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Giant Killer

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

Eros Poli takes the magazine and runs his fingers over the words. 1: that’s him. The epitome.
“Not everybody is a champion,” he says, unprompted. “A 1 is not a champion. Under the same stress, the same pain in the legs – maybe more. A lot more sometimes!”  He laughs, as he does a lot over the next 90 minutes. “But sometimes, a 1 can have a glory day.”
On a rainy February day in West London, the Bull’s Head in Barnes has a cycling cult hero in its midst. He holds court at a La Fuga lunch, warming the party with his tales and friendly air.
They called him Eros, although the priest took some convincing. It was seen as pagan, Greek, odd. Poli’s father, an Alpine soldier in the 1950s, named him after an army captain in his division.
The young Eros, raised among the fruit orchards of the Verona countryside, was active, playing volleyball and football. He turned to cycling at the age of 11, when the Italian petrol crisis of 1973 bit hard – and when his height made calcio impossible. ”I couldn’t find big enough football boots. At the time, everyone was so small. I already had size 47 feet .”
Poli’s huge engine was clear from the start of his career. A fine pursuit rider, he was called up for the 1980 Mexico world championships while still at school.
He quickly opted to mix work in the local power station with cycling. At the next Olympics in 1984, Poli won Olympic team time trial gold. He was happy to stay amateur through the 1980s, treated well in the Italian national squad and competing in the biggest semi-pro races.
Poli turned pro in 1991, at the late age of 27, with Del Tongo, linking up with his former team-mate, the rapid and roguish Mario Cipollini. On his first day as a professional at the Etoile de Bessèges, Poli’s strong lead-out helped his compatriot to victory. “From that day, Mario said ‘you always be one of the last men, always just do the last kilometre’.”
His path as a gregario, a worker sacrificing himself for the leader, was set. It suited Eros, good but unspectacular in both sprints and time-trials. But in April 1994, Cipollini had a bad fall at the Vuelta and missed the Tour de France. His Italian Mercatone Uno squad went to the race without a star and Eros Poli had his chance to break away.
July 18, 1994, and the 231-kilometre fifteenth stage between Montpellier and Carpentras, via the vicious Ventoux. It was a sweltering day, touching 35 degrees. Poli went well in the heat.
“When it’s so hot, if you go fast, 45km/h, you have just enough ventilation to stay cool. But the moment you stop riding and go 30, 35, it’s hard.”
He remembers attacking after 60 kilometres and looking back to see Carrera and Festina chasing him down for their respective leaders, Marco Pantani and Richard Virenque.
“They were all grimpeurs, climbers. Ten grimpeurs couldn’t catch me because I could ride at 47km/h on the flat, no problem. They said ‘it doesn’t make sense to destroy a team to chase a guy like Poli. Everyone knows Poli, we’re going to catch him at the end, and he’s no danger for the classification’.”
This kind of bid suited Poli. As his lead widened, he became increasingly parched. His Mercatone Uno team car was still back in the bunch, handing out water to his thirsty team-mates. Desperate, Poli took the ersatz option: a hot can of Fanta that had been rolling around the following Mavic vehicle. Behind, the sweaty bunch dithered and the gap continued to grow.
As one of the drivers of the gruppetto, charged with getting the motley backmarker group of sprinters, domestiques and 1s inside the time limit on Tour mountain days, Poli had a head for numbers. He reckoned that at the foot of the Ventoux, he’d need 22 minutes advantage: practically one for every infernal kilometre. That day, he arrived at the foot of the climb with three more in hand. This barmy break might just last…
On the first kilometres of the mountain, he was gripped by fear. “I heard the helicopter arriving, its rotor blades. Whup, whup, whup! I had no information and couldn’t hear in the noise on Ventoux. I thought ‘fuck! Pantani’s coming already!’ Then I realised it was okay.”
