Meet Biniam Girmay – Eritrean sprinter, humble champion

Biniam Girmay Hailu is only 21 years old but he is rapidly rising through the ranks of professional cycling. With his silver medal in the U23 road race at the World Championships in Leuven last year, he was the first colored rider to reach the podium. He returned to Eritrea as a hero.

His 2022 season, his first full year in the WorldTour with Belgian outfit Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, got off to a flying start with a victory in Mallorca Thursday.

Girmay comes across as a humble man, an old soul too. “In the family, we all look like old men,” he says, smiling. He comes from Asmara, the capital of Eritrea in East Africa. His father is a keen cyclist, but little Biniam’s interest was football first. He was part of the school team.

“Cycling is one of the sports in my country,” he tells me on Zoom from a team training camp in Spain. “Everyone loves sport, including me, but when I was 10 or 11, I preferred football. My older brother was cycling at that time, then my father kindly pushed me into sport. and a race.

Girmay smiled shyly at the memory of her childhood.

“There are races every weekend in Eritrea and around Asmara once every two months,” he says. “When I started cycling, I was around 13 years old. My brother gave me his bike and we went for a little coffee ride. It was then that I gradually began to feel the passion.

“So my dad bought me a new bike. I remember it was very expensive. My father owns a small carpentry business and I sometimes join him. It was a 10 kilometer drive to get to work only, but it boosted motivation.

Girmay at the 2018 Innsbruck World Championships where he finished 15th in the junior time trial.

From Eritrea, Girmay moved to the World Cycling Center (WCC) in Aigle, Switzerland as a junior rider. The WCC is an institute founded by the UCI to help riders from countries without a well-established cycling culture or with fewer economic opportunities. From their home base adjacent to the UCI headquarters, junior and elite teams enjoy a varied program of international races.

Girmay made waves as a junior, as one of the only riders able to beat Remco Evenepoel in his dominant season as a sophomore in 2018. That season, Evenepoel only lost 10 races out of 30 individual starts.

“It was very difficult to come from the African races to Europe,” recalls Girmay. “I joined the WCC team as a first-year junior and it helped me improve a lot. It’s important to get that experience and to be able to learn everything about cycling.

His junior results include a top 15 at the World Championships, podium places and a stage victory in the famous junior stage races GP Ruebliland in Switzerland and Aubel-Thimister-Stavelot in the Belgian Ardennes. Girmay also finished in the top five of two prestigious junior one-day races in Italy. The big WorldTour teams, however, weren’t lining up to sign him to their main or development squads.

So he stayed one more year with the Center Mondial du Cyclisme team. He has won stage victories in the two biggest African races, the Tour du Rwanda and the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon. He rode and finished the Tour de l’Avenir with a fifth place in the last mountain stage.

the top 10 on this scene reads like a who’s who of the most talented drivers. Seven of them joined a WorldTour team the following year, but Girmay eventually signed a four-year professional contract with the smallest of France’s second division teams, Delko, and based himself in Provence.

Girmay on the Mur de Fayence during the French stage race, Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, in 2020.

It is not easy for African runners to get noticed by the biggest teams based in Europe. According to Girmay, it’s actually getting harder now. He regrets that other African runners currently have even fewer options to travel to Europe than he had in 2018.

“There is so much passion among young Eritrean riders, but if you want to turn pro, you have to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time,” he explains. “You need to be seen. There are many local races and only a few big races like Rwanda and Gabon. It’s time to show off to the European teams.

“If we want more black riders, continental European teams need to start looking more at African cycling. It’s about being seen and having a chance in Europe.

“It requires a lot of investment from you and your family. It’s not a cheap sport with bikes, spares, etc. My dad paid for my first bike. The UCI has invested a lot in African cycling but I think they stopped the junior and U23 program because of COVID. Even Qhubeka quit because he lacked money. I regret to say that it is even more difficult for African runners now.

Girmay on his way to 11th place in the uphill finish of the Tour of Poland 2021.

When it became clear that Team Delko would fold in 2021, Belgian WorldTour team Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert scooped up the Eritrean hopeful and offered him a four-year contract. By then his fame had increased and other teams like Trek-Segafredo, UAE Emirates and Deceuninck-Quickstep were eager to sign him.

His debut on the Tour of Poland is promising and after only a month in the team, Girmay rewards the confidence placed in him with a victory in the UCI 1.1 Classic Grand Besançon Doubs.

