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by Russell Jones
July 14, 2016
Photography by Gruber Images; Cor Vos
An old red steel Pinarello hangs on the wall of Eros Poli’s dining room in Verona, Italy. A yellow team cap with the crown cut off, his trademark, still draped around the handlebars just as it was on that day.
It was July 18, 1994, when Poli cemented his name in the Tour de France history books, riding alone ahead of the chasing pack over Mont Ventoux and into the hearts of cycling fans around the world.
Enjoying a successful amateur career that included a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics — in the 100km Team Time Trial, an impressive one hour and 58 minutes, the only team under two hours despite Poli suffering a flat tyre — Poli quickly formed a reputation as a strong domestique for the likes of Giro d’Italia winner Franco Chiocciolli, and as a dependable last man in Mario Cipollini’s lead-out train.
However, when fellow teammate Andreno Bafi switched Cipo into the barriers (and straight into hospital) during their alpha-male duel on the first stage of the 1994 Vuelta a España, the Tour de France tactics of Poli’s Mercatone Uno team shifted.
Poli was chosen to guide Cipo’s substitute, Silvio Martinello, brought in to do battle against the feared Djamolidine Abdoujaparov —Martinello finally finishing second to the “Tashkent Terror” in the Points competition — but also the 6-foot-5 (1.95m), 84kg Italian was let loose on other stages to instigate and infiltrate winning breaks.
After solid attacks on Stage 6 (160km solo but caught 25km from the finish) and Stage 12, the Ventoux stage wasn’t initially on Poli’s hit list.
“It started as a very bad day for me as I didn’t sleep very well the night before,” he said. “It was the final of the Football World Cup – Italia vs. Brazil. It went to extra time and penalties, Baggio missing the penalty, so Italia lost. The match finally finished at 1:30 in the morning.
“It was so hot that night, my teammate slept on the terrace outside the room as we didn’t have air conditioning, nothing. When I woke up I went down for breakfast but there was no lifts so I had to walk down two floors and my legs just felt like two pieces of wood. But you know when you wake up in the morning and you sing a song in your mind? You know the James Brown song ‘I feel good’? Somehow I started singing that, but I was thinking, ‘no, I don’t feel good today.’ That song stayed in my mind all day.”
Despite the heat, it was full gas from the Montpellier start line, and as the bunch eventually eased into the stage, Poli went back to get some fresh bottles for his teammates. While at the team car, Davide Cassani attacked: “I was so fucking angry, his team had attacked every day, just before the feed zone. ‘Not today’, I thought, ‘everyone needs water!’”
Poli made his way up to help the chase, but as he neared the front he saw his chance: “There was a section of grass on the side where I could pass, so I jumped on the grass and sprinted, jumped back onto the road and went full gas for a couple of kilometres”
After the flurry of Cassani prompted activity — and seemingly happy for the tall domestique to be up the road on a mountain stage — the peloton steadied so to take on the food and water they’d rudely missed from the feed. Meanwhile Poli was keeping an eye on the time checks.
“We had no radios back then, just the blackboard,” he said. “It was Laurent Bezault’s first year on the Moto (former Toshiba and Z-Peugeot rider), he knew me really well, and it was him who gave me the info about the time gaps.
“When I’d got up to ten minutes I started to calculate what I needed. I knew from riding in the gruppetto you lose maybe 30 to 40 seconds per kilometre on the first few climbs of the day, but on the last climb they go really fast and you lose roughly one minute for each kilometre. The Mont Ventoux is 22km, so I needed 25 minutes because once over the top we still had another 44km to the finish.”
With this in mind, Poli just did what he did best. Head down in the heat for over 100km, he continued to extend his lead as much as he could before the climb.
“I was still in my territory,” he said. “I was on the flats.” As he passed through Bedoin, the small village at the foot of the “Giant of Provence,” his strategy was working, his lead now stretched to 25 minutes, the calculated buffer required for victory.
“When I was at the bottom I thought I could do it, but then the change of speed from the flat to the start of the climb was very bad for me. At the base it’s just 1%, then 2%, it rises gently, so you shift, then shift again, from the 15-tooth to the 16, then to the 19. The road rises gently to 7% but you don’t notice. Then, when I got to St. Esteve, I saw the sign that said I still had 17km to the top! Mamma Mia!”
“From there it was 10km of forest, no switchbacks, just trees, at 10%,” Poli remembered. “For the first time in my life, my computer was on single numbers, I saw 8 and 9km/h.”