And it was, until he got to Chalet Reynard, where the scant Ventoux vegetation gives way to exposed scree slopes. “I tried to keep to 15 km/h, thinking that the contenders climb at 22, 23, 24. So I looked at the computer… 14, 12, 9…”
Eros pauses. He has to head across town to his next engagement. Three of us squeeze into the back of a taxi and the big man winds up crammed into the middle seat. No complaints: he’s a big man in every respect.
“Nine, eight, seven kilometres an hour,” he continues. “Single figures, it was one of the only times in my cycling career.”
Then a much-needed tailwind came to his aid, giving the 194-centimetre 1 a chance to get on top of a bigger gear. He nearly wrenched the bike over too hard on the final corner of Ventoux, inching his way to the top. It looked agonising and incompatible, this muscular man bullying a bicycle up the last steep slope to conquer the infamous Tour climb.
“It was an honour for me. Crossing a mountain first was a childhood dream – normally, I was the last one!” he laughs. “People would push the other guys in the gruppetto but when I shouted ‘push!’, they’d be tired and go ‘No, you’re too heavy’.”
The TV cameras were occupied by Marco Pantani’s progress behind. His compatriot was next over the summit, 4-30 down.
There were still 40 kilometres to the stage end in Carpentras, but Poli was confident. “I could breathe again, I was on my terrain, the flat. I thought: ‘It’s done’.”
As he approached the finish line, he celebrated by waving his visor and launching it into the air with a flourish.
“It was like playing a concert – at the end you do something, my way of saying thanks to the people,” he says.
Poli’s win – his only as a professional rider – has gone down in Tour folklore as one of the great underdog triumphs. The giant on a lone breakaway had won in the domain of the climbers, defying all logic and expectation.
Eros must have relived this day a thousand times since, but he seems as earnest and passionate as the first telling.
 “I can’t believe it, that I won this stage,” he says. “I start thinking: Gaul, Merckx, Froome… Eros Poli? Just the name is great: Eros, the god of love!”
After the 1994 Tour, he continued to be a key compartment of the Saeco lead-out train, ramping up the pace for the prolific Mario Cipollini with the likes of Mario Scirea and Giuseppe Calcaterra. He was so good, so confident of staying upright in the hectic finales, that he didn’t race with a helmet until his final season. “The fighting was all behind Cipollini. That’s where it’s dangerous,” he reflects.
In 1997, Poli became a rare Italian on a French team, signing for Gan. His hand had been forced. “Cipollini forgot about me,” he says. “When it was the moment to do contracts, he did nothing for me. He’s a leader, he’s full of himself. I think it was probably because I’d become popular among the team.”
Poli retired in 2000 to a run a bar-brasserie in Verona, but he has stayed in touch with the cycling fraternity. He shows me a WhatsApp conversation full of past and present professionals. It’s a who’s who of the Italian scene: Fabio Baldato, Matteo Tosatto, Viviani, Quinziato, Pozzato.
“Pozzato has the class, a Cipollini mentality but stronger – but he likes the bella vita too much,” he says with a smile.
We’re back from the Provençal reverie, and the rain is still falling in London. As we approach Eros’s stopping point, one more question remains: what will he do to celebrate today, the twentieth anniversary of his unlikely victory?
Ever the calculator, Eros has a plan. He’ll return to Mont Ventoux with some old mates, also stars of the 1994 Tour.
“Flavio Vanzella, the yellow jersey guy [for three days], is a winemaker and his job is to bring prosecco. Then there’s Nicola Minali, winner of the Portsmouth stage that year: he’s bringing rice and meat for a special Veronese risotto. Then there is a younger guy, an ex-professional rider, born in 1984, the year I won Olympic gold. He’s bringing the beer.”
And Eros? He’ll take his bike and the memories. Sure, the years tick by and that cycle computer speed reading won’t be getting any higher: maybe nine, eight, seven again. But Eros will never tire of telling his companions the story of a 1 who, just once, had his glory day.
Eros Poli was supporting La Fuga’s Haute Route.

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