Eritrean cyclist Biniam Girmay has the potential to popularize cycling across all African nations, states his previous coach Jean-Jacques Henry.
During last year’s Giro d’Italia, Girmay, aged 23, became the first black African to secure a Grand Tour stage win, and in June, he claimed victory in the second stage of the Tour de Suisse.
Girmay was initially coached in Europe by Jean-Jacques Henry from the International Cycling Union (UCI), who predicts continued success for Girmay at the Tour de France, commencing on July 1 in Bilbao.
“Although I don’t foresee him winning the general classification, he certainly stands a chance of securing a stage win,” Henry explained to BBC World Service.
“The Tour de France is an even more significant event, and any victory he achieves will resonate with every African nation.
“He is widely celebrated across Africa. All cycling enthusiasts will follow the tour, and should he win, I believe the entire African populace will swell with pride.”
Giro d’Italia to Tour de France
Racing for Team Intermarche, Girmay bested Dutch competitor Mathieu van der Poel in a race to the finish line to secure victory in the Giro d’Italia’s 10th stage, an iconic moment.
The feat was particularly impressive given that it was his inaugural year on the Grand Tour.
Foreshadowing the occasion, Girmay stated that winning a tour stage would rank among cycling’s “finest moments”.
“He’s making people take notice,” 26-year-old Maude le Roux informed the BBC. The South African, along with Ethiopian, Selam Amha Gerefiel, is part of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre (WCC) team in Aigle, Switzerland, where Girmay began his European cycling journey.
“Binyam is highlighting this issue. Teams are beginning to scout talent in Africa, which is extraordinary.
“The fact that he was part of this team gives us confidence in our future prospects, and reassures us that we’re here for a reason,” said Le Roux.
Gerefiel, 26, added: “He’s a role model for us, so I aspire to improve and work as diligently as him.”
In 2022, Girmay became the first black African to win a stage of the Grand Tour at the Giro de Italia.
The World Cycling Championships will take place in Africa for the first time in 2025 in Kigali, Rwanda.
Both the upcoming event in East Africa and Girmay’s growing prominence indicate the sport’s rising influence on the continent.
“Cycling is the most popular sport in Eritrea,” Henry added. “They have the same potential as Kenyans, who excel in athletics.
“If you translate this potential to endurance on a bicycle, they could be world-class competitors.”
So how does the athlete that Henry coached, who has brought African cycling into the spotlight, handle the pressure?
“When he was with us, he was never stressed, quite shy, but the best part was his ability to maintain happiness around everyone. He was always cheerful, something crucial for high-performing athletes: to enjoy life free of stress,” Henry reflected.
“Many athletes are stressed about not performing optimally at the right time, about not meeting their objectives. But he never faced such a predicament.”
Pastries and cobblestones
Among the adjustments Girmay faced related to adapting to life in Europe and the new training routines.
“He first arrived here as a junior in 2018,” Henry recalled. “We had him from July to September to prepare for the World Championship in Innsbruck. Despite it being summer, he found it too cold.
“It was a challenging process preparing him as we had to alter his lifestyle, his routines. You can survive on vegetables or pastries and think ‘OK, it’s good’, but a balance of such foods with carbohydrates or proteins is necessary.”
Another obstacle for Girmay was the road surfaces in Europe. He eventually overcame this when he won the 78th edition of the Gent-Wevelgem one-day classic on Belgium’s infamous cobbled streets.
“He wasn’t a fan of the cobblestones,” Henry stated. “He repeatedly said: ‘I don’t like that. I don’t want to race on cobblestones.’ Now he’s capable of winning such world tour races.
“His perspective has shifted. He’s begun to enjoy it. To win such races, one must find pleasure in those cobbled sections.”
Girmay claimed victory in the second stage of the Tour de Suisse in June, a significant comeback after a major crash at the Tour of Flanders that involved a significant portion of the peloton.
Henry continues to keep a watchful eye on his protégé, describing him as a “distinctive rider and sprinter” but cautioning he’s “not a pure climber, he will struggle in high mountains”.
However, Henry believes that Girmay’s impact on the sport is just beginning.
“Post his career, he can aid in the development of cycling in Africa, especially in Eritrea, sharing his experiences.
“He has the potential to become a symbol that African athletes can achieve success in Europe and in the world’s top races.”
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Biniam Girmay
Who is Biniam Girmay?
Biniam Girmay is an Eritrean cyclist who made history as the first black African to win a Grand Tour stage during last year’s Giro d’Italia. He is also the winner of the second stage of the Tour de Suisse in June.
What has Girmay’s impact been on African cycling?
Girmay’s success has helped popularize cycling across all African nations. His achievements are encouraging teams to scout for cycling talent in Africa and his journey gives hope to other African cyclists attempting to break into Europe.
How did Girmay adapt to European cycling?
Girmay faced challenges adjusting to the European lifestyle and training routines, especially dealing with the colder weather and different road surfaces, such as cobblestones. However, he overcame these hurdles and won the Gent-Wevelgem one-day classic race on Belgium’s infamous cobbled streets.
What does the future hold for Biniam Girmay?
Girmay’s former coach, Jean-Jacques Henry, predicts continued success for him at the Tour de France. He also believes that Girmay’s impact on cycling is only just beginning and that he could become a symbol for African athletes seeking success in Europe and in the world’s top races.
Where will the World Cycling Championships be held in 2025?
The World Cycling Championships will take place in Africa for the first time in 2025, specifically in Kigali, Rwanda.