On Sunday, Eritrean cyclist Biniam Girmay won the Ghent-Wevelgem, one of the main one-day races of the international season, aged 21. To everyone’s surprise, he becomes the first African cyclist to win one of the so-called “classics” which are held in the spring between Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. For his second year as a professional, Girmay has thus added himself to the illustrious list of riders who have won it in its 83 previous editions, among the greatest cyclists of all time such as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Francesco Moser, Tom Boonen, Mario Cipollini and Peter Sagan.
In sport, many cultural and geographical barriers are still consolidated and especially in professional cycling, a discipline which remains mainly linked to Europe and the United States and which is almost absent in many parts of the world. Africa is one of them, especially in its sub-Saharan part, where despite the fact that bicycles are widespread as elsewhere, there is a lack of resources, means and knowledge for professionalism.
For a few years, however, Eritrea – a country which unsurprisingly has a great tradition in cross-country athletics competitions – has emerged in African cycling with a new generation of athletes represented in particular by Girmay. Over the past decade, five different Eritrean riders have been voted African Cyclists of the Year. Last season, Girmay had it for the second time in a row, mainly thanks to the victory of the silver medal in the road event of the Youth World Cup in Belgium.
Girmay also races for a Belgian team, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, but most of the year he lives in San Marino with three other Eritrean riders. When he is not in San Marino – he lived until recently in Tuscany – he often trains in Eritrea, near the capital Asmara, where he was born in 2000.
He will be back shortly to prepare for his participation in the next Giro d’Italia, which will start on May 6 from Budapest, Hungary. Given his latest results, he could add some important rankings: it was only in March that he finished tenth in Milan-Turin, twelfth in Milan-Sanremo and fifth in the Saxo Bank Classic in Belgium, all one day races.
Last October, after winning silver at the World Cup, he had Told : “The percentage of African cyclists is still very low, we are talking about one rider per year who becomes a professional. My silver medal did not come overnight. I started training years ago with the UCI at the World Cycling Center, experienced riding in groups and on narrow roads, and learned different types of racing. But that’s just me: a lot of my teammates only come to race at the World Championships. In this way, it is not possible to obtain results, it takes time to learn to run and you have to start young”.
So far, the most important result obtained by a cyclist from sub-Saharan Africa was the polka dot jersey for best climber obtained in 2015 by another Eritrean, Daniel Teklehaimanot, during the Tour de France. The latter is also one of Girmay’s main goals, but he considers himself more inclined to one-day races: “For me and for all Eritrean riders, the Tour de France is the dream race, with Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix”.