When the cat’s away, the mice will play. It’s a mantra that often rings true in cycling – usually when a favourite crashes out of a big race and their rivals, or the teammates usually employed entirely in their service, grab the opportunity with both hands. When Lion King Mario Cipollini was ruled out of the Tour de France in 1994, his not-so-rodent-like sprint pilot Eros Poli proved himself to be the mightiest mouse in the business.
After two failed long-distance breakaways – in the stifling Aquitaine region of France, and in the Pyrenees – the Italian colossus soloed clear of the peloton on the oppressively hot Stage 15 from Montpellier to Carpentras.
The profile of the 231km ride through Provence was wholly unremarkable save for the almighty spike towards the end: the deathly climb up Mont Ventoux and the descent down to the finish. If you’re not familiar with the legend of Ventoux, here’s a passage from the introduction to Jeremy Whittle’s memoir to the mythical mountain:
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Woman who caused Tour de France crash fined 1200 euros
09/12/2021 AT 16:27
“Visible from the Alps, from the Pyrenees and from 35,000ft, Mont Ventoux is a mountain so singular, so identifiable, that pilots flying south towards Italy and the Cote d’Azur use its bleached summit as a reference point. The vast, unmistakable bulk of the ‘Giant of Provence’ dominates the rolling landscape of the Drôme and Vaucluse regions of the south of France. The gruelling ascent has become one of the most feared and revered climbs in cycling.”
To Whittle, the “inspirational and intimidating” Ventoux is not merely one of the sport’s most renowned ascents, it is the climb with the richest history and one “that most embodies both the grandeur and the darkness of professional racing”.
It is also a climb synonymous with some of cycling’s greatest climbers – from Louison Bobet through to Chris Froome, via the likes of Charly Gaul, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Thévenet, Marco Pantani and Richard Virenque.
So, how did a flat-track bully more readily identifiable with the gruppetto manage to hijack this illustrious list of winners over the top of Mont Ventoux? After all, Whittle describes Poli with brutal honesty as “an Italian lead-out man, known for his abject climbing, whose imposing physique made him the least likely winner in a stage over the Giant”.
The day after Italy lost the World Cup final to Brazil, when Roberto Baggio ballooned his spot-kick in the penalty shootout, a weary Eros Poli creaked out of bed after a fitful night’s sleep feeling sorry for himself. But on the painful walk downstairs (the hotel lift was broken) a song came into the head of the 6ft 4ins rouleur: James Brown’s I Feel Good.
And as this tune went round and round in Poli’s head, he soon became convinced that he did indeed feel good – despite the prospect of tackling the Ventoux in temperatures of more than 38 degrees Celsius – or 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the descent to Carpentras changed the character of the stage completely; the mountain test was no longer purely the domain of the climbers. And this gave Poli hope that he could perhaps pull off the unlikeliest of survivals.
“It was a great day. A beautiful day,” Poli tells Eurosport 27 years after his career-defining moment. “One of the three most important races of my life: my gold medal in the Olympic Games; the world championships team time trial, in 1987; and the Ventoux stage of the 1994 Tour de France.”

Setting the scene: who was Eros Poli?

