In a sport where the term “legend” is often used lightly, we are occasionally reminded of racers who are truly worthy of the title. Riders whose crowning achievements were witnessed by adoring fans who, moved by the depths of their suffering and their jubilation, have gone on to retell stories of their successes again and again, making legends of these athletes in the truest sense of the word.
One of the racers who has earned this distinction is Eros Poli, whose masterful 1994 stage win at Mont Ventoux defied conventional wisdom and captured the imagination of an international audience. Today the friendly Italian is a guide for luxury cycling tour specialists inGamba, who were kind enough to share this interview in conjunction with the 22nd anniversary of a victory that shocked and delighted cycling fans the world over.
Interview by Colin O’Brien of inGamba
It was one of the most iconic Tour de France stage wins in living memory. It was also one of the least likely. Eros Poli was a domestique, not the star, and he was big: almost 6’5” and more than 180 pounds. He weighed more without a bike than most of his competitors did with one. Ventoux was for the climbers, for the greats like Charly Gaul and Eddy Merckx—it was not for him.
Every so often, though, sport likes to surprise us. And cycling loves a bit of romance. So the stars aligned on July 18th, 1994, and Poli, planning on the fly, brilliantly executed a solo breakaway which would earn him hero status in both France and Italy.
His leader, the inimitable Mario Cipollini, had crashed at the Vuelta and missed the Tour. Without the sprint king, Mercatone Uno’s supporting cast was allowed to take a chance. Rolling out from Montpellier with a long-shot plan developing in his mind, Poli did just that.
“It’s still really special to remember that victory,” says the 52-year-old Verona native. “I carry that special moment with me everywhere I go, I can still feel the emotion of it all.”
“The night before I hardly slept. I was up late watching the World Cup final, Italy versus Brazil, when Roberto Baggio missed that famous penalty. I turned the TV off at 1:30am, and I was too exhausted and too hot to get comfortable. There was no air conditioning in the hotel. And the crickets outside made an awful racket! The morning of the Ventoux stage I was like a zombie, and the sun was unbearably hot even in the early morning.”
As the day’s race got underway, Poli did the math and figured that he’d need a huge lead to stay ahead of the pack once the flat stage turned nasty and the road started heading skyward. By his calculations, he needed at least 26 minutes at the base of the climb—a minute for every kilometer on Ventoux with an extra cushion, just in case. When he attacked more than 100km before Ventoux, he was left alone, the rest of the peloton smugly secure in the belief that his solo breakaway wouldn’t last.
“It’s not easy being a domestique at a grand tour. Always protecting the leader, keeping him out of the wind, sticking to him like glue. If he stops to pee, so do you. You need to ride in a way that keeps him away from danger and from stress. It’s a bit like being a sous chef—you do all the work and then the chef comes along with the final decoration and takes all the credit!”
“I’d had some success before Ventoux. One of the most beautiful moments in my life came on the eve of my 21st birthday. A few years before my dad had told me that at 21, I’d have to get a real job because cycling was very hard and it didn’t pay well. Luckily, the day before that birthday we won the gold medal for the Team Time Trial at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. That proved that I had a future in the peloton.”
“For Ventoux, I believed in my victory. I knew that it was possible because they told me at the base I had 26 minutes—I worked out that I could lose 22 while climbing and still keep a lead of three or four minutes at the summit. That would be enough to keep me ahead for the descent and the final flat kilometres. But it was really only 5km from the finish, when I still had five minutes, that I was certain of it. I slowed down and began to think of my family, my wife Michelle and my daughter Amy.”
“That hardest part of it all was at the bend at St Esève, where the toughest section of Ventoux begins, 10km at 10% without a single hairpin. I was so scared. For the first time in my life, my odometer was showing a single-digit speed when I was going full gas! I was terrified that I might not actually make it to the summit.”
Poli made it to the summit with time to spare. Not even a typically explosive attack from a young Marco Pantani could pull him back. A giant from Verona had conquered The Giant of Provence. All that remained was a 40km solo to Carpentras, downhill, on terrain where his power and his bulk were a help rather than a hindrance.
The yellow jersey that year went to Spain’s great champion, Miguel Indurain, but the undisputed star of the 81st Tour de France was Poli, thanks to one of cycling’s greatest ever breakaways and a rare, unforgettable victory for the (figurative) little guy.
Poli is still a regular fixture at the Tour and remains a firm fan favorite with the French. And when the Grand Boucle revisits the scene of his greatest achievement, he’ll be there with a select group of inGamba guests.
“This year looks like a beautiful race,” muses the amiable Italian. “A lot of interesting climbs, and of course, there’s the Ventoux. Chris Froome looks unbeatable, but I’d like to think that Alberto Contador can cause him some problems. Nairo Quintana will always be dangerous in the last week and could make a difference. I’d like to see Fabio Aru do well, maybe make the podium, but I think his race is next year.”
Competitive Cyclist would like to thank Eros Poli, Colin O’Brien, and the rest of the inGamba family for sharing this interview.