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MONTPELLIER, France (VN) — In 1994, Eros Poli pulled off one of the biggest heists in cycling history.
The 6-foot-5 Italian, a rolleur who typically was in the last group on the climbs, was first over cycling’s hardest climb up Mont Ventoux to win an unexpected, solo breakaway victory.
In a Tour featuring Marco Pantani and Miguel Indurain, Poli was the last one who expected to win a stage over the Géant de Provence, but this giant of a man pulled off the miracle.
Now, 52, Poli works at races and is a guide for InGamba Tours. We recently caught up with him by telephone. Here is Poli, recounting the “nice story,” in his own words:
‘It was like a dream’
“It’s a nice story. I’m a big guy, winning on a big mountain. It’s a dream. I was the tallest in the peloton. I am 6-foot-4, I weighed 190 pounds. Normally my position was in the gruppetto. I was the last up one up Alpe d’Huez. Sometimes on the climbs I would ask people to push. They would say, ‘Screw you, Poli! You are too heavy!’ It was like a dream.
“That day, the start was in Montpellier, and it was just after the World Cup, and Italy had lost to Brazil on penalty kicks. Everyone was in a bad mood. It was too hot in our hotel, some guys were even sleeping on the terrace. It was a brutal Tour that year. The day before I won, Armstrong, Bugno, Scirea all went home. It was a very hard Tour that year. When we got to the hotel that day after the stage, I jumped into the swimming pool with all my riding gear on. The next morning I woke up, I was so tired. The last thing I wanted to do was race up Mont Ventoux.”
‘I feel good!’
“When I was climbing the stairs to have breakfast, I was so weary, and as a joke, I started to see the James Brown song, ‘I feel good! … So good, so good!‘ I had that song in my head all day long. I didn’t want to race that day. I didn’t want to ride all that flat, about 170 kilometers, then 20km up Ventoux, then 40km to the finish. In France, it’s never flat. It’s always up and down all day.
“We started full gas right from kilometer zero. Everyone was attacking. The top teams were going hard to control the breakaways. Then all of a sudden it stopped, and everyone had a pee-break. I went back to the team car because we were nearing the feed zone. Then Davide Cassani attacked right before the feed zone. I was so angry, because now we could not eat or get a proper drink. I rode back to the main group, and now it was all stretched out in a long line. I went all the way to the front. The peloton started to slow again, but I did not want to stop. There were three lines of riders across the road. I jumped on the grass, pushed the front, and then I just attacked. I was so angry, I just pushed the pedals.”
‘Making the calculations’
“It was about 70km into the stage. I was suddenly alone at the front. No one was crazy enough to come with me. I still had 100km to go to the bottom of the Ventoux! So I thought, ‘OK, this is a long time trial.’ Then I did something funny. I started to calculate how much time I would need to win the stage. I was out there by myself and I had a lot of time on my hands. I ran the numbers. Ventoux is a 22km climb, so I would need one extra minute per kilometer. Then I added another two or three minutes in case of a puncture or strong wind. I was a very strong descender, as good as Indurain or Pantani, so I calculated that if I had 25-26 minutes, I would have a chance to win. In fact, later, I lost exactly 22 minutes to Pantani on Ventoux, so my calculations were perfect!
“Normally, I was the ‘chofer’ of the bus, so I was very good at calculating time gaps. I was very good at leading out Cipollini in the sprints, but I would be the first one crying in the mountains. It was always just a question of survival during the climbs in the Giro and Tour. I started to believe in my chances when I had 26 minutes’ lead. It was so very hot that day, and the peloton was going very slow. A breakaway works best when it is very hot outside. It’s cooler when you are alone. If you’re 45kph, you have good ventilation. It’s like a car engine. You have to keep it cool, or it will overheat.”
‘I doubted I would make it’
“I had only climbed Ventoux once, in a stage at Paris-Nice. When I hit the climb, I began to worry. On a climb that steep, I would be going 11-12-13kph, but for the first time I saw my speed counter go to single digits. I was like, ‘Momma Mia!’ this is going to be hard. I suffered through a bad moment in the woods above Bedouin. Those woods were like torture. Once I got past the Chalet Reynard, I started to feel better. I doubted I would make it. About 2km from the summit, the TV helicopter came close, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, it’s Pantani! He’s catching me!’ I could look down and see how far he was. He was still down by the Simpson monument, and that’s when I knew I would have a chance. I said, ‘OK, I will make it to the top.’
“When I went over the top, I had 4:30 to Pantani, and six minutes to Indurain. I am a very good descender, so I knew I had chances, and I started to believe this dream might come true.”
‘Moment of great emotion’
“When it was 5km to go, I still had 5 minutes, and that’s when I knew I had won. Those five kilometers to the finish line were heaven for me. I knew that my family, my wife, the entire world was watching me on TV. I was really going nuts. I was enjoying this moment, because it should have never happened. It was a moment of great emotion. I was crying. Normally, I am a helper. Our goal during that Tour was to win a stage, but no one expected it would be me winning over Mont Ventoux! I was the last man in the Giro d’Italia. And now I was first over Ventoux. It is a very nice story.”
‘The pain never changes’
“Cycling evolves, but the pain is always the same. Today’s modern riders have the same as I did, and I had the same pain as Coppi and Bartali did 60 years ago. The pain, the cold, the crashes, the speed, the sacrifices — that never changes. It’s a very hard world to be a professional cyclist. That’s why my Ventoux victory is one that many people remember. Dreams can come true.”