One day before his 21st birthday, a statuesque tyro from Veneto in northern Italy won a gold medal in the team time trial at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was the highlight of Poli’s amateur career – and while Italy could take only fifth place at the next Games four years later, Poli won a bronze medal in the team time trial at the World Championships in 1985, a silver in 1986 and then gold in Villach, Austria, in 1987.
Poli had taken up cycling as a teenager after the oil price shock of 1973 hit Italy head-on. A ban on car usage over the weekends saw Poli’s father buy a bike for himself and his son – and the lanky adolescent was soon riding for the local youth team. After his Olympic success, Poli invested the money he earned in opening up two bars in Vicenza, having toyed with the idea of using his engineering degree and going to work in the regional power station.
When Poli finally turned pro in 1991, his own powerful engine was a key component in the Del Tongo, GB-MG Maglificio, Mercatone Uno and Saeco trains that launched Mario Cipollini to countless sprint victories.
In his debut Giro in 1991, all 6ft 4ins and 84kg of Poli helped pilot Super Mario to three stage wins. He would lay the groundwork for Cipo to go one better a year later, while Poli finished last in the overall standings, some four hours and 40 minutes down on winner Miguel Indurain (a rider whose moniker ‘Big Mig’ seemed faintly ridiculous when he stood alongside his Italian counterpart).
Quizzed by Cycle Sport around this time about what he would like his epitaph to be, the affable Italian said: “Here lies Eros Poli, famous for being tall and coming last in the Giro d’Italia.”
It’s fair to say that, had the magazine returned with the same question a couple of years later, they’d have got a quite different answer – and rightly so.
But going into the 1994 Tour, it’s no exaggeration to say that Poli’s name was on no one’s prediction card for Stage 15 to Carpentras. Indeed, besides his role as Cipollini’s pilot, Poli was the patron of the gruppetto during tough mountainous stages. In fact, his ability to ensure all the stragglers reached the finish within the cut-off time led Chris Boardman to nickname him the “Bus Driver”.
If Poli arrived at the grand départ still seeking his first major professional win, his chances of personal glory were elevated by the promise of a freer role in the absence of Cipollini from the Mercatone Uno team. It would be the final year the Vuelta was held in the spring, and the Lion King’s plan had been to condition himself in Spain before withdrawing so he could take part in the Giro.
But on the opening road stage in Salamanca, Cipollini suffered a horrific crash when he was driven into the barriers by his own teammate, Adriano Baffi. The latter won the stage (celebrating with gusto despite looking over his shoulder to see Cipollini sprawled flat out on the road as a result of his actions) before being duly demoted. It was this crash that increased the calls for the removal of barriers with legs that encroached onto the road, plus the mandatory use of helmets.
Besides a nasty knock to the face after bouncing off the tarmac, Cipollini broke his shoulder and missed five months of the season, the Italian stallion reduced to watching both the Giro and Tour from his hospital bed.
And so it was that Poli was part of a weakened Mercatone Uno team that arrived at the Tour with Silvio Martinello, another sprinter, as their leader. Martinello would not win a stage, but did finish second behind Djamolidine Abdoujaparov in the Green Jersey standings.

Marcello Bartalini, Marco Giovannetti, Eros Poli and Claudio Vandelli of Italy celebrate their gold medal placing in the Men's 100 kilometres Team Time Trial on 5th August 1984 during the XXIII Olympic Summer Games

