Biniam Girmay eyes history as a Giro stage win beckons

The Eritrean says becoming the first Black rider to win a Grand Tour stage would be 'the greatest moment ever'.

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At Eschborn-Frankfurt there are extra security staff at the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux bus.

A couple of years ago, this would have seemed bizarre. The team, to put it bluntly, was on a hiding to nothing. After Enrico Gasparotto’s 2016 Amstel Gold Race win, a WorldTour-level victory evaded the team and other wins of note were scarce. Only in 2020, after the squad had assumed a WT licence, did Taco van der Hoorn and Rein Taaramäe rise to the occasion and deliver stage wins at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

But even then, security keeping the crowds at bay at the team bus? Well, that’s Biniam Girmay’s doing.

“BINIAM. BINIAM,” chant the crowd climbing over one another to get closer to their hero, clutching red, blue and green flags. Such is the fervour, the energy, that the scene better resembles a football World Cup. At bike races, until you get to Belgian cobbles or Grand Tour climbs, cycling crowds are polite places, distant relatives to the raucous rabble that follow other team sports.

“It’s not my first time, to have fans around me,” Girmay says a few days later, at his Giro d’Italia pre-race press conference, fairly nonchalantly. “There were a lot of people at the Worlds. Even before, the [Eritrean] fans are a bit crazy about cycling, and they support the pro cyclists. But for me, in Frankfurt, I didn’t expect a crowd like this, it made me super happy.”

When Girmay returned home after a Classics campaign where he announced himself to the wider cycling world, becoming the first African rider to win a Belgian Classic, thousands of fans came out and formed a convoy. Some on a flotilla, some on bikes, others in cars beeping their horns and draping national flags out of their windows. If this is just the start, imagine what is yet to come, both from Girmay and the African riders who will no doubt follow in his footsteps.

Girmay seems all too aware of the mission ahead. While he enjoyed his time back in Eritrea, relaxing with his young family, he also used his home training roads to prepare for his next goal, the Giro d’Italia.

He’s clear about what he wants from his debut Grand Tour. A stage win. And it could come as soon as stage one. The half-climb, half-sprint finish seems to suit the 22-year-old who’s versatile enough to win on more complex terrain.

Once the stage win is out of the way, and there will be many opportunities for that, the points jersey is also a minor ambition.

“I think it’s all of our dreams to win in a Grand Tour,” Girmay said of what victory would mean for both him and Eritrea over these next three weeks. “This is one of the biggest races for us. We’ve never won in a Grand Tour, a black rider; for us it will be the greatest moment ever.”

It’s clear that for Girmay it’s not just the weight of a nation laying on his narrow shoulders, but history. While change has been slow and incremental in a cycling culture steeped in tradition and, in the European scene, whiteness, Girmay has come in and kicked the doors off the hinges.

When asked who his inspirations were growing up he says riders from his own region, before namechecking a rider for the German Continental outfit BikeAid, a team that collaborates with Kenyan talent.

Girmay seems to be taking his new-found fame in his stride. Whatever pressure there is on him to perform, it doesn’t seem to concern him overly.

“He’s not nervous, totally not,” says his roommate for this Giro, the Belgian Loïc Vliegen. “He’s one of the guys who can really manage the pressure and really thrive on it. I can tell you he has no pressure on himself.”

The next three weeks are unchartered territory for Girmay, having never raced a Grand Tour before, but he knows for sure what the future holds in terms of what he hopes to achieve. “More Classics, a Monument … but a Grand Tour is always in my dream. Tomorrow I will try to fulfil my dream of winning a Grand Tour stage.”

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