‘If it’s hard for a European rider, it’s harder for us’ – Eritrea’s Biniam Girmay, knocking down walls in cycling

There has perhaps never been an African cyclist more likely to succeed than Biniam Girmay, introduced on The Cycling Show as “the boy from Asmara, the hope for an entire continent”.

After clocking up some eye-catching results for ProContinental outfit, Delko, the 21-year-old signed for Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux in September last year. Just weeks later, in the under-23 World Championship road race, Girmay was making history. A brilliant sprint for second place saw him become the first black African to stand on the podium at a World Championships.

“It was a big moment for me,” he says, “for my continent, for Eritrea and especially for black cycling, to show our potential to the world.”

“Show” is correct, because it’s not like it’s not always been there. And as proud as Girmay is to be the one to have broken through this particular barrier, it is not lost on him that it should have been knocked down a long time ago.

“In a lot of races I’m the only black rider in the peloton. If it’s hard for a European rider, it’s harder for us.”

Which is why we worded the opening sentence of this article in the very particular way that we did.

For the idea that sport is completely meritocratic, that talent and a strong work ethic are all you need to have a glittering career, is one surely now held onto only by a few. While Girmay is certainly a top tier talent, one prepared to push himself as hard as anyone around, so have other riders from the oldest continent. The difference is, unlike Girmay, they may not have been given the same opportunities. It is only his presence at the table that is rare.

“Of course we work hard,” he says, “but you need someone to see you, to see your potential.”

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The scouting and coaching staff at Wanty certainly saw his potential, signing Girmay up on a four-year contract after Delko pulled down the shutters last summer.

Girmay has wasted no time in his first full season as a WorldTour rider. Winning ways began for the 21 year-old at the 15th Trofeo Alcudia, part of Challenge Mallorca, only his second start of the year.

He has since picked up an impressive string of results, including three top 10 finishes at Paris-Nice, and a 10th place finish in Milano-Torino last week. Perhaps most impressive of all was 12th at Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, ahead of former winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers) and Primoz Roglic (Jumbo Visma).

His next target is just over two month away, and it’s a big one:

“The Giro [d’Italia],” he says. “ It will be my first Grand Tour.”

More than any other races, he says, back home in Asmara, “everybody watches the Grand Tours in the afternoon. Some people even stop their job and they just watch the Giro d’Italia.”

The upside to all the pressure that will come with, he says, is that “it gives you more motivation.”

Which is not to say that Girmay, or his colleagues, are at all short of the stuff to begin with: “There’s a lot of motivation on this team.”

He is already looking even further down the road, towards the World Championships in Rwanda in 2025. It will be the first time an African country has hosted cycling’s big show.

“It’s really important for us, for African cycling, to grow, to become more. There are no WorldTour races, or a lot of teams there.”

But there’s no reason why there can’t, or indeed won’t be in the future,

“I think our future is bright,” says Girmay. “This is the beginning, and I have to continue. It’s now that the door is open.”

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