Image credit: Getty Images

Heat wave tears through the peloton

The 81st Tour was played out in fierce heat that quickly took its toll on the peloton as a virus swept through the field and caused riders to drop like flies. By the time the race was ready to face Ventoux, a quarter of the field had already withdrawn – including the likes of Greg LeMond, Gianni Bugno, Tony Rominger, Claudio Chiappucci and Steve Bauer, as well as prologue winner Boardman and a certain Lance Armstrong.
The young American world champion had struggled to replicate his rainbow jersey-winning form from San Sebastian on the sweltering roads of France. After the 22-year-old was caught by Indurain on the 64km time trial to Bergerac, Armstrong told reporters: “It’s over. It’s finished. The way that guy came by…”
Armstrong wouldn’t take to the start of Stage 15, citing fatigue and the need to prepare for the Worlds (where he finished seventh in Agrigento in the defence of his crown). This decision earned him some scorn from the commentator Phil Liggett, who opined: “What he should have done, really, is go into the mountains for the next couple of days and get the feel. Because now he’s abandoned two Tours de France. So mentally he’s going to start remembering that.”
Little did Phil know what was in store…
At this point of the 1994 Tour, only three of the original 21 teams still had their full complement – including Indurain’s Banesto. Seemingly impervious to the infection doing the rounds as he was to everything else, the Spaniard was left without an obvious rival. He allowed Richard Virenque to win at Luz Ardiden and take the polka dot jersey, but the young Frenchman trailed him by eight minutes on GC. The attrition rate was reflected in what was the fastest average speed of any Tour ever raced at the two-week point.
“That Tour was hard. Long stages every day and very hot,” Poli recalls. To add further context: the 231km stage to Carpentras was only the fifth longest. One day after the 270km Stage 6 to Rennes – the longest of the race – Poli had already tried his luck in a solo break to Futuroscope, caught 20km from the finish despite building up an 18-minute gap.
Then, after the only rest day of a particularly gruelling Tour, on the stage to Luz Ardiden, Poli rather ambitiously joined Frenchman Thierry Marie in a move over the Peyresourde and Col d’Aspin before being dropped on the Tourmalet. “Another good training,” he jokes.
Two days later, it was the World Cup final after yet another 200km stage – from Castres to Montpellier.
“I remember the stage – it was a Sunday and Rolf Sørensen had won,” says Poli. “It was a very long and hot stage in the south of France. Many riders went home because everyone was sick with gastroenteritis. There were so many troubles because it was too hot.
“I finished the stage exhausted and went straight to the swimming pool and jumped in with my kit on – just to survive. I remember the cigale (crickets) being so noisy and we had no air conditioning in the room. My teammate John Talen, the Dutchman, took his mattress and put it down on the terrace to sleep. He slept outside because it was too hot inside the room!”
Unable to drop off, Poli turned on his TV to watch the World Cup final, which was being played in California, and saw Baggio miss the deciding spot-kick to condemn Italy to a defeat against Brazil. After the heartache of losing a penalty shootout, it was nearly 2am by the time he closed his eyes.
“You can imagine the next morning I woke up and I was completely f***ed,” Poli recalls. “Then it was breakfast. But the lift was broken, so we had to use the stairs. And the first two stairs – my legs… oh my God! So painful. Like piranha bites everywhere. But that moment I started singing a song in my head: James Brown – I Feel Good. I Feel Good! I don’t know why I woke up with that song in my mind, but throughout the day I had it going round in my head. So, when I attacked later on, I was still singing the same thing in my head, and I Felt Good!

Breaking away: the start of Stage 15

If you’d tuned into ESPN’s live coverage of the 15th stage, you would have heard Adrian Karsten, the blonde sideline reporter with a penchant for braces, deliver this pithy synopsis in his trans-Atlantic drawl for what was in store: “137 miles from the seaside city of Montpellier to Carpentras. A few sprints to get ‘em going, then someone mentioned there might be a mountain in there, or something.
“You wanna know what these guys are going to go through to Ventoux? Let’s say you finish a light breakfast then jog on down to your health club to start a workout around 10am. Get on a stationary bike. Set the controls to the toughest level. And don’t stop. Until three in the afternoon. Five hours later. Then you can get off. Run over to the stair-master, again on the killer level, and go for an hour. Six hours after you started. Now you can take a break.
“That’s what these guys are going through for 22 days in a row. Phil Liggett does that much pretty much every day.”
It was some intro for the onetime Voice of Cycling…
Once again, it was a real sweat-fest: the third consecutive 100-degree Fahrenheit day, with the mercury peaking at 104 (or 40 degrees Celsius) for what was a record that Tour. (Some more context: when Tom Simpson died of, among other factors, heat exhaustion on Ventoux in 1967, the temperature was in the mid-20s.)
With the riders perhaps fearful of the mountain ahead, the pace was understandably sluggish in the peloton after the official start, with not much action until Abdoujaparov won the first intermediate sprint ahead of the feed zone, where it all kicked off.
For Poli, that day was all about survival. He’d ridden Ventoux once before in the previous year’s Paris-Nice, but only up to Chalet Reynard. He went over the top three minutes behind the lead group then, and it was his teammate Cipollini who – believe it or not – went on to win in Marseille.
“There was one rule for me – try to survive,” says Poli. “It was easy to survive, because there was just one big climb at the end.” But an attack from a fellow Italian from his former GB-MG team made things much more difficult.
“I was p***ed off with Davide Cassani, who attacked in the feed zone,” he recalls, showing an admirable command of English expletives. “That was so f***ing hard. It was 40 degrees and everyone needed water, and Cassani attacked in the feed zone. We were like: ‘Come on, really?’ Every day, his GB-MG Maglificio team attacked in the feed zone. Why? So, that day, nobody could drink, nobody could take water from the cars.”
To make matters worse, Poli was off the back when it happened after answering a call of nature.
“I had stopped to pee when Cassani attacked,” he continues. “It was just a couple of kilometres from the feed zone at 50k, where you’re allowed to take on water from the cars. It was still another 170k to the finish. So, I had stopped and I was riding back to the peloton before the feed zone – but I couldn’t [stop] because Cassani has attacked. F***! It was crazy.”
He managed to claw his way back to a rampaging peloton that was both, says Poli, “nervous and angry”. A flurry of attacks and counter-attacks came to nothing, and then the bunch eased up and the road was blocked by a line of riders at the front.
“But I was coming from behind with speed and I wanted to attack,” Poli explains. “There was no space to pass the group, so I rode around on a small section of cut grass on the right of the road for about 50m. I was riding f***ing fast from behind – about 50kmph – then I said to myself: ‘Don’t brake, don’t brake!’, and I jumped on the grass, then jumped back on the asphalt. Then it was head down, full gas. I was able to do a really big gap – in one kilometre, it was one minute.”
The fact that the move came so far from the finish, and from a man not remotely renowned for his climbing, ensured the peloton was happy to give Poli as much rope as he needed to hang himself.
“Everybody thought: ‘It’s okay, it’s Poli – let him go, he’s not dangerous’,” Poli laughs. “Everybody knew me. I was always the first to be dropped at the beginning of the mountain because I was always too heavy. They must have thought I was mad.”
This would explain why no one had a similar death wish and Poli was left to his own devices – not that he would have welcomed any company. “No, no, no – I wanted to be solo,” he admits. “It was probably the secret of my success.”

