Once in a while though, something happens that makes us question what we know about racing. The kind of victories that would seem downright impossible if you didn't see them with your own eyes. And of all those unlikely winners, few can compare to Eros Poli winning over Mont Ventoux on a blisteringly hot July afternoon at the 1994 Tour de France.
The ‘94 Mercatone Uno team was built with sprints in mind. Mario Cipollini and Adriano Baffi were brilliant on the flat, and the team’s lead-out train was imperious, but a stage like Mont Ventoux would have been the last thing on their mind, especially with Poli. He had an engine, sure, and an Olympic gold medal to prove it, but the biggest rider in the peloton was not built for cycling’s biggest climbs.
And yet, the Veronese went for it anyway. Poli had always been good at working out pace and time cuts, in fact he was so good at it that he was affectionately known as the “Bus driver” by the sprinters and domestiques of the gruppetto. His calculations told him that he’d need at least 24 minutes at the foot of the mountain, a minute for every kilometre of the climb, with a little extra as a contingency. So 100 kilometres before Ventoux, he took off on a solo time trial, steadily building himself the lead he knew he needed before the day’s climbing began.
"In ’94, the only thing on my mind was survival," says Eros from his home in Verona.
"I just wanted to arrive at the finish, I couldn’t think about much more. I just didn’t want them to catch me. That’s all I thought about. It sounds obvious, but I’d done more than 100km on my own, like a time trial, to build up that 25-minute lead for the bottom of Ventoux.
“It’s an intimidating place. Not necessarily for its steepness, more for its geographical position. It’s in the south, where it gets really hot. It’s not like in the middle of the Alps, there’s no fresh air or cool breeze waiting for you at the top, it was more than 30 degrees that day, it felt like pedalling in a sauna. So for a rider like me, all you’re thinking about is salvation. It’s a unique kind of suffering, the length of it combined with the heat, it’s a monster.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO CONQUER A GIANT?
“For riders like me, there’s no real distinction when it comes to the big mountains. They’re all really tough, regardless of where it is. But what makes Ventoux such a beast is that it’s usually hot, and it’s just this straight road, with hardly any bends, it just goes on and on and all the time you’re baking under the high afternoon sun.
"For the good climbers, they’re worried about being dropped or missing an attack. On the big mountains, I just wanted to get to the top and do it before I missed the time cut. It was that simple.
SO CLOSE, AND YET...
“It was there that I first heard the helicopter overhead and I knew that meant trouble because they were following Miguel Indurain and Marco Pantani, and it meant they were close. I looked over my shoulder expecting to see them right there, but luckily there was still some distance.
“At the top I was finally able to relax, I caught my breath, and then there was the descent. And well, when you’re built like me, descending isn’t a problem. I remember my director warning me that the downhill was dangerous, and I laughed, because for me it was the uphill that was more dangerous!”
RELIVING THE DREAM
“Sure, I got to the bottom of the climb with a big gap, but even so, I went up the climb pretty well that day for a rider of my size. To think, I only lost 20 minutes or so to someone like Pantani, and that was after doing a solo time trial all day. You’d have to say that was a good day.
“Having inGamba’s guests with me now is wonderful, they’re happy to be there but it’s a gift for me too, because it’s like going back in time, reliving those emotions again, it still seems like yesterday. I feel young again.”
Images: inGamba Tours, Jered Gruber, Sirotti Photos. Words: Colin O’Brien