Guest story by Buzz Yancich who visited and rode with my friend Eros Poli in Verona.
"The Eros Poli / Verona Experience"
Last August found us in Verona preparing to start our long awaited Dolomiti Epic with Andy Hampsten of Cinghiale.com Cycling Tours. As some of us were planning to arrive in Verona a week before the start of our Dolomite adventure Andy put my friends Bob and Susan Long of Pasadena, California in contact with Verona resident Eros Poli to arrange for several days of guided riding in the Veneto region. I happened to be arriving in Verona early and by pure good fortune or perhaps fate was invited to tag along for an exclusive three days of riding with Eros.
But before we even got on our bikes we had to learn what cycling in Italy is really about. Yes, the roads and routes are superlative – amazing really. But if all you did was fly to Italy and jump on your bike and pound out miles and elevation you would miss the true essence of the Italian cycling experience. We didn’t know it at the time but we were all headed for a recalibration, so to speak, of our outlook. That meant slowing down, relaxing, soaking in the incomparable atmosphere, and letting go.
Within hours of arriving in Verona we quickly fell under the spell of the city and that of one Eros Poli. If you have been reading this site you now know of Verona resident Eros Poli: Olympic Gold Medalist, World Champion, ex professional rider and hero/winner of the Mont Ventoux stage of the 1994 Tour de France. But that introduction does nothing to truly describe the man himself: A gentleman in the truest sense, bon vivant and raconteur of all things Verona who is recognized in almost every corner of the region.
When my wife Maria and I arrived at our hotel in Verona we found a note waiting for us. It was from “Your tour guide – Eros” asking that we call him upon our arrival. I am sure glad that we did because an hour later Eros and his lovely daughter arrived at our hotel for a guided walking tour of Verona and introduced us to the concept of appertivos, that magical time of the Veronese evening when everyone comes out to relax, enjoy a drink – in our case Aperol Spritzes, and nosh on some great appetizers. But it didn’t stop there – the rest of the evening was a blur of bars, restaurants and colorful characters. What a night!
History recorded: Buzz’s first and second Spritz Aperol
A few appetizers to go with the appertivos
My wife and I had been traveling in Europe for a week before arriving in Verona and I was getting nervous about not having been on my bike – especially because our trip to the Dolomites with Hampsten was looming large in my mind. Eros told me to relax. “You will be okay. Listen, Verona is a romantic city – you and your wife should enjoy yourselves.” So that is what we did. It was our tenth anniversary and wouldn’t you know it that somewhere during that crazy first night Eros arranged a special dinner reservation for us and recommended an itinerary and with all the introductions of the first night set us on our way to explore Verona.
Spritizing in the Piazza della Erbe
Verona is not likely on everyone’s list for visiting when traveling to Italy but it should be. The city has an impressively laid out old town section replete with a Roman Arena and the Piazza delle Erbe along with countless other historical and cultural venues. It is ideally set up for walking and exploring and its summer season is set up around the nightly open-air opera performances at the Arena. But it is by no means just an old historical city. It has a vibrant population with a refined identity of itself.
When in Verona - A night at the Opera
I sent out an email to my friends telling them to prepare for an adventure. This guy Eros was really cool. In fact, what followed was an introduction to cycling in Italy that I doubt will ever be replicated.
On our first day of riding Eros met us at Bob and Susan’s hotel, the incomparable Villa del Quar, on the outskirts of Verona and immediately presented us with some jerseys from a recent club outing he organized to the French Alps. Neat. It was the first of many surprises that Eros had in store for us.
We saddled up and hit the road – direction and destination unknown. None of use would qualify as “racers” but that truly did not matter to Eros. His vision for us was to ride at a relaxed pace, immerse ourselves in the joys of Italian cycling and make sure to enjoy the tastes, smells and views along the way. We were not equipped with a map and simply left it to Eros to guide us around at his best judgment. Within minutes we found ourselves diving down side roads and through small villages along the same routes Eros trained and raced as a young man. We commented to ourselves that if we became separated from Eros it would be tough to find our way back. But, of course, that never happened. Sometimes, you have to just let yourself go and we knew instinctively to trust Eros’ judgment.