Coping with the heat

Something else that worked in Poli’s favour were the conditions, which engulfed the peloton in a kind of stupor once the crazy tall guy had gone on his suicide mission. The 30-year-old took refuge underneath a yellow casquette from which, as was his habit, he’d cut out the top part, leaving just the elasticated headband and the peak to shade his eyes from the fierce Provencal sun.
One early stumbling block was a lack of fluids, Cassani’s attack having prevented Poli from taking on any water in the feed zone. With his team car still behind the peloton, he raised his hand for the neutral support car to request some water. But the Mavic car didn’t have any either.
“So, okay, no problem. I’m a grinta, I never give up,” Poli recalls. “Then, one minute later, the car came back. ‘Hey, Eros! You’re lucky – behind the seat we found a can of Fanta. But be careful – it’s f***ing hot!’ I was like: ‘It doesn’t matter – give me the f***ing Fanta!’ I remember it was really hot, but I still squeezed every last drop from that can with my fist. It went everywhere, but it was amazing. That hot Fanta was the best Fanta in my life.”
Soon enough, Poli was joined by his Mercatone Uno team car, which was being driven by his topless directeur sportif Antonio Salutini in a way only Italians of a certain age in certain temperatures can get away with. Poli recalls drinking profusely that day – especially Coca-Cola.
“He [Salutini] was like: ‘Not too much Cola, Eros, you’ll be sick’. And I was like: ‘Give me the f***ing Cola-Cola – trust me, it’s my problem!’ I didn’t drink that much water – except sparkling water. I like the bubbles, they give me more pleasure to drink. I remember saying: ‘Give me sparkling water or something fizzy.’”
A heat haze concealed the summit of Mont Ventoux that day, but it still loomed large in Poli’s consciousness. Experience told him that he needed perhaps as much as a 25-minute advantage going onto the mountain if he wanted a chance of winning the stage – although he still wasn’t contemplating such a scenario as he passed through Carpentras with a gap of 22 minutes on the peloton.
ESPN’s live coverage crackled into action as Poli rode up the home straight and through the finish line area that would be revisited in just under 80km. In the commentary box, Phil Liggett was still adamant that the Giant on the horizon would be the “stumbling block” for the giant in the saddle. Paul Sherwen, too, was not overly optimistic:
“Eros Poli is a fantastic rider on the flat – as you can see just by looking at the shape of his body. He’s a rider with a lot of strength, but unfortunately, because of his size – he’s a very tall, heavy rider – once he gets on to the slopes of Mont Ventoux, he’s going to have a very hard time. It may well be that these 20 minutes get wiped away as soon as the road goes uphill.”

