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Aérogramme 2016

Aérogramme: Poli’s Memorable Masterpiece­

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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.

09_Eros POLI_L'Eroica_Giro_10_2015_DSC_2589_low_qual

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.