Home Cycling Tour de France: Biniam Girmay Pioneering a Transformation in Cycling

Tour de France: Biniam Girmay Pioneering a Transformation in Cycling

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Biniam Girmay

In June, Biniam Girmay surges past his competition to claim victory in the second stage of the Tour de Suisse, while the Eritrean flags whip in the wind behind him.

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In the blistering heat of the Swiss sun, Biniam Girmay takes a break, leaning on his handlebars, his muscular right leg positioned to keep him steady as he offers pre-race interviews.

He doesn’t appear different from any other competitor leisurely pedalling through the swarm of microphones on bikes worth approximately £15,000 – all prancing like racehorses on display.

However, Girmay, who hails from Eritrea, is one of merely six black African cyclists in the top-level World Tour peloton of 534, predominantly white, riders.

Girmay’s exceptional talent sets him apart. Last year, he broke records by becoming the first black African to win a one-day cobbled classic – in Gent-Wevelgem – and a stage of cycling’s second largest Grand Tour race – the Giro d’Italia.

He’s also thrilling to watch. Girmay is a Mark Cavendish-type sprinter, known for victories on flat or slightly hilly stages.

TUNE IN: Biniam Girmay – Africa’s emerging cycling champion

This 23-year-old is in scenic Tafers, a prosperous Swiss village surrounded by vibrant Alpine meadows. It serves as the starting point for the third stage of the Tour de Suisse, an essential precursor to the Tour de France. The world may witness Girmay shatter even more records by becoming the first black African to win a stage of cycling’s most prestigious race.

“I can hardly comprehend it…” he says, his face shielded by mirrored sunglasses, a large grin on his face. “I can’t estimate how monumental it would be for an African cyclist to win a stage of the Tour de France – it would be astounding.”

Girmay’s inclusive ‘us’ might have been inspired by the events of the previous day when he secured his first Tour de Suisse stage win in a high-speed group sprint.

As he crossed the finish line, a cluster of Eritreans swarmed around him, adorning him with the national flag as they ran beside his still-moving bike, shouting his name. One even held an umbrella over his head. If it were feasible, they might have carried him back to the team bus on a sedan chair.

Girmay, who still resides in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, evidently maintains a strong bond with his compatriots.

The potential ramifications of Girmay’s talent and subsequent achievements are fascinating. Many believe his triumphs will instigate a shift in a sport that struggles with diversity. Africa’s role in the sport could evolve from producing riders to producing champions.

Among the six black African riders in the World Tour peloton, two are from Ethiopia, but the rest, like Girmay, are Eritrean.

This represents one tiny (with a population of around 3.7m) and impoverished (ranked 13th lowest in the World Bank’s global rankings of GDP per capita) nation, punching above its weight on a continent of 1.2bn people.

Girmay, a family man, has defied the typical path of a professional cyclist living in places like Andorra or Monaco, choosing instead to stay in Asmara – Eritrea’s capital. Thanks in part to over 50 years of Italian colonial rule, cycling is deeply rooted in the culture of the city and the nation as a whole.

“Cycling is in our DNA,” Girmay asserts. “When did I first ride a bike? I can’t recall. I was tiny – three years old. Very tiny.”

“In our country, cycling is as popular as football. I admire Lionel Messi, but I choose Biniam Girmay,” one Eritrean fan declares nearby.

“It’s part of our culture,” says another, as the crowd continues to grow. Even toddlers barely two years old join the gathering, circling us on their miniature balance bikes.

“Every child is raised with a bike. Their first gift is a bike – we use it for commuting to school, work… everyone owns a bike. If you visit Eritrea, you’ll see.”

However, the challenge lies in actually getting to Eritrea. For many westerners, it is a tough, almost impossible task. It’s a heavily militarized single-party state under the 30-year reign of President Isaias Afwerki.

The populace is required to serve in the military for decades and the government exerts control over numerous aspects of their lives. It ranks sixth from the bottom in the World Press Freedom Index, a gauge of the world’s media independence.

In 2000, when Girmay was born in Asmara, Eritrea was at war with Ethiopia, its neighbour. The tension from this conflict has persisted throughout his and his five siblings’ childhoods.

The ongoing conflict in Tigray, a secessionist region in Ethiopia bordering Eritrea, continues to involve Eritrean troops.

“In 2020, all my friends went to war,” says Selam Amha Gerefiel, a cyclist from Tigray.

“Some of my friends perished, some survived but lost limbs. It was hard, so I couldn’t stay.

“I had a friend – we spent great times together – we trained every day, visited coffee shops, went everywhere together, and I lost him because of the war.

“I can’t get close to people; I form bonds, and then they die.”

Gerefiel managed to escape and is now part of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre (WCC). This flagship facility of the world’s cycling governing body, located an hour from Tafers, is nestled among snowy mountains and a pristine blue river.

Gerefiel’s story is heart-wrenching and not an easy one for her to recall over quinoa and pan-seared sea bass in the Centre’s restaurant, just a table away from where president David Lappartient entertains his guests.

The contrast is stark, to say the least. But the Aigle-Martigny based WCC has an open-door policy, dedicated to providing a safe environment for athletes who need it to flourish.

“I am the second-oldest in my family, so I needed to go to war,” continues Gerefiel.

“But then I arrived here in Switzerland, and it’s better, but mentally hard for me. When I go to training, I am on the bike but my mind is about my family, where they are, if they’re alive or dead… I didn’t know.

“When I’m on my bike for training, it feels better. I have a good feeling on the bike – it’s better than staying indoors.”

Selam Amha Gerefiel competed in last year’s road world championships in Australia, donning the colours of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre

Girmay is not just a teacher,

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Biniam Girmay

Who is Biniam Girmay?

Biniam Girmay is a groundbreaking Eritrean cyclist who has made history as one of the finest talents in the sport. He became the first black African to win a one-day cobbled classic in Gent-Wevelgem and a stage of cycling’s second biggest Grand Tour race, the Giro d’Italia.

How is Biniam Girmay leading a revolution in cycling?

Biniam Girmay is pioneering a shift in the sport of cycling, increasing representation and encouraging diversity. As one of only six black African riders in the top-level World Tour peloton, he stands out not only for his talent but also as a symbol of change.

What notable achievements does Biniam Girmay have?

In the previous year, Biniam Girmay made history as the first black African to win a one-day cobbled classic in Gent-Wevelgem and a stage of the Giro d’Italia. He also won the second stage of the Tour de Suisse.

Where does Biniam Girmay live?

Girmay resides in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, despite the typical path of professional cyclists to relocate to areas like Andorra or Monaco.

How is Girmay perceived in his home country?

In Eritrea, Girmay is adored and highly respected. His compatriots celebrate his victories and are evidently proud of his achievements. His success has placed Eritrea on the cycling map for reasons other than its history of conflict.

More about Biniam Girmay

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PedalPusher91 July 14, 2023 - 12:08 pm

What a talent! Biniam Girmay is the real deal, watch out world cycling! And hats off to WCC for supporting such talent.

JakeTheBiker July 14, 2023 - 3:51 pm

Wow! Girmay’s journey is truly inspiring, shows how talent can come from anywhere!

AmandaC July 14, 2023 - 5:22 pm

didnt know much about Eritrean cycling before this. thanks for the enlightenment, biniam girmay, keep making history!

EritreanPride July 14, 2023 - 8:00 pm

It’s awesome to see an Eritrean doing so well on the world stage. Biniam’s success is truly a source of national pride.

CobblestoneFanatic July 14, 2023 - 8:02 pm

Girmay tackling the cobbles and winning is simply amazing. Can’t wait to see him in the Tour de France!


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