A giant on the Giant

Poli’s calculations were one minute for every kilometre of the 22km ascent – plus a few minutes’ leeway for the descent – in case of a flat tyre or mechanical issue. In the event, his lead was 25 minutes and 27 seconds as he entered Bédoin, with compatriot Mario Mantovan around 16 minutes behind. The Carrera rider would hold that gap all the way to the finish, albeit dropping a further 47 positions back.
Poli recalls riding the climb with great pain in his shoulder and on his back on the account of the 100km time trial he had effectively ridden to establish his cushion. If the first six or seven kilometres of the southern ascent were, in his words, “not so bad” then the difficulty started to come at the infamous left-hand turn at St Estève, where the gradient ramps up into double figures during the claustrophobic wooded section of the climb.
On this turn, the author Jeremy Whittle says in his book, Ventoux: “It’s a brutal bend, one that the French poetically describe as ‘un petit enfer’ – a little hell.” And it was here that Poli indeed found himself at the gates of Hades.
“That was a drama because I lost completely my cadence and rhythm,” he says. “For the first time in my life, the speed on my counter became one single number. Gruppetto speed is normally 15kmph and I saw sometimes 8 or 9km/ph. I thought: ‘Oh my God!’ I was so tired and I thought I might fall off my bike I was going so slowly. It’s so hard, and there’s no shade – you’re always out in the sun.”
Despite the glare, Poli had removed his yellow visor and attached it to his handlebars, which he yanked with every exhausted pedal stroke as sweat poured off his face. Barely able to turn over the cranks, the exhausted leader looked terribly over-geared as he continued his battle with the mountain (and with only 24 sprockets on the back).
“You can almost feel the pain as he’s labouring over his bike,” said Sherwen. “This is a man not used to such a mountain. He’s such a big, heavy rider. He’s really suffering to go to the top and he’s only halfway up.”
Behind, a few riders had struck out from the pack when they started the climb, but it was not until Tour debutant Marco Pantani attacked in the woods that things heated up. The Italian was in sixth place in the standings but almost 12 minutes down on Indurain, who was on course to win his fourth consecutive Tour by a far more considerable margin than the previous three.
It’s worth remembering, however, that the Spaniard – described as “robotic and dead-eyed” by Whittle – did not win the Tour until his seventh time of asking; on the previous occasion the race had come up Ventoux, a time trial from Carpentras in 1987, Indurain had shipped more than 15 minutes.
A few riders went with Pantani, including the soon-to-be-crowned world champion Luc Leblanc (fourth on GC, at 8:35), teammate of second-place Richard Virenque. But Indurain the iceman did not respond, and instead sat in the wheel of Pascal Lino, another Festina teammate of Leblanc and the polka dot jersey.
Showing few signs that it would be he who would eventually close the curtain on the Indurain era, the Danish powerhouse Bjarne Riis, meanwhile, was yo-yoing off the back as the main pack thinned down to a dozen riders, and eight minutes were slashed from Poli’s lead.
Up ahead, Poli tried to keep his cool. “I remember pouring so much water over my head and neck,” he says. “Then I got through the forest and arrived at Chalet Reynard for the short section of flat where I was able to take a break. It was very good and helpful. Then it was the last five or six kilometres, which are hard – especially the last two kilometres which are terrific. The climb went so slowly, one kilometre at a time, it was so hard.”
Mantovan was caught and passed by teammate Pantani who, in the days before helmets were compulsory and before he decided on his signature polished head to combat his prematurely thinning hair, looked like Riis’s younger, smaller brother. As Pantani passed, Mantovan gave his water bottle to his compatriot. He was soon caught by the main pack after Indurain began to turn the screw.
Emerging from the trees – the crown of hair to the bald pate of the Giant – and travelling across the lunar landscape at the top of Ventoux, the yellow jersey rode in a six-man group with Virenque, Lino, Leblanc, Armand de Las Cuevas (the Frenchman from Castorama, currently third on GC) and Roberto Conti. Indurain later splintered this group with a dig in almost the same spot as Chris Froome’s now-infamous high-cadence acceleration 19 years later, in 2013.