Girmay married young and is the father of a daughter Liela who will be one year old in March. He is a humble man, a man of faith. He knows what he wants but has none of the boastful nature that a man with his sporting talent often has.

“It’s not just me – in my country they don’t like people who brag,” he says, “They like the quiet, easy life. I know where I come from. It’s important not to forget that. In racing, I am different. I am completely crazy. This is the job I have to do. If I feel good, I tell my teammates, and if I don’t feel good, I tell them too. Inside the race I’m focused and a different guy. I just want to win.

“I know what I’m doing better than last year already,” he says of his progress. “In the junior ranks, when I was back in Eritrea, we only had one-day races. Then you have to be smart and position yourself well. You must be a Classics driver. We only had one chance [to show ourselves] in one-day races. I often lost but I also learned a lot and won a lot in the junior ranks and with Delko.

Girmay’s big dream, in addition to winning a stage in the Tour de France, is to compete in the Classics and especially Paris-Roubaix, a race he has followed since he was very young. In 2019, he finished 48th in Paris-Roubaix Espoirs, in the first year U23. He wants to improve in one-day races and knows what he has to do to get there.

“My coach at the WCC, Jean Jacques, always said there were a lot of good Eritrean cyclists but they weren’t good in positioning,” he said. “They don’t know how to win. He told me: “I know one thing: if you want to stay in cycling, focus on the Classics”. In the beginning, I need to learn a lot. There is a huge difference between junior/U23 and WorldTour but when I see myself in a race now, I think I’m not bad. I think it’s in me.

Girmay will make his Grand Tour debut this season. Before starting the Giro d’Italia in May, he will focus on the March races, including Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo. The goal is to use his strong positioning and sprinting skills in the final. At Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, he surrounds himself with a group of dedicated riders to be as fresh as possible during these finals.

“I need someone to position me in the last five kilometers,” he said. “In all my sprint top 10s, I come from behind when someone dropped me five kilometers from the finish. Then I pass everyone in the final. I need someone to make me going from the five to the last kilometer, to position myself better. For the future, we work with three or four guys in the same races as me and we fight for the podium or the victory.

This work already seems to be bearing fruit. On Thursday, in Girmay’s second race of the season, his Hungarian teammate Barnabas Peak delivered Girmay exactly where he needed to be in the Trofeo Alcudía. He beat renowned sprinters like Giacomo Nizzolo, Michael Matthews and Pascal Ackermann to claim victory.

As well as being a fast sprinter, Girmay is also a suitable rider for the Ardennes Classics, races traditionally very important for his Wallonia-based team. This year, he won’t be at Liège-Bastogne-Liège or the Flèche Wallonne but the team could send him to the Amstel Gold Race.

And speaking of this team, it seems like Girmay feels right at home with Intermarket.

“It really is a family,” he says. “The atmosphere is great and everyone is very close. They are always there to help and support me. I spend most of the year alone in Europe. I live in San Marino with my friends but when I run I am alone. The staff really care about me. I have no words for that. I’m just grateful to be here.

Girmay left Italy for San Marino with compatriots Natnael Berhane, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier (Trek-Segafredo) and Natnael Tesfatsion (Drone Hopper) this winter. Older Eritrean runners help him with advice, just like they did when he was still a junior.

“Berhane really taught me a lot about driving and racing in Europe,” says Girmay. “We are all from Asmara and we are close friends. Before moving to Europe, they gave me all kinds of advice, like learning languages. If I need anything, they help me. They are really good guys. I still learn from them and they are my family away from home.

Cycling is extremely popular in Eritrea. It is a war-torn country and Eritreans have fled the country and settled all over the world as refugees. The colorful Eritrean flag can be seen at almost every race and the support for their runners is huge.

“I became a bit more famous after the [2021] World’s Championships [where he was second in the U23 road race] but I don’t really like the spotlight and the media,” he says. “I want to have a ‘tranquilo’ life but after the world championships there was a lot of attention,” he says with a smile.

There is another World Cup in a few years which could be even more important.

“The World Championships in Rwanda in 2025 mean a lot [for African cycling]says Girmay. “The moment they announced it, everyone was getting really excited. Even now, we’re seeing a lot of young riders starting out in the sport.

“The main key is to find a team in Europe and get noticed. I am still young but an example in black cycling. There will be a black world champion, I’m sure, but I don’t know if it’s me.

Wiley C. Thompson