Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) becomes the first African to win a Belgian Classic with historic Gent-Wevelgem victory.

It’s a big day for cycling as Biniam Girmay makes history at Gent-Wevelgem

The Eritrean sprinter took the biggest win of his career in the four-man sprint, showing he not only has the legs to win, but a cool head too.

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Sprinter Biniam Girmay is in his first full season with Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, and while other debutants are intent on finding their feet in the WorldTour, the Eritrean has fast become a favourite in the spring’s biggest races. This weekend, the 21-year-old’s exquisite early season form culminated in a historic victory at Gent-Wevelgem, becoming the first African rider to win a Belgian Classic, and on his debut.

It was expected to be another day for the Jumbo-Visma team which has so far dominated the Spring Classics. Though Wout van Aert’s men in black and yellow were arguably race-makers once again, a late mistake and Girmay’s superior sprint knocked them from the pinnacle.

Earlier in the day, Girmay was in the mix as soon as the big names started playing their cards inside the last 80 km, demonstrating racing acumen that far exceeded his experience. 

Girmay proved he’s a born Classics specialist on the cobbles, Plugstreets, and roads between Gent (or Ypres) and Wevelgem.

After stretching his legs in the elite chase group that attacked into the gap before the gravel Plugstreets, the 21-year-old was never far from the action.

“I lost many places, especially on the first section and on the first cobblestones,” a pragmatic Girmay said after the race. “I felt a bit uncomfortable. But after I felt better and better, rode smart, followed. Then in the end you know everybody is waiting for Van Aert so I played it a bit easy.”

On the last time up the Kemmelberg, this time the steeper Ossuaire side, Van Aert put in his most determined attack of the day so far. As he punched over the top, his teammate Laporte was busy holding up the rest of the field a few lengths further down the cobbles, and for a few unbelievable – nay, ever-so believable – moments, it looked like the Belgian national champion would do what he did at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and ride the last 33 km solo.

Off he goes!

However, Kasper Asgreen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) and Mads Pedersen – whose Trek-Segafredo team put Jumbo-Visma to the sword all day long – were fast on Van Aert’s case and made easy work of overhauling Laporte before closing the gap.

What was left of the peloton was strung out and full of gaps on the narrow lane beyond the Kemmelberg, but almost as soon as the race arrived on the wide open highway bound for Wevelgem, a group of 30 riders had come together at the head of the race. There was no let-up in Jumbo-Visma’s efforts to detonate the group, however, and it was Laporte who launched the decisive move.

Girmay was the first to react, grabbing hold of the Frenchman’s wheel with Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Dries Van Gestel (TotalEnergies) in hot pursuit. With 24 km left to race, the quartet started working well together without a moment’s hesitation.

Laporte had a very busy day, launching and covering moves as the race entered the final stretch, before ultimately finishing second from the escape he masterminded.

In 10 km, the four leading riders had stretched out a 30-second advantage, while in the peloton, the chase looked far from full tilt. As the gap nudged 40 seconds with 10 km to go, shoulders could be seen drooping as a weary Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl came up to help for the first time.

Groupama-FDJ took perhaps the biggest bite out of the escape’s advantage in the run-in, the gap tumbling beneath 20 seconds with 3 km to go, but in the end, they simply ran out of fight. Søren Kragh Andersen’s (Sunweb) last ditch attack just outside the flamme rouge yielded zero response and caused the peloton to stall, and it was over to the leading group to take the spoils.

With Girmay perched on the group’s tail, tightening his shoes before the sprint, Laporte made a move that he would come to regret. The Frenchman, quite possibly the punchiest of the lot, had a rush of blood to the head and accelerated off the front several hundred metres from the finish.

All three of his rivals were straight on him, and Laporte found himself leading them out with a surplus of lactate on board. Girmay, meanwhile, was now in the perfect position to take a maiden WorldTour victory and make history in the process.

Before he raised his arms, the Eritrean delivered his own heart-in-mouth moment when he launched his sprint uncomfortably early – from the head-on view, it looked like we might have an early celebration on our hands – but he knew what he was doing. We needn’t have worried.

“Of course I feel much better but also there’s really strong guys with me so I’m a bit afraid,” Girmay said. “But I felt confident in the last 250 metres. It’s unbelievable, yeah. It changed a lot in the future, especially for all African riders.”

A bitterly disappointed Laporte managed to hold on for second, and Ronde van Drenthe winner Van Gestel took third ahead of Stuyven.

Girmay and his Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux teammates were all smiles at the end of a day that carries the weight of their #RideForAntoine mantra, this year’s Gent-Wevelgem falling six years after Antoine Demoitié lost his life in the same race.

History maker

Girmay hails from Asmara, Eritrea, and a family bursting with cycling enthusiasts. In his conversation with José Been earlier this season, he spoke of his ‘old soul’ and a passion that reaches back before his 13th year.

He travelled to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre when he was still a junior and arrived on the cycling world’s consciousness late last season, stamping his mark on the U23 World Championships with a runner-up finish that took the predominantly European peloton by surprise.

From there, he’s gone from one step to the next without faltering, starting with bunch sprint victory at the Trofeo Alcúdia in Mallorca, his second race of the season. 21st at last week’s Minerva Classic Brugge-De Panne was a rare blip in all the WorldTour-level sprints he’s taken part in lately, with 12th at Milan-San Remo a highlight. 

Then fifth in Friday’s E3 Saxo Bank Classic put him firmly in the favourites paddock for this weekend, despite not having been included on the original start list.

“It’s unbelievable, amazing. I cannot expect this,” Girmay said after the finish. “We just change my plan a few days ago on Friday. We just came for a good result. This race is amazing. Unbelievable.”

The change of plans worked out for everyone, and Girmay made history as Gent-Wevelgem’s first African winner.

The 21-year-old is now expected to head home after several months away, and we will next see him race in the build-up to the Giro d’Italia in May.

“I don’t think [I’ll stay for Tour of Flanders],” the 21-year-old would not be taken in by the Monumental hype after his victory. “I stayed here a long time – three months. I miss my wife and daughter so I go back home.”

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