Poli living the dream

Used to riding in the gruppetto – where the focus was simply survival en masse – Poli found himself in an unfamiliar position: being at the head of a race with all eyes on him as he edged closer to the summit, his lead on Pantani slashed to less than eight minutes.
“I had a dream because I was always the first to be dropped but one day I wanted to be first to pass in the front – to see the people and fans saying: ‘Go, keep going, Eros!’ But I never imagined being able to win a stage in the mountains – so it was just a dream to one day pass in the front in the mountains, not the last. Then… it happened.”

Eros Poli - Tour de France 1994 stage 15 (Mont Ventoux) - Imago

Image credit: Imago

Forced to swallow his words after earlier writing off the Italian’s chances, Sherwen was now offering encouragement to Poli:
“You almost want to push this man, to help him to get over the top. He really is suffering. He’s using all of his body, all of his power, the last little bit of energy that he’s got to get over the top, because then he knows he’s going to plunge down for 25 miles to the finish.”
For his part, Liggett was full of praise. As he reminded viewers: “Poli is an Olympic champion of the thoroughbred [sort] – the flat road, the team time trial – when he was an amateur. Now he’s gone and hit Mont Ventoux, one of the most feared climbs in any bike race, and he’s climbed his way to the top. Hats off to him.”
“This is really what cycling’s all about,” replied Sherwen, the commentating duo bouncing off one another as they would go on to do for the next two decades. “It’s courage. It’s fighting. It’s getting the best out of yourself even when you think you’re going to get beaten. Every man was scared of Ventoux this morning. But Poli was the one who took it on his own shoulders to get out there, build up this lead, and hope he could hold on for victory.”
After one last effort around the final steep hairpin bend below the meteorological station on the summit, Poli went over the top and felt the weight of the world disappear from his shoulders. He took a swig of water, poured the rest over his head, zipped up his jersey, and then embarked on the 22km descent to Malaucène. He had just become the first Italian to reach the top of Ventoux in pole position.
Pantani followed some 4:31 later, before Virenque consolidated his Polka Dot points tally by leading the yellow jersey group over the highest point, almost six minutes in arrears.
“Phew,” Poli says. “It was done.”

Descending to glory

Of course, the stage was still not won: the finish remained 42km away back in Carpentras. “I knew that everything could still happen on the descent,” Poli says. “Maybe I had pushed too hard up the hill, maybe I was too tired. If you have a problem with descending, it’s usually because you’re tired and you make a mistake. I was very focused.”
But descending was never going to be a problem for a man of Poli’s size. “I remember the car coming up to me and saying: ‘Hey, take it easy! Slow down…’ because it was really fast. There’s a long section of descent in a long line at 11 per cent where I think I hit 100kmph.”

