Biniam Girmay’s happy, agonizing second place

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Biniam Girmay is happy. He insists on that fact no fewer than 18 times in the post-race media mixed zone. He is happy, so happy, as well as very happy and happy happy, that he’s finished second in the first stage of his first grand tour, taking the young rider’s jersey and retaining at least a slim chance of grabbing the maglia rosa in the coming days. 

“Disappointed?” an interviewer asks.

“No, no. Why would I be?”

If most professional riders said the same thing, I’m not sure we could believe them. But Girmay seems genuine. His assessment of the stage has already found clarity, even just a few minutes after the finish: “To be second in the first Grand Tour, and Mathieu [van Der Poel] is a big champion, I am happy with my second place.” 

It’s easy to be happy with him. If Girmay managed to push aside the agonizing proximity of what could have been – a pink jersey in his first Giro, the first Grand Tour stage win for a Black rider, the biggest cycling moment for Eritrea since 2015, when Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first African rider to wear the Tour de France’s polka dot jersey – then surely we can as well. 

There is a tipping point in a champion’s career where second places turn from stepping stones into opportunities lost. It happens somewhere around 26 or 27 years old for most. A career is suddenly no longer about potential, but about realizing it. And each near miss stings more than it did a few years prior, as opportunities start to count down instead of up.

Girmay is not yet there. He’s 22, he has time, and he knows it. 

“For me, this is just the beginning,” he said. “We will see for the next… for the future.”

The chaos of the first day of a Grand Tour was in full view in the final kilometers of this Giro d’Italia’s first stage. Lawrence Naesen (AG2R Citroën) and Lennard Kamna (Bora-Hansgrohe) both made efforts, but with Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Van der Poel, Girmay, Diego Ulissi, and more still hovering near the front, a solo move was never going to stick. It was Ulissi’s UAE teammate Davide Formolo who put the nail in Kamna’s coffin and set up the most cross-eyed bunch sprint in recent memory. 

Such was the effort that Ewan touched Girmay’s wheel with less than 50m to go and hit the deck. 

Caleb Ewan hits the deck after touching Girmay’s wheel. Photo by LUCA BETTINI/AFP via Getty Images

Girmay was positioned well, and his team rode with a clear goal. He sat in the top five near the bottom of the 5.5 km climb, dropped just a hair when the pace first ramped up with 3.5 km to go, but worked his way back into the perfect position. 

“It was really hard,” he said. “Especially in the last 3k 4k. For me, I need more high speed, a hard race. So I tried to tell my team to go harder. In the end there was a lot of movement. I think I started the sprint a bit early, but generally, it was a good day.”

This was a stage Girmay and the team identified months ago. It was his target, and part of the reason he went home following his win at Ghent-Wevelgem rather than stick out a full classics season. 

Van der Poel once again hid in plain site, only hitting the front at the last possible moment. It was a battle of strength and will, and Girmay admitted that Van der Poel had more of the former. 

“In the end, I tried my best,” Girmay said. “For sure, Mathieu was stronger than me.”

These are still stepping stones, Biniam. Enjoy it. Be happy. 

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