LEWISTON — A cyclist from Lewiston has written the century-old Tour de France’s first encyclopedic history — a 540-page, 3.3-pound opus that lists the key facts of every race.
“It’s something that doesn’t exist in any language,” said writer Jim Witherell, who spent 14 years compiling information into the just-released book. It’s titled, “When Heroes Were Giants: 100 Tours de France.”
The book has been published by the Pennsylvania-based Sunbury Press. It is currently available on Amazon.com and will be more widely circulated in the coming weeks.
Witherell created meticulous maps of the always-changing race route. He lists the name and nationality of the winner of each stage. He fills in the spaces between with a narrative meant to give the reader a feel for the big events in each year’s race: accidents, deaths, drugs, fashion, politics, strategies and sweat.
Among the details are descriptions of cycling legend Eddy Merckx’s five wins and the races run by Americans Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong. There is also lots of trivia, from the specifics of LeMond’s failed attempts to win a fourth championship jersey to the 1975 creation of a jersey for the best climber, which was adorned with red polka dots.
During his research, Witherell found ongoing themes of both politics and drugs.
The competition between nationalities, teams and riders is part of the history of the race. Squabbles have always been there. So have the drugs, he said.
“When the race started, chocolate and coffee were thought to be drugs,” he said. For a time, riders took cocaine. Later it was amphetamines, and finally, steroids and blood thickeners.
Witherell’s home office is adorned with several posters of Armstrong, who lifted the visibility of the Tour de France in America during battles with cancer and his repeated wins.
“It was the greatest comeback of all time,” Witherell said. “It turned out to be the greatest scam of all time.”
The writer refused to defend Armstrong, who confessed earlier this year to taking drugs during the tour and lying about it for so long. Rather, Witherell believes Armstrong did it to keep up with a race that’s been tainted with drugs for years.
“There are always people who will do whatever it takes to win,” he said.
The appeal of the event is the seemingly superhuman nature of it all — cycling such distances among the rugged Alps and Pyrenees mountains.
“It’s the original extreme sport,” he said.
That’s what appealed to Witherell, a Rumford native who became a cyclist in the Army in the 1970s. As a guy in his 20s — first in the Army and later a student at the University of Maine — he caught the cycling bug. By the 1980s, long before the Tour de France was popular in America, he’d devour the bits of coverage that would appear on TV.
It was natural for a guy who saw the beauty in bicycles and appreciated the strategy of racing, what he described as “the chess game.”
“You have to know when to hold back and when to push yourself,” said Witherell, who rode in several Trek Across Maine tours and other events.
At 60, he still rides. He recently completed a 50-mile trek of his own, but it took longer than it did when he was younger and a few pounds lighter.
And he’s devouring the current race on TV. Though the race celebrated its centennial in 2003, this year’s tour is the 100th actual race. War years prevented the tour from happening 10 times. And Witherell is working on coverage to add to the book.
But he’s doing it from his home in Lewiston.
He’s never attended the race. It would have little practicality. Only TV can capture the 198 cyclists as they proceed through each stage. Standing in one spot is futile.
“I’d spend all that money and stand there to watch the guys go by with a whoosh,” he said. “It would last about 20 seconds.”
If he could justify the expense, he would.
“I’d love it,” he said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services