Paul Sherwen’s death last December saddened the world of cycling. For me it also evoked memories of that of the Radio 1 disc jockey, John Peel, in 2004. Familiar, constant, comforting, both men had managed to attach their voices to my life long before I made any sort of deliberate decision to listen to them.
Because, as I did with music, I came relatively late to cycling. More so than most of my colleagues, I would wager, I can remember a time when I was at once aware of the Tour de France and not paying it an iota of active attention. Lance Armstrong was one of the few elements of the race that broke through from that period, but we’re not putting him in the Hall of Fame any time soon. Fortunately Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen did too, which is why we should.
When I finally did decide to “get into” and start educating myself on the sport that now provides my living, it was Liggett and Sherwen who offered a very necessary handhold. It was the unconsciously acquired familiarity of their tones, and certain stock turns of phrase, that made me feel like I already had some grasp of what was going on. It was they who made this journey less intimidating and, moreover, prevented me from turning back. Those parts of cycling which might otherwise have felt utterly alien did not, thanks to them, seem forever beyond my understanding.
For as reluctant as we might be to admit it, cycling is weird. Explaining to someone that the geezer at the front of a bike race is not technically the one who’s winning? Objectively odd. The fact that the most acclaimed rider in the world, Peter Sagan, not only stands no chance of winning the Tour de France but will finish several hours behind the man who does, with a hundred or so lesser knowns between them? C’est bizarre.
Just as John Peel did with obscure CDs I’d never have dared to pluck from the record shop shelves on my own, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen walked me – and millions more around the world via the many channels they commentated for – through this weird world of bike racing. The trick, and I have no idea how they did it, is to enhance the viewing experience and information of everyone who’s watching, wherever they find themselves on the cycling knowledge spectrum. No-one ought to feel excluded or unwelcome or patronised and, with Phil and Paul, few ever did.
The outpouring of affection that followed Paul Sherwen’s sudden death was a testament to how far their words had reached over the years. It came from all corners of the sport, from the most dedicated cycling fans who are watching all year round, to those who only tune in for three weeks in July.
“Together,” wrote Rouleur columnist Ned Boulting in the Telegraph, “the two commentators riffed mellifluously through an afternoon’s racing, chatting amiably about chateaus, but always readied to fill the airwaves with the drama of the race.”
For all the thrills this year’s Tour de France has given us, nothing has been more moving than the film ITV put together to pay tribute to Paul, led by Phil Liggett. For the first time in 34 years, Liggett finds himself at the Tour without “my wingman, confidant, analyst and my great friend”. We all feel the loss but our hearts reach out most to Phil.
There’s an enormous amount of truth to the clichéd idea that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen transcended cycling. It’s not that they were bigger than the sport, but that they made the sport itself bigger, by reaching beyond it. That’s what a meaningful contribution looks like. That’s who the Patron ought to be. All six nominees in this category clear that bar, but none have as much room to spare as Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.
Over the coming months the Rouleur team will be making the case for each of the 18 Cycling Hall of Fame nominees. Vote for Liggett and Sherwen – or any of the other nominees – below.
Read more from our Cycling Hall of Fame 2019, “The case for…” series: