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Meet Biniam Girmay – Eritrean sprinter, humble champion

Meet Biniam Girmay – Eritrean sprinter, humble champion

Biniam Girmay Hailu is only 21 years old but he is quickly rising through the ranks of pro cycling. With his silver medal in the U23 road race at the World Championships in Leuven last year, he was the first rider of color to step onto the podium. He returned to Eritrea a hero.

His 2022 season, his first full year in the WorldTour with Belgian outfit Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, got off to a flying start with a win in Mallorca on Thursday.

Girmay comes across as a humble man, an old soul too. “In the family we all look like old men,” he says with a smile. He comes from Asmara, the capital of Eritrea in East Africa. His father is an avid cycling fan but little Biniam’s interest was in football first. He was part of the school team.

“Cycling is one of the sports in my country,” he tells me over Zoom from a team training camp in Spain. “Everyone loves the sport including me but when I was 10 or 11 years old, I preferred football. My older brother was cycling by then and then my dad gently pushed me towards the sport and a race.”

Girmay smiles shyly at the memory of his childhood.

“There are races every weekend in Eritrea and around Asmara once every two months,” he says. “When I started cycling, I was about 13 years old. My brother gave me his bike and we went for a little coffee ride. That’s when I gradually started to feel the passion.

“My dad then bought me a new bike. I remember it was very expensive. My dad owns a small carpentry business and I joined him sometimes. It was a 10-kilometre ride to work only but it sparked the motivation.”

From Eritrea, Girmay moved to the World Cycling Centre (WCC) in Aigle, Switzerland when he was a junior rider. The WCC is an institute founded by the UCI to help riders from countries without a strong established cycling culture or fewer economic opportunities. From their home base adjacent to the UCI headquarters, the junior and elite teams get a varied program of international races.

Girmay made waves as a junior, as one of the only riders able to beat Remco Evenepoel in his dominant season as a second-year junior in 2018. That season Evenepoel only lost 10 races out of 30 individual starts.

“It was very difficult coming from African races to Europe,” Girmay remembers. “I joined the WCC team as a first-year junior and that helped me improve so much. It’s important to get that experience and to be able to learn everything about cycling.”

His junior results include a top 15 at the World Championships, and podium places and a stage win in the renowned junior stage races GP Ruebliland in Switzerland and Aubel-Thimister-Stavelot in the Belgian Ardennes. Girmay also finished in the top five of two prestigious one-day junior races in Italy. The big WorldTour teams, however, were not lining up to sign him to their main or development teams.

He therefore stayed for another year with the World Cycling Centre team. He took stage wins in the two biggest African races, Tour du Rwanda and Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon. He rode and finished the Tour de l’Avenir with a fifth place in the final mountain stage.

Meet Biniam Girmay – Eritrean sprinter, humble champion

The top 10 on that stage reads like a who’s who of the most talented riders. Seven of them moved to a WorldTour team the year after but Girmay eventually signed a four-year pro contract with the smallest of the French second-division teams, Delko, and based himself in Provence.

It’s not easy for African riders to get onto the radar of the bigger, Europe-based teams. According to Girmay, it’s actually getting more difficult now. He regrets that fellow African riders currently have even fewer options to make it to Europe than he had in 2018.

“There is so much passion in young riders from Eritrea but if you want to become pro you need to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right moment,” he explains. “You need to be seen. There are many local races and only a few big races like Rwanda and Gabon. That’s the moment to show yourself to European teams.

“If we want more Black riders the European Continental teams need to start watching African cycling more. It’s all about being seen and getting a chance in Europe.

“It takes a lot of investments from yourself and your family. It’s not a cheap sport with bikes, spares, etc. My dad paid for my first bike. The UCI invested a lot in African cycling but I think they stopped the junior and U23 program due to COVID. Even Qhubeka stopped because of less money. I regret to say it’s even more difficult for African riders now.”

When it became clear the Delko team would fold in 2021, Belgian WorldTour team Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert picked up the Eritrean hopeful and offered him a four-year deal. By then his fame had risen and other teams like Trek-Segafredo, UAE Emirates, and Deceuninck-Quickstep were eager to sign him.

His debut in the Tour of Poland was a promising one and after only a month on the team, Girmay rewarded the faith put in him with a win, at the UCI 1.1 Classic Grand Besançon Doubs.

Girmay married young and is father to daughter Liela who turns one in March. He is a humble man, a man of faith. He knows what he wants but completely lacks the boastful nature a man with his sporting talent often has.

“It’s not just me – in my country they don’t like people who boast,” he says, “They like the quiet and easy life. I know where I come from. It’s important not to forget that. In the race I am different though. I am totally crazy. It’s the job I need to do. If I feel good, I tell my teammates, and if I don’t, I tell them too. Inside the race I am in focus and a different guy. I just want to win.

“I know what I am good at better than last year already,” he says about his progress. “In the junior ranks when I was back in Eritrea, we only had one-day races. Then you have to be smart and position well. You have to be a Classics rider. We only had one chance [to show ourselves] in the one-day races. I lost often but also learned a lot and won a lot in the junior ranks and with Delko.”

Girmay’s big dream, besides winning a Tour de France stage, is riding the Classics and most of all Paris-Roubaix, a race he followed since he was young. In 2019 he finished 48th in the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs, as a first-year U23. He wants to get better at one-day races and knows what he needs to do to make that happen.

“My coach at WCC, Jean Jacques, always said there are many good Eritrean cyclists but they are not good in positioning,” he says. “They don’t know how to win. He told me: ‘I know one thing: if you want to stay in cycling, focus on the Classics’. In the beginning I need to learn a lot. There is a huge difference between junior/U23 and WorldTour but when I see myself in a race now, I think I am not bad. I think it’s in me.”

Girmay will make his Grand Tour debut this season. Before starting the Giro d’Italia in May he will focus on races in March, most notably Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo. The goal is to use his strong positioning and sprint skills in the finals. At Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert he gets a dedicated group of riders around him to be as fresh as possible in those finals.

“I need someone to position me in the last five kilometres,” he says. “In all my sprint top 10s I come from behind when someone dropped me at five kilometres to go. Then I pass everyone in the final. I need someone to get me from five to the final kilometre, to position me better. For the future we work with three or four guys in the same races with me and fight for the podium or the win.”

That work seems to be paying off already. On Thursday, in Girmay’s second race of the season, his Hungarian teammate Barnabas Peak delivered Girmay exactly where he needed to be in the Trofeo Alcudía. He beat renowned sprinters like Giacomo Nizzolo, Michael Matthews, and Pascal Ackermann to take the win.

As well as being a fast sprinter, Girmay is also a rider suited to the Ardennes Classics, races that are traditionally very important for his Wallonia-based team. This year he won’t be in either Liège-Bastogne-Liège or the Flèche Wallonne but the team might send him to Amstel Gold Race.

And speaking of that team, it seems Girmay feels right at home with Intermarché.

“It’s really a family,” he says. “The atmosphere is great and everyone is very close. They are always here to help me and support me. I spend most of the year alone in Europe. I live in San Marino with my friends but when I race, I am alone. The staff really care about me. I don’t have words for it. I am just grateful to be here.”

Girmay moved from Italy to San Marino with his countrymen Natnael Berhane, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier (Trek-Segafredo), and Natnael Tesfatsion (Drone Hopper) this winter. The older Eritrean riders help him with advice, just as they did when he was still a junior.

“Berhane really taught me a lot about riding and racing in Europe,” Girmay says. “We all come from Asmara and we are close friends. Before I moved to Europe, they gave me all sorts of advice like learning languages. If I need anything they help me. They are really good guys. I still learn from them and they are my family away from home.”

Cycling is hugely popular in Eritrea. It is a war-ravaged country and Eritreans fled the country and settled around the world as refugees. The colorful Eritrean flag can be seen at nearly every race and the support for their riders is enormous.

“I have become a bit more famous after the [2021] World Championships [where he was second in the U23 road race] but I don’t really like the spotlight and the media,” he says. “I want to have a ‘tranquilo’ life but after the World Championships there was a lot of attention,” he says with a smile.

There’s another Worlds in a few years that might be even more significant.

“The World Championships in Rwanda in 2025 mean a lot [for African cycling],” Girmay says. “The moment they announced it, everyone was becoming really excited. Even now we see a lot of young riders starting in the sport.

“The main key is to find a team in Europe and be noticed. I am still young but an example in Black cycling. There will be a Black world champion, I am sure, but I don’t know if that’s me.”

#Biniam Ghirmay