Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
July 14th, 2016 – If great climbs are judged by the legends they inspire then Mont Ventoux remains unparalleled. Towering nearly two kilometers above French Provence, “The Giant of Provence” has inspired writers and artists for centuries. And it has also inspired cyclists, especially since the Tour de France first came here in 1951.
Words: James Startt – European Associate to peloton
Images: James Startt (below) and Yuzuru Sunada (above)
From: Le Mont Ventoux, France
Starting at near sea level, the Ventoux is a brutal climb, with virtually no switchbacks to offer even a moment’s reprise. The air often is trapped in the trees for much of the climb, but when the riders exit the tree line in the final six kilometers, they are often greeted with unrelenting heat and driving winds. The Ventoux offers cyclists with the ultimate challenge and it has solicited some of the greatest rides from Charly Gaul to Marco Pantani to Christopher Froome. It has also been the home to one of the sport’s great tragedies, when British rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died here in 1967, the summit in his sights.
But in 1994, the Ventoux christened its most unlikely champion, Italian cyclist Eros Poli.
And Olympic gold medalist in the team time trial, Poli was many things. But he was not a climber. At 1.94 meters and weighing 83 kilos, the statuesque Poli was a tremendously powerful rider. But such size is a huge disadvantage in the mountains.
Aérogramme presented by Giordana #GiordanaCycling
As a result, few took him seriously when he attacked early on stage 15. Some even laughed. But by the finish the joke was on them, as Poli authored on of the sport’s greatest upsets.
Like this year’s Tour, the stage started in the southern French city of Montpellier before making its way to Bedoin on the southern face of the Ventoux. But unlike this year’s stage, after climbing the Ventoux, the race then descended the north side before finishing in Carpentras on what was an epic 231-kilometer stage.
“I attacked about 50 kilometers into the stage when there was a lull in the racing. To get around the pack I actually had to sprint on the grass by the roadside,” Poli told peloton before this year’s Tour climbed the Ventoux. “I’d been in a couple of breaks already that year, but I actually preferred riding alone. I could ride at 45 kilometers an hour for 100 kilometers no problem. That was my specialty. But the Mont Ventoux for me was a big problem! So I started calculating how much time I would need at the foot of the climb if I hoped to stay away.”
Poli, who spent much of his career in the peloton’s grupetto when racing in the high mountains, knew that on average, he rode one minute per kilometer slower that the leaders on big climbs.
“The Ventoux is 21 kilometers, so I figured that I needed a 25- minute gap at the foot.” Hitting the foot of the climb with a 23’45” gap, he was just short of his own calculation, but he knew he had a chance. And his chances only improved when stars like Miguel Indurain, Marco Pantani and Richard Virenque, still failing to take Poli seriously, marked each other. And with more than a 4 minute 30 second gap at the summit, there was little chance they would see him before the finish. As he raced into Carpentras the crowd thundered in applause – Poli had accomplished the impossible.
“It was just amazing,” remembers veteran reporter Samuel Abt, who rode in a press car behind Poli on the Ventoux, while covering the Tour that year for The International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. “There was this big lug struggling up the Ventoux. He was just too big and too slow. Everyone expected him to fall down. But he just kept going! It was inexplicable. And then once he crested the Ventoux we were like, ‘My God, he’s going to do it!”
Poli admits that the climb was a struggle. “You know back in the day we didn’t have the same gearing. I climbed the Ventoux that day with a 39X24. That’s not a big gear by today’s standards.
As he cruised into Carpentras that day, Poli himself was unaware of the magnitude of his victory. “I thought I had simply won a stage in the Tour. It took me awhile to realize that winning the Ventoux was different.”
“Poli’s victory on the Ventoux was one of the most inspirational victories I ever witnessed,” say Abt, who covered 31 Tours. “His victories were just so rare. It’s moments like those that make the Tour de France so different from any other bike race. And it shows that any cyclist can do anything, if only they have the imagination.”
Poli’s popularity remained high long after his victory and he actually finished his career on the French GAN and Credit-Agricole teams before driving a VIP car for the Tour de France.
Today, Poli still remains active in cycling, working closely with the inGamba cycling tours and although he now weighs in at a hearty 100 kilos, he still rides nearly every day. “I just rode the Ventoux yesterday and I did it about 20 minutes slower than when I raced it. But that’s okay. Cycling for me is just for fun now!”
Check back daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.