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Biniam Girmay: Tour de France history maker

June 29, 2023

While much of the 2023 Tour de France will be about the battle between Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar, one rider from Eritrea is looking to make even more history for African cycling.

Biniam Girmay is met with fans after winning stage two of the Tour de Suisse
Biniam Girmay is quickly becoming one of the biggest names in cycling, and in doing so is hoping to inspire another generation of African cyclistsImage: Manuel Geisser/IMAGO

As Biniam Girmay gets set for his first ever Tour, the 23-year-old is well aware of what this moment means for him, his country and his continent.

"When I was young I never dreamed of competing in races like the Tour de France because I thought it was just for white or European people," Girmay told Eurosport this week.

Now, the Eritrean is proving his own theory wrong as he looks to continue his country's growing reputation as a cycling powerhouse.

As a junior, Girmay dominated in Africa and a year later he secured his first pro win representing Eritrea. After a year at another team, Girmay then signed for his current team, Intermarché–Circus–Wanty, and hasn't looked back.

The sprinter made headlines with his win in the Classic in Gent, becoming the first Black African winner of a classic race. Months later, he made further Black history by winning a Grand Tour stage at the Giro d'Italia.

Ultimately, however, Girmay couldn't finish the race because of a bizarre incident on the podium in which the cork from the champagne bottom hit him in the eye, leaving him unable to continue.

Biniam Girmay has to watch out for champagne corks in the future
A bizarre incident saw Biniam Girmay's Giro d'Italia cut short straight after his successImage: Massimo Paolone/LaPresse/IMAGO

'It felt like I was back in Asmara'

But once he was back on the bike his form returned, and with it came both scenes of jubilation back home in Eritrea and increasing support on the ground in Europe.

After winning the second stage of the Tour de Suisse this season, Girmay was met with huge support from fans waving Eritrean flags. "It felt like I was back in Asmara," he said.

"If we're being honest about the past, there aren't many Black Africans that compete and win," Girmay told Eurosport. "We only participated before. But now to have victories in World Tour races, especially in classics, it makes me very proud."

A new role model

Girmay acknowledges the role countrymen Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus played in getting him to this point.

In 2015, Teklehaimanot and Kudus were on the start line for the Tour, with the former even wearing the polka dot jersey jersey at one point. The pair's success on the Tour de France was a historic moment for both Eritrea and Africa, and inspired Girmay to get on a bike himself. Now, he recognizes that he has become the source of inspiration for others.

"It's very important for them [upcoming African cyclists] to see someone from their own country or the African continent winning these big events, just as Daniel Teklehaimanot did for me."

Sadly though, while Girmay is undoubtedly a source of inspiration for the next generation, the diversity of cycling has not increased as hoped since Teklehaimanot's magical moment, and the peloton remains overwhemingly white.

Now is the time

Girmay is the only Black rider to start at the 2023 Tour de France, and only one of two Africans - the other is teammate Louis Meintjes from South Africa. There were no Black riders in last year's Tour and in 2021, South Africa's Nicholas Dlamini was the only one but didn't finish after missing the time limit in stage nine. In 2019, fellow Eritrean Natnael Berhane was on the start line for his second Tour, and finished 86th overall.

Biniam Girmay is a role model in a predominately white sport
Biniam Girmay is making history as a Black, African cyclistImage: Nico Vereecken/Panoramic International/IMAGO

Alongside Eritrea, South Africa and Rwanda are also emerging as leading nations in African cycling, but the road to the top is still narrow as opportunities remain rare for a host of reasons.

The 2025 road race world championships in Rwanda, the first ever championships in Africa, are seen as a real opportunity to address cycling's lack of diversity and inclusive infrastructure.

But with Girmay already looking like one of the most talented cyclists of his generation and winning more than most African cyclists before him, the real question is the same as it was eight years ago: why wait?

Edited by Matt Ford