La grande carcasse d'Eros Poli dans la descente du Ventoux

Image credit: Getty Images

In Ventoux, Whittle describes what faces a rider on their way down towards Malaucène – a descent that the peloton will tackle on Stage 11 of the 2021 Tour:
“The north side soon slings you through a succession of tight hairpins, where it’s necessary to almost come to a halt, before accelerating again. The first couple of kilometres downhill track back and forth across the white rock, an expansive view north towards the Drôme and the distant Alps distracting your eyes away from the road, the bends rushing up to meet you.”
Later, beyond the ski resort of Mont Serein, the bends disappear, and the road becomes more like a runway. It was here, in the pursuit of Poli, that Pantani did his stomach-on-saddle, bum-on-back-wheel party trick at speed – a new style of descending that was not only dangerous but would earn an instant disqualification under the new rules governing the sport today. But for all his derring-do, the Pirate was making no ground on his compatriot.
Near the back of the pursuing group of favourites, Indurain had a heart-in-mouth moment of his own when his back wheel fishtailed on the hot tar and he was forced to unclip, taking a bend very wide and kissing the grass verge. The race leader narrowly avoided going over the edge of the mountain and into the trees below.
“When you’ve got good form and you’re in great shape, you’ve still got the reactions to survive something like that – and Miguel Indurain certainly had that when he recovered from that little slide,” said Sherwen.
After the descent there was still another 20km to ride back to Carpentras – but with half of that done, Poli still held a gap of more than four minutes on Pantani. “He’s only 24, despite his balding head,” Liggett said, channelling his inner Partridge as the diminutive climber was told to give up the chase by his directeur sportif.
With Poli now riding to certain glory, Liggett decided to share a little anecdote from when he spoke to the Italian after his thwarted breakaway to Futuroscope in the opening week.
“He said: ‘I’m going to do it again, and I’m going to get such a big lead that I’m going to have time to stop and find some pretty girls to have lunch with before getting back to the bike race’,” Liggett recalled. “Well, that’s what he told us. He got 25 minutes today, but when he got to the top of Ventoux there were unfortunately no restaurants. But now he’s going to get a stage win – and that will be a first. The emotion is getting to him.”

La victoire d'Eros Poli au ventoux : l'image de sa vie.

Image credit: Getty Images

Indeed, it was. Around 5km from the finish, a motorbike drew up alongside the lone leader. Seated behind the driver was Laurent Bezault, a former teammate of Greg LeMond, who was now in the first year of his new role: controlling the traffic along the Tour’s parcours.
“He said: ‘Come on, it’s okay, you have five minutes now!’ That was the moment I said: ‘Okay, it’s done, now I can take the foot off the pedal and enjoy this.’”
The significance of what he had done quickly set in. “The last kilometre I was imagining my family watching me on TV – it was a great moment,” Poli says. “I think that was the best moment – the last 3km when I realised it was done, the TV with the motorcycle was just 10m from my face with the camera. I started crying – it was very emotional.”
Such was his lead, Poli was able to milk the applause from the crowd along the home straight – the same fans who, more than two hours earlier, had seen the Italian ride through the finish town on a mission.
If he was on the verge of “the greatest win of his career”, according to Sherwen, that wasn’t saying much: Poli’s only other victory since turning pro at the late age of 28 was in the lowly Mazda Alpine Tour in Australia two years previously – a race that, to all intents and purposes, was still an amateur event.
But he had now done the seemingly impossible by winning a mountain stage of the Tour de France. “This is incredible,” gushed Liggett. “This very, very colourful Italian never broke away to win. He broke away to survive – and my goodness me, did he survive.”
It’s no surprise that Poli made a show of it – riding to the finish with his arms aloft before throwing his trusty yellow cap into the crowd and bowing to the supporters as he crossed the line, a decade after his Olympic gold medal.
“I wanted to do a musketeer salute,” he explains. “Like a big show when you go to a theatre and, at the end of the performance, there’s an encore. It was like: ‘Thank you, everybody! Ciao! I hope you enjoyed my show’. The French people loved the moment. They said it was the best finish ever. Nobody had done something like me before – this special thanks to everybody, then giving my hat to the public.”
Behind, the Italian Alberto Elli outkicked Lino and Conti for second place at 3:39 before Virenque led home a group including the yellow jersey of Indurain exactly four minutes after Poli.
Back with the mic, ESPN anchor Adrian Karsten delivered the final word on a surreal day in Provence: “Eros Poli, at 6ft 4ins, feels like 10-foot tall tonight. Don’t try and tell this man that a big man can’t climb a big mountain.”

What happened next?

