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by Michael Better
December 5, 2018
Photography by Cor Vos
Tributes from Paul Sherwen’s friends and colleagues have swept the cycling world. But Paul’s impact was felt far beyond those who knew him personally. Michael Better came of age and in the early 2000s, and Paul’s voice is an immutable soundtrack to his summertime memories.
On a steamy July day in the suburbs of Washington D.C, a nine-year-old boy plays on his driveway. It’s 2003. The boy’s mother calls him into the house, and his mind dances — is he in trouble?
He’s not in trouble. The Tour de France is on.
He sits down in front of the television, flips to the Outdoor Life Network, and turns up the volume. Dramatic music, wide landscapes, and two British accents — the sounds of summer.
The two animated voices sweep him away from his living room, to the roadside on a rainy day in France, the penultimate day of the Tour. It’s a time trial, and the final chance for Jan Ullrich to overtake Lance Armstrong. Mano-a-mano, a battle of legends.
One of the voices shoots up three octaves. Something important is happening. The boy sits straight-backed on the edge of his couch. The challenger, Ullrich, has gone down. Crashed in a roundabout. Armstrong will win his fifth Tour. And the voice, calling it all. The passion and energy in that voice is infectious.
The boy later learns the voice is that of Paul Sherwen, a Brit, a former Tour rider. It will be Paul, and his commentary partner Phil Liggett, who teach the boy about the world for three weeks every July.
The boy and his mother argue about summer camps. Nothing can be scheduled for the month of July, at least in the morning anyway. That time is reserved. Not simply to watch the Tour but to listen to the dynamic duo — Phil and Paul.
For some reason, the boy always says Phil and Paul, not the other way around. But, it’s Paul’s voice and insight, that of a former pro, that intrigues him.
The boy and his dad spend most weekends throughout the summer bike racing. The boy races his heart out, gets lapped a few times. Dad is always there cheering. The races are early in the day, so the voice fills the car on the way home and makes the boy forget his own challenges out on the race course.
Years pass and the racing ends, as do the times spent listening to the voice. Sometimes father and son get back together, straight-backed on the edge of the couch, and the voice once again fills the living room. Childhood memories dance in the young man’s head.
Through thick and thin the boy and his parents stay true to the dynamic duo. Even when some turn against them, and the critics grow loud. It doesn’t matter. For the boy, turning into a man, that voice is the soundtrack to cherished childhood memories.
Today, the boy is a young man. He sits in a coffee shop drinking hot cocoa on a blistering cold day in Boulder, Colorado, struggling to make his own imprint in the cycling world. He’s a journalist, too, just like Paul. He often thinks back to the day that changed his life forever, when two voices lifted him from his home into a world filled with intrigue and excitement.
A Tweet flashes up. Then a news story. Confirmed, Paul Sherwen has died at 62. The young man’s cocoa grows cold. He calls home. He utters the words that nearly bring tears to his eyes, “Mom, Paul died.”
No last name or context is needed. Mom knows whom he’s talking about.
Paul was a history teacher, a companion, and a storyteller — a voice you could count on to always be there every July. For three weeks, he was part of the family.
That voice is gone now. A silent confidant went missing.
The young man knew there would come a time when Paul’s voice would no longer fill his living room. But even though you expect it will happen, it’s still a shock when it does. The Tour will never be the same. Part of its magic and allure has passed along with the legendary voice.
I will miss you dearly.