The chasers were entering the lower slopes, their speed obviously faster, every kilometre biting into his buffer. Miguel Indurain, the then three-time winner of the Tour, was waiting and watching for the expected attack from Tour debutant Marco Pantani. Ahead of them, Poli’s face was just pure grimace, his broad shoulders rocking side to side, sturdily pounding at the 39 x 24, staring straight ahead as the sweat dripped off his chin. His Briko glasses sparkled the sun into the camera lens, his trademark cap wrapped around the handlebars. Poli simply plowed on, digging in.
“The forest was very, very hard, but I was like ‘C’mon! Grinta! Just keep going!” he said. “So I breathed, relaxed, and eventually I found my rhythm again.”
Although he had raced the lower slopes once before, in the previous year’s Paris-Nice, as soon as he turned left at Chalet Reynard he was into the unknown.
“That day was my first time to the top,” Poli said. “I recovered for a bit at the turn, as it is flat for 500m, but then for the next 6km it is 8-9%. The first 3km were okay, but the last were very hard, very steep.”
Behind him, Pantani had attacked and was closing in rapidly. Indurain chased, towing Armand de Las Cuevas and Richard Virenque in his wake.
“I was nearly 1km from the top when I heard the helicopter right above me,” Poli said. “I thought Pantani was about to catch me so I turned around but saw the distance, saw that I was still safe.” Dragging himself up, Poli almost came to a standstill at that last corner, finally cresting the peak, remarkably still alone. “Bezault was with me and said ‘hey, four and half minutes back to Pantani, six to Indurain.’ So it was full gas on the descent, and full gas on the flat.”
A known skilled descender, Poli claimed back 30 seconds on Pantani, but still had a headwind to contend with as the chasers regrouped to help bite into his lead. Poli was determined not to lose it now though, only resting when he knew it was in the bag. “About 5km from the finish, I still had five minutes so I thought, ‘okay, now I can ease back.’”
Poli’s celebration at the finish in Carpentras was one of pure glee and relief, bowing to the fans, throwing his cap to the crowd, arms in the air.
“It was a thank you to the public,” he said. “It was like in a big arena, when they say thank you at the end, thank you for supporting me. For me it was unusual as I was a domestique, I’m always the last one in not the first. Normally I’m in the gruppetto, the autobus, always calculating the time cut. This time I was the winner, it was my dream come true. I rode 171km solo, it was a very emotional day.”
His efforts helped him win the Combativity award in Paris, however it is the Ventoux stage that he will forever remembered for.
“Yes, I won a stage in the Tour de France, but people always say, ‘no, you won the stage over the Mont Ventoux, it is different,'” Poli said. “Now I realize how the Mont Ventoux is a legend, something special.”
Despite his suffering on that day, Poli returns every year to ride Ventoux, now reliving the climb as a guide supervisor for the cycling tour group InGamba. “In the last five years I’ve climbed it fifteen times, and every time I say ‘I can’t believe it!’ I can still remember everything, the pain, where I tried to find some shade under the trees. Nothing has changed — no actually, the gears have changed. I used to ride with a 54-36 and a 12-24, 9 speed, now it’s a 36-27.
“My role [with InGamba] is to be the supervisor of all the guides, so I help teach them how to care for everybody, equal support. Many people work so hard they don’t get time to train, but there’s no hurry. We’ll stop, have some prosciutto, some salami, enjoy the view. It’s easy to spend your money on the most expensive hotels and restaurants, but we stop at beautiful places where the food is properly done, where the mamma prepared the pasta homemade.”
“It would be easier to be watching this year’s stage in front of the television, but I prefer to be on the road with my guests, my friends, to show them the climb and race. I love to share how great the emotion on the bike is, what it can give to you. Every day I’m on the bike it seems like time has stopped. Ventoux was 22 years ago, but it feels like yesterday for me.”
Born and raised in the cycling hotbed that is the Wirral, England, Russell Jones noticed early on that some of his cycling club teammates were much faster than him, quickly coming to the conclusion that he should probably quell any racing ambitions and just enjoy the riding. The fact that one of these club mates went on to be an Hour Record holder and win the Yellow Jersey may have skewed his judgement slightly. After a solid 15 years working in the broadcast industry he decided to take the leap to become a full-time freelance cycling journalist, basing himself in the cycling hotbed that is the Waikato, New Zealand. There he is able to keep one eye on the racing scene while continuing his love for exploring the local endless country lanes.