The next stage, on another sizzling day on the Tour, Poli rode alongside teammate John Talen in the gruppetto up Alpe d’Huez, finishing fourth-last on Stage 16 some 34 minutes behind winner Roberto Conti of Italy. A day later, he was third-last after a “very hard” stage that included 90km of climbing up the Glandon, Madeleine and on to Val Thorens.
“I went to the front to block the road with Frankie Andreu of Motorola and we stopped all the attacks at the beginning – because the Colombians all wanted to attack on the Glandon,” Poli recalls. “Anyway, we got dropped – and that day 50 riders were outside the limit because it was a short ride with very big difficulty.”
A hasty overturning of the rules from the jury reinstated the majority of riders who were caught out, allowing Poli to roll into Paris third from bottom – almost three hours behind Miguel Indurain. The Spaniard’s fourth straight victory in yellow was by an eventual margin of 5:39 over the Latvian Piotr Ugrumov, with Marco Pantani rising to third on his debut Tour.
Poli’s numerous attacks – his solo escapes amounted to 340km in total – saw him win the Combativity Prize. But it was the Ventoux victory that ushered in a new chapter of his career – and saw him followed by a race motorbike for the remaining Alpine stages of that Tour, with live updates of his performances over all the peaks. It brought him notoriety and much attention – not least from adoring female fans who sent him flowers and cards. Speaking to L’Equipe in 1997, Poli said: “Everything began to change. I got letters at home. People wanted to touch me, to take my photo. Since then, I haven’t won anything, but something [of all this] has persisted.”
It was six years before Poli got to the top of Mont Ventoux again. This time it was in a car – the day Pantani was ‘gifted’ the win by Lance Armstrong, a year after the American had won the first of his seven Tours that would subsequently be scrubbed from his palmarès.
By this point, Poli had retired from cycling and was working as a TV pundit for RAI in Italy. “I remember me and Marco were in the same hotel,” he recalls. “And after the stage I walked past his room and he said: ‘Hey, come in Poli, come inside…’ I said: ‘Ciao Marco, congratulations. I’m happy you’ve won on Ventoux because now you’ve given more glory to my stage when I won.’ And he said: ‘That day, you were very strong because, if you weren’t strong enough, for sure, I was catching you. But I didn’t catch you. So, you did a good job – bravo!’”
Fast forward another five years and Poli finally took on the Giant of Provence once again on a cycling holiday he organised with a group of friends from Verona. “I organised a trip to do Ventoux with them – a big bus with 40 bikes and 40 friends,” he explains. “That was when I climbed Ventoux for my first time since my victory in 1994. So it took 11 years.”
For the past five years, “Monsieur Ventoux” – the Giant’s giant-killer – has returned to the site of his unlikely victory every summer on an annual bike tour organised by the company inGamba, for whom he works as a guide in locations such as California, Arizona, Portugal and Tuscany. At the time of speaking to Re-Cycle, Poli was moving into a new apartment in Valpolicella, a viticultural zone of the province of Verona, Italy, east of Lake Garda.
Now 57, he is excited by the prospect of the 2021 Tour de France venturing not only back to Ventoux for the first time in five years, but doing so twice in one day – with a stage that features the gentler eastern approach from Sault as well as the traditional ascent from Bédoin ahead of the same descent towards Malaucène for the finish. Poli says he will be glued to the TV screen, admitting that “twice up Mont Ventoux in one day will be amazing”.
Could such an audacious move as that which saw the peloton’s tallest rider hit the foot of the Giant of Provence with a 25-minute advantage ever happen again? Is a 171km-long solo break even possible in a modern era driven by numbers and a surfeit of radio-led predictability? It all depends on the weather, Poli says.
“When it is a hot day on a race, people go hyper-fast then they stop the effort. And when they want to go fast again, they can’t because the heat makes you lazy. If you go fast, you get good ventilation from the wind but every time you stop, you’re overheating.
“With that in mind, I took the right moment to attack. It was hard, but I had good speed and good ventilation. That was probably the secret – the heat. I might have been on my own in the breakaway, but the heat was my biggest ally.”
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