The Tour de France is not just about the winners. There are other heroes. Among them the domestiques. Men like the late Paul Sherwen.
His unexpected and untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 62
last December came as a great shock to all who knew him.
Men like Sherwen are the backbone of a team. They are employed primarily to be of service of their team leader, to pace them back to the race after puncturing, to shield them from the wind, to mark rivals, burn themselves out in the lead-out train in the closing kilometres. Except sometimes these guys make the headlines.
Their suffering is often overlooked, but it provides another perspective on Le Tour, on the long and often dangerous journey around France, through the Alps and Pyrenees.
I have two stories about two such heroes from the 1985 Tour, about guys who crashed and against all the odds struggled on to finish. One is about Sherwen as the Tour approached the Alps. The other is about Holland’s Adri Wijnands who several stages later crashed on the approach to the Pyrenees.
In 1976, aged 19, Sherwen rode for Altrincham Road Club. He won Britain’s season-long Star Trophy series. His biggest successes included the National road title also the
Manx International and the Archer Pernod GP plus two stages in the Tour of Malaga.
When he went to France he joined the Paris ACBB and scored a number of high profile amateur wins.
He turned professional in 1978 riding for Fiat under Raphaël Géminiani, before moving to the La Redoute team.
In 1982 he finished third in the Tour du Haut-Var, won by Sean Kelly. And also won a stage win in the season-opening Tour of the Mediterranean.
In 1983 he was second overall in the Four Days of Dunkirk, winning one stage.
In 1985 he had made the biggest headlines of his life with a heroic ride in the 1985 Tour, his last appearance in this greatest of races.
It was a feat recalled in the many tributes paid Sherwen.
Here’s is the report I filed at the time.
1985 Tour: Stage 10, Epinal to Pontarlier, 204.5km (127 miles)
This is a story about a heroic Englishman and an angry German whose troubles began at the start of this long, fast stage. The hero was Paul Sherwen, the angry German, Didi Thurau.
Their unrelated problems made the news on a day when there was no change to the top overall positions, despite seven climbs, with the toughest at the end, a second-category climb to the finish seven kilometres from the valley floor.
Sherwen, one of the most trusted and hard-working domestique in the business, crashed heavily in the first kilometre in Epinal. He hurt his back and was a few minutes on the ground before re-starting.
Because of the high speed set by race leader Bernard Hinault (La Vie Claire), determined to seal a famous fifth overall victory, the race fairly rushed the first two climbs, a third and fourth category, in the opening 20 kilometres. The frantic pace doomed Sherwen to never regain the field.
He was so hurt that neither could he stay the pace with two La Redoute team-mates sent back to get him. It was a measure of the team’s regard for the Englishman that these two helpers were former world pursuit champion Alain Bondue and another rated Frenchman, Regis Simon.
The pair were forced to abandon Sherwen after 85 kilometres when it became clear that all three of them would finish outside of the time limit and be eliminated.
Save yourselves, Sherwen told them, a domestique to the last, always thinking of others.
And so Bondue and Simon rode Hell for leather to spare themselves from the clutches of the broom wagon.
At the finish we began formulating our day’s stories all the while waiting for Sherwen to arrive. When after an hour he still hadn’t shown, we began the drive back down the mountain road to the press room, when suddenly the evacuation halted.
A long, long time after Jorgen Pedersen (Carrera) had won the stage, the crowds and traffic blocking the descent off the mountain heard whistles shrill. They parted in waves as a lonely gendarme motard outrider appeared. And then the roadside crowds, making their way home, broke into spontaneous applause and cheers at the sight of the tortured vision winging towards them. Cries “bravo Sherwen” rang out.
It was unbelievable, he was still riding: six hours chasing, most of it alone.
Like everyone else on the descent, our car pulled over to let him continue the five kilometres to the summit.
We’d all waited a long time hoping to see him finish and then left to get down to the press room, convinced he’d packed.
We should have known better. Sherwen doesn’t give up easily, even when he must have known he would finish so far down he would be eliminated. According to the rules he should have been.
Wim Jeremiasse of Holland, a member of the International Jury, gave us reason to hope, saying: “He finished 23 minutes outside the time limit and the jury are deliberating because of the exceptional circumstances. It may be a good decision.”
A few minutes later, he returned to tell us: “Sherwen will not be disqualified. He can stay in the race. The points in his favour were that he crashed in the first kilometre, when the speed of the race was high. He was trying to the end, and his passage up the climb to the finish was blocked with traffic.”
Sherwen’s Director Sportif, Raphael Geminiani had waited like a father for a lost son on the finish line.
When the shattered, bedraggled Sherwen struggled across the line in a near state of collapse, Geminiani, the big Frenchman, a former star himself, threw his arms about Sherwen and in a show of emotion tore his ripped jersey off his back and helped him into a fresh one, saying: “Here, this is your very own Maillot Jaune.”
As for Didi Thurau, his fate also rested with the International Race Jury.
But for him there was only one possible decision. He was instantly disqualified from the Tour de France and fined 1,125 Francs.
The 30-year-old from Frankfurt, yellow jersey holder for 14 days in the 1977 Tour, had that morning assaulted an official!
Thurau has been upset from being docked a one-minute penalty in the time trial on stage 8, after slipstreaming France’s Charly Mottet who had caught and passed the German.
At the start of stage 10 he had asked the chairman of the jury, Raymond Trine of Belgium, why Mottet hadn’t been penalised as well, because Mottet had also taken turns pacing.
So far so good. But then it went pear-shaped for Thurau, because he then grabbed Trine by the throat and shook him, saying, it was alleged, “I will put you in hospital.”
At which point whistles blew for the start and riders mounted their bikes and everyone else bolted for the cars.
It wasn’t until after the stage finish that the commissaires were able to meet and apply Regulation 24: a fine and instant disqualification with no warning.
The rest of the stage details pale into insignificance compared to those two stories. But nevertheless, when we remind ourselves of the action at the head of the race, Sherwen’s epic chase looks all the more remarkable.
There was the attack by France’s Pascal Simon (Peugeot)
in pursuit of an eight-man break which had done clear after 138 kilometres and had gained over four minutes on the peloton by kilometre 160.
Simon’s move sparked a reaction from Hinault who upped the pace to eventually bring him back before he could reach the breakaway which stayed clear, albeit losing four men on the final climb. The stage was won by Jorgen Pedersen of Denmark, while all the favourites finished in a 26-man chasing group. Besides Hinault, the other major contenders included Scotland’s Robert Millar, who in 1984 became the first Brit to win one of the three major overall titles in a grand tour, the mountains classification. He also finished fourth final overall, the highest placing by a Brit until Bradley Wiggins equalled this in 2009, before his history making overall victory in 2012.
And also in that elite group was Spain’s Pedro Delgado, winner of the Tour of Spain, who would win the Tour in 1988.
And what of Sherwen? He’d recovered by the following morning when the British press sought him out to congratulate him.
“You’re taking the Mickey,” he grinned. No we’re not, we said, and we presented him with a bottle of Champagne to prove it.
“Well, thanks very much guys,” he said, looking quite abashed.
“This is my last Tour and I didn’t want to finish by being eliminated.”
Then he quipped: “I thought I’d treat it as if I was riding a 12-hour!”
NEXT Blog: Wijnands 50mph crash.