What followed was a sensational experience that is almost too difficult for words to convey. Each road and bend that we cornered or little town we encountered held a new discovery. Along the way we talked, not just about bicycling or racing – (Eros had many wonderful stories for us) but also on family, life and the culture and history of the Verona region. His comments were priceless: When we came to a stop he would ask us “Did you see that family sitting together enjoying their afternoon meal on their patio? That is so beautiful!” or “Look at the stone architecture of that church.” or “Did you hear the old lady yell out “Forza, Forza” when we climbed through that last town?” (We had).
Over the next four days we opened our minds and bellies up. We ate horse meat – a Veronese specialty, beef tongue –regular or aromatic (we never did quite figure out that one), continued our daily intake of Aperol Spritzes, consumed many bottles of Amarone and of course our nightly Grappas.
The riding itself was sublime. The roads around Verona are true gems that wind their way through vineyards and villages, into the nearby hills and forests and up mountains.
The finest cycling roads in the world? You may find them on the outskirts of Verona.
We were going along one such road when Eros pulled to a stop underneath a tree, and then reached into it for a surprise. He smiled and told us “I know that Americans like Powerbars for energy but, for me, fresh figs are much better!” He opened his hands and presented us with the most delicious, just picked figs we have ever eaten. He seemed to know where every fig tree and water fountain was located as they became regular stops for us no matter what region we were riding that day.
Eros Poli - refilling his bottle. P.S. Check out the size of his thigh.
Susan and Bob with Eros. Even just sitting there he looks like he is going 40 mph
We also spent a day riding at nearby Lake Garda, which offers a whole different scenic vista.
In the hills above Lake Garda
And a chance for more appertivos!
A highlight was meeting Eros’ first coach (one very unique man) and his charming wife at their beautiful home and vineyard on a hillside above the Valpolicello valley. Of course this meant a full assortment of drinks, food, and sandwiches for later in the day. How about some fresh wine from the vineyard– after all it is already 9:30 am! On our return back to our hotel we found a couple of liters of the coach’s homemade olive oil waiting for us. (A bottle sits in our home as treasured as any fine wine and only comes out only for specials occasions or guests).
At the coach’s house. Eros is a huge guy. For reference Bob and I both stand over 6’2” tall.
At the coach’s house. Eros is a huge guy. For reference Bob and I both stand over 6’2” tall.
True story: On the night before our last day of riding I stopped in a wine store to buy Eros a nice bottle of Grappa as a way of expressing our thanks to him. The store had an impressive selection of 50 or so Grappas that were shelved almost up to the ceiling (the higher the better.) I explained to the proprietor that I wanted to get a nice bottle for a Veronese man that had befriended us. He picked what looked to be a decent Grappa out about mid way up the wall and handed it to me. He asked me who my Veronese friend was: I said “Eros Poli.”
I’m not kidding when I tell you that without saying a word he took the bottle out of my hand, replaced it on the shelf and then reached up a couple of shelves higher and retrieved a different bottle: “This one is better for Eros!” Let me get you a nice box, here is a little card – please tell him that you bought this here at my store.” Such is the regard that Eros is held in his town.
The last day of riding was particularly memorable not just for the entire day of riding but the way it ended. After an absolutely epic day Eros and I dropped Bob and Susan at their hotel and continued our ride back to Verona alongside the Fiume Adige. It was a beautiful, warm summer afternoon the kind you might see depicted in an 18th century oil painting.
Eros ramped up the pace and the two of us were soon flying along the road. In those moments I rode a few inches off his back wheel – the same wheel that Mario Cipollini relied upon to pull him to his many victories and the same wheel that conquered Mont Ventoux elevating Eros to a special place in Tour history. I imagined all of the sacrifices that Eros told us about, the tens of thousands of hard kilometers as a professional and the moments of glory when he seized the day and brought great honor and victory not just to himself but to his family and region. Pretty cool stuff.
Before you knew it we arrived in Verona and the daydream was over. We stopped to say good-bye and it was there that Eros told me something that I will always remember. He said, “You know Buzz, I think you and Bob and Susan had a good experience with me…but I want you to know this: I enjoyed spending time with each of you just as much, if not more than you spent with me. This was very special for me – a real experience. Maybe we will see each other again in life, okay?”
With that, Eros gave me a hug, flashed that big smile of his along with a “Ciao” and after a few turns of his pedals disappeared across a bridge towards his home.
Quite an introduction to cycling in Italy!
Next up: partying on the Gavia with no less than 1988 Giro winner Andy Hampsten!
Eros would be happy to work with you to put a tour together, see: