Award-winning sports Journalist and author
Award-winning sports Journalist and author

PHIL AND PAUL (BUT MAINLY PAUL)

Phil and Paul. You can’t help but think of the double act as the Murray Walker and James Hunt of our sports, and for me, as for so many others, Liggett and Sherwen are the voices that fuelled my passion once the Tour de France and Kellogg’s Tour of Britain hit terrestrial television in the 1980s. But on my side, I suspect it all runs a little deeper and longer than for many.

Each time I encounter Paul, now a colleague among the Tour de France press corps, an amusing thought runs through my mind: he was my original cycling hero, when I was a teenager bunging a leg over a very heavy steel bike for the first time. Out of the school gate I came one fateful afternoon in July 1978, aged all of 13, and there was my dad listening to the Tour de France coverage on the radio.

He was listening hard that day, the impassioned tones of Jean-Rene Godard blaring away in the car, and the reason was that “an English guy was in the break.” This bloke could, said dad, be “the new Tom Simpson”. He wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. I found the Simpson story irresistibly romantic – the more so because my father wouldn’t talk about it, so I had to glean what I could from his back copies of Sporting Cyclist in the outside toilet.

Dad came back from London that July with copies of Miroir du Cyclisme, bought in Solosi’s in Soho, and there was Sherwen, pugnacious jaw jutting out, alongside the Badger, Joop Zoetemelk, Freddy Maertens and the bizarrely contorted form of Michel Pollentier. It was Sherwen’s name I circled in the results that year, and the years after. It’s a trainspottery sort of thing you do when you are a teenager.

When I raced in France, a few years later, my clubmates didn’t understand why I was interested in Sherwen. He was, they said, “only a domestique”. But it wasn’t Sherwen’s palmares that turned me into a fan. It was what he stood for, in those days when getting to Europe was a complex journey lasting at least a day, and the Tour was still something infinitely distant, glimpsed in black and white magazines, snatched in a few minutes on World of Sport.

Sherwen was our boy, over there, doing what we all dreamed of doing, going to France, turning pro and riding the Tour. Doing what Simpson had done, nearly 20 years before. He was less talented than Graham Jones, who followed a year later, and nowhere near the class of Robert Millar, the ACBB “graduate” of 1980. But he got there first, and the rest followed in his wheelmarks. Argubly, if he had failed when he went to race as an amateur in Paris in 1977, the later, greater names such as Stephen Roche and Sean Yates might not have been invited at all.

Ironically, in hindsight, my starry-eyed view hid the fact that there probably wasn’t a lot of romance in it all for Paul. He doesn’t do idle dreams, he’s a traveller by nature, one of the cycling world’s survivors and that’s why he achieved the goal that eludes many pros: a seamless transition into the real world with the feeling that he had used the potential nature gave him to the absolute maximum. Which brings us neatly back to today, and the world-conquering Phil and Paul show…

This column first appeared in Rouleur magazine: for more information see www.rouleur.cc