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Phil Liggett: The empty chair to my left

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Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen at the 2012 Tour de France

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen at the 2012 Tour de France
(Image credit: Getty Images)
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Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen bring the race home for TV viewers.

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen bring the race home for TV viewers.
(Image credit: Mark Johnson/www.ironstring.com)
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Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen at the Tour of California

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen at the Tour of California
(Image credit: Getty Images)

On Sunday I'll go through the same routine I've gone through a thousand times. I'll wake, I'll read over my notes, and then I'll head towards the commentary booth to prepare for the Down Under Classic – the traditional curtain-raiser to the Tour Down Under.

Only one thing will be different, only one thing won't be the same, and while I know what it is, and how I feel about it, I don't know if I'm ready. You see, for the past 35 years I've gone through that routine with my friend, my brother, Paul Sherwen. But when I reach the commentary booth on Sunday afternoon, the chair to my left, where Paul would always sit, will be empty.

To be honest, I've dreaded this week as it's approached. I mean no disrespect to the organisers of this fantastic event or the Australian fans who have carried my spirits these past few weeks since Paul's passing. Everyone has been incredibly supportive, but part of me is still in shock and still coming to terms with what happened.

I can still remember the call I took when I was in South Africa – the voice at the end of the phone and how a mutual friend broke the news to me. I couldn't believe it. I just didn't think it could be possible. Even six weeks on I still find it surreal, and I don't think that the grief has really hit me.

The shred of light that's come from all this is that Paul was really loved. There have been condolences from all over the world: from British Cycling to ASO, and from so many of his former colleagues. The ceremony in England that will take place in February will have a huge turnout, with Alain Bondue – the best man at his wedding – bringing 20 former riders with him, while Allan Peiper will talk about Paul's career on the continent. It will be a celebration of Paul's life as much as it will be the chance for those left behind to grieve.

In these last few weeks I've had riders SMS me, ones I've not heard from in years, and I've been asked so many times, 'How are you?' I admit, that question has been hard to answer at times, but Mark Cavendish, Stuey O'Grady, and so many others have been in touch, and those sentiments have carried me through this. When Stuey texted me just before I arrived in Australia, asking how I was, I won't lie: I burst into tears. Not just out of sadness, but love too. Love for Paul. But I know he'd be up there now, smiling away, and probably laughing too.

That's what Paul loved most – to make people around him laugh. He laughed his way through life, and if that's not legacy, if that's not an inspiration, then I don't know what is. As a team, all we wanted to do was please people, whether it was the crew in the commentary booth or the cycling fans watching the Tour de France from home. That's all we wanted – to make people happy. We never commentated for headlines, fame or money. We did it because it was our passion and our love.

I'm often asked what my favourite memory is of Paul. I don't know if I can single out just one, but I remember approaching him at his final Paris-Nice, just before the time trial on the Col d'Eze, and asking if he'd be interested in television work. He had a two-year domestic deal on the table to ride for Raleigh, but I insisted that he inserted a clause in the contract that meant he didn't race in July. He signed the deal with Raleigh and even though he was untrained as a journalist and as a commentator, he learned quickly and joined me at the Tour.

I remember how he would meticulously write his scripts the night before a race, and I'd help correct his English because back then his French was better. He was fluent from his time in France and during our broadcasts he'd slip notes to me, asking, 'What's the word for...?' and I'd scribble back, 'It's this, you daft tart.'

But we had so many laughs. At races we'd share rooms – not because the budgets were tight, but because we'd lie awake until the small hours and share stories. That's such a rarity because the so-called 'talent' never share rooms. He would tell me all these fascinating stories about his riding days, about Africa and his passions, and I would share everything I knew about journalism.

And Paul loved this race. You may not realise it, but at the Tour we'd be in the commentary booth almost the entire time, and we'd never have a chance to actually talk to the riders. Here at the Tour Down Under we could catch up with all the faces and names we had missed in the summer. I think that's why Paul enjoyed coming here so much.

On Saturday I'm going to be on stage for the teams' presentation. I know I can get through it. Paul wouldn't expect anything less. Dave McKenzie will be on stage to help me introduce the riders, but I know, just before I speak, I'll briefly look towards the back of the stage, hoping Paul joins us.

I'll have the same emotions on Sunday when the race starts and I enter the booth and see that empty chair. I used to complain that Paul's notes and papers would encroach on my side of the desk – about how it would be messy and untidy. This week, Robbie McEwen will join me, and he's an excellent commentator who I have an awful lot of respect for. I'm worried, though, that I'll call him Paul.

After 35 years of working together, I think that's natural, but I know that even though Robbie will be sitting next to me, deep down Paul will be there with me. He'll be alongside me for the rest of my career. I just wish he knew how loved he was.

 

This story was edited by Daniel Benson