When I first started covering the Tour de France nearly 20 years ago, I was among very few women in the press room and a double minority as one of a handful of American reporters who were there wire-to-wire. There were some guys I had to work to win over. Paul Sherwen was not one of them. He treated me like an equal and a colleague from the start.
I was often breathless and irritable after a day of brutal heat or crashes or tactical controversy, or all of the above, when I would encounter Paul in the midst of post-stage madness and ask for some perspective. He would stop, crack that great crooked smile and give me the customary European kiss on each cheek. He always made time for me and was often hilariously irreverent as well as insightful. Then we'd veer off in different directions, me to write and him to hopscotch to the next day's finish line with his broadcast partner Phil Liggett, a pairing of such longevity that they were referred to with one mashed-up name -- Philnpaul, or Paulnphil.
Take it from someone who has multiple Olympic Games, soccer World Cups and other tests of writing endurance in the rearview: There is no fatigue like Tour de France fatigue, for the teams and the caravan of journalists and staffs who follow them. Within the first week, we all forget what day it is, what town we slept in last night, who won the stage before last. We all lose our minds a few times.
Yet Paul remained ever-affable, exuding the content vibe of a man who knew he was in exactly the right place. He was generous in thought and deed, approached his job with the utmost professionalism, and didn't take himself too seriously -- a rare combination for someone as instantly recognizable as he was in that world. People loved him because he didn't talk down to them.
When I interviewed him for a 2003 Chicago Tribune profile of Philnpaul, he told me he shaped his commentary for "the bricklayer, the plasterer, the woman on the street ... It's not worth getting technical for the aficionados, because they think you've gotten it wrong half the time anyhow." Calling the biggest event in cycling -- and shifting gears to meander through the French countryside and narrate the spirited travelogue many American viewers also expected -- is harder than it looks at home, but not as hard as racing it, which Paul did seven times. His respect stayed fresh.
"When you've ridden the Tour, anything you ever do in your life again is never really difficult," Paul told me in the same interview 15 years ago. "When I see the guys' faces, I literally can't believe I used to do that."
Fleeting time is pretty much the only time you get with friends when you work that big old bike race. After the final time trial of the 2017 Tour in Marseille, I was frantically threading my way through the departing crowd, luggage in hand, trying to find the nearest open subway stop so I could make the train I had booked to Paris. To miss it seemed like a catastrophe in my depleted state. I was sure I was late and lost until I spotted Paul walking at a brisk, purposeful pace ahead of me.
I went to bed in Africa with a heavy heart last night feeling sadness like never before. My team mate for 33 years was no longer with me. Your hundreds of messages showed how well @PaulSherwen was loved. Let's think of Katherine and his children with love just now.— Phil Liggett (@PhilLiggett) December 3, 2018
I have scrolled through Tweets non-stop for 45mins and then went back to the top and found 600 new ones. @PaulSherwen would have been so proud to know how much you thought him. Thank you all. Riders, friends, fans, federation, media for your expressions of love— Phil Liggett (@PhilLiggett) December 3, 2018
"Follow me!" he declared confidently as I panted up beside him. Then he pointed to an NBC production assistant a few steps away, smirked and confided, "Actually, I'm just following that guy." We made the train and parted, going to our separate cars.
My modest collection of moments in his presence feels so inadequate now that I am typing these surreal words: Paul Sherwen died unexpectedly over the weekend at age 62. He leaves behind a loving family, a legacy of ardent charity work in Africa, scores of grieving colleagues, countless saddened fans and a long skein of footage in which his genial voice is forever fused to some of the most memorable scenes in cycling.
May the wind be at his back.