Biniam Girmay is pedaling fast to continue the cycling ascent of Eritrea
Eritrean Biniam Girmay is aiming for further success for his country and himself after winning silver in the men’s under-23 race at the World Road Cycling Championships in Belgium on Friday.
The 21-year-old emulates Louis Meintjes, whose two eighth places in the Tour de France are the best ever for an African, after the South African won silver in the same category in 2013.
Girmay’s sprint to silver behind Italian winner Filippo Baroncini has bolstered Eritrea’s reputation as Africa’s premier cycling nation and he is already looking to the future.
“I got the money but one day I hope to take the rainbow jersey (given to the senior world champions) – maybe in 2025, in Rwanda,“he said after the race.
“The world championships will be in Kigali. It would be fantastic to win there.”
Despite his success which propelled him into the limelight, Girmay is determined to keep his feet on the pedals.
“This [the silver medal] is for all of us Eritreans, “he told BBC Sport Africa.” Right now I’m not the big star – there are some taller than me.
“We ride a bike to get results and a good career, so hopefully I can get more results like this.”
In some ways it was fitting for Girmay to finish behind an Italian given the impact the European nation has had on Eritrean cycling.
“A lot of Italians lived in Eritrea and they started to run. People started to like the sport,” says Natnael Berhane, who has taken part in the three Grand Cycling Tours in France, Spain and Italy.
“That’s why it has become such a popular sport in Eritrea. You have 35 days of racing a year, which is a lot, almost every Sunday. The fans and the media have come. It has given cycling a boost.”
This popularity translated into Eritrea’s success at the continental level with six wins, more than any other country, in the elite men’s road race at the African Road Championships.
The country’s biggest achievement globally came during the 2015 Tour de France, when Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first African to wear the polka dot jersey and Merhawi Kudus, then 21, was the youngest rider in the peloton. .
“Berhane, Kudus and Teklehaimanot opened the door,” says Girmay. “I was 15 when Teklehaimanot stepped onto the podium. Come to think of it, I’m still moved. It was a big step. They opened the doors.”
While his fellow cyclists provided him with inspiration, it was his relatives who provided the support as well as the world sports body, the UCI.
Hover in Aigle
Supported by his parents, family and friends, Girmay bought a mountain bike as a teenager before switching to a road bike which allowed him to gain recognition locally.
In 2018, he went on to complete a sweep of road races, individual and team time trials at the African Junior Road Championships.
He honed his skills that year at the UCI World Cycling Center in Aigle, Switzerland, but a young Girmay was homesick.
“I needed my family, but the UCI understood me, so I stayed for three months and then I went home for three months,” said Girmay.
“It wasn’t difficult, but you still miss your mom and dad. The year after, I adjusted. I said, ‘It’s my job, I like to cycle, I ‘love to run in Europe and it is also my dream, I am also living my dream “.
The UCI invites runners from backgrounds that could prevent them from reaching the elite in Aigle and the center has played a central role in the development of Girmay, Kudus, Teklehaimanot and Berhane.
At the foot of the Swiss Alps, all have received guidance, acquired experience and visibility to help them take them to the next level.
“If the UCI center did not exist, we would be stranded, stranded in Eritrea,” explains Berhane. “The younger generation of Girmay and Natnael Tesfatsion ride to win, which is a good example for young Eritrean riders to be motivated.
“Eritrean runners are now thinking about how to become a professional. When Teklehaimanot and I arrived there was not a single professional. We struggled a lot to reach that level.”
With Girmay in the books of the Belgian Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert team, Eritrea now has four riders (Kudus, Berhane and Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier also) in teams competing at the World Tour level, the highest level in professional cycling.
|1950||Marcel Molinès, white Algerian and member of the French team from North Africa, wins the 13th stage in Nîmes|
|2007||Robert Hunter, a white South African, wins stage 11 in Montpellier|
|2013||Daryl Impey, also a white South African, becomes the first African to wear the Tour leader’s yellow jersey after stage six. Kenya-born Briton Chris Froome follows two days later and wins the race|
|2015||Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot becomes the first African to wear the polka dot jersey, as leader of the King of the Mountains category|