I think we’ll see a very different Tour de France. People coming into the race basing it on Chris Froome are going to have to really rethink their tactics and that will change how the race unfolds. [Vincenzo] Nibali stands out and has the advantage right now, but he has a long way to go.
There has been some talk about selfies along the course getting in the way of the race. Is there any truth to that?
You know, there were a couple of crashes in the UK. But when you start to talk about figures – apart from in the real country roads where there was nowhere else for the crowds to go – I think you notice the majority were actually standing on the pavement of the sidewalk. On the whole on average you’re always going to get a few problems, but if we put barriers along the whole route of the Tour de France we’d take away a lot of the atmosphere.
(Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey on July 11. “I think, is going to be a very open race,” says Sherwen. “Nibali stands out and has the advantage right now, but he has a long way to go.”)
What was it like growing up in Uganda and what brought you back?
I went to school in Kenya but I lived in Uganda right on the border and when I was young, I’d go out hunting and fishing; I grew up going into the real bush and sleeping in the back of a pickup and surrounded by lions and elephants. I still enjoy going into the bush to this day. I’m pretty happy to bring up my kids in Africa in a similar way to the way I grew up in the outdoors.
Is cycling growing in Africa?
Cycling is rapidly gaining great interest. Take out South Africa, where cycling is already huge, and you’ve got plenty of mass participation races. If you like at my side of Africa, an America guy by the name Jonathon Boyer, who was the first American to ride the Tour de France, is coaching the Rwandan cycling team and their racing all over the country right now. They had a guy in the Olympics in 2012, so there’s a lot of interest starting to creep into the rest of the country when it comes to cycling.
Where do you recommend first time travelers go in Africa?
If someone’s coming to Africa for the first time I like to take them to the Maasai Mara because that’s a guaranteed success. You’ll see everything. All the big animals except Rhinos. The Maarai is beautiful and it’s big and it’s a great place to go. And in Uganda I like to go to Murchison Falls which is a game park in the North but we actually camp in the game park with rangers to keep the wild animals away at night.