History-maker: Biniam Girmay scores first road worlds medal for Eritrea

The 21-year-old Eritrean hopes that his silver medal in the U23 men's road race will turn to gold in years to come.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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Biniam Girmay, remember that name.

The 21-year-old emerged from the swirling chaos of the bunch in the final meters of Friday’s U23 men’s road race at the world championships to make history.

Scything his way through rider after rider, finally dropping Olev Kooij (Netherlands) shortly before the line, he dashed to the silver medal just behind Italy’s Filippo Baroncini, and became the first rider from Eritrea to win a road world championship medal.

“For me, for my nation, and also for Africans, it means a lot to have this medal. I’m really proud of my nation,” Girmay said in his post-race press conference in Leuven. “I have to say congratulations to all of Eritrea and all Africans.”

Also read: Filippo Baroncini wins crash-riddled U23 road race as Eritrea hits historic podium

“My family said to me, for sure you can take a medal,” he said. “I say thank you to my family who have supported me, they give me really good motivation every single day.

“When I started the sprint, I was a bit nervous, but I was just thinking of getting one of the medals. I did it, so I’m happy with my place.”

Eritrean cyclists have been on the up and up within the European peloton since Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first cyclist from the country to compete at the Olympic Games and ride a grand tour in 2012.

There are now four riders from the African country riding at WorldTour level — a small number compared to many of the European nations, but no mean feat given the logistical challenges many from the African continent face.

Behind these four is a growing number of promising talents rising through the ranks, and Girmay doesn’t want his result to be an anomaly but a sign of what’s to come.

“I hope we can do even better than this, maybe after this second in the next few years it will be the rainbow jersey,” Girmay said. “I think the future is bright for Eritrean riders. We have really good potential and a good future. It is not just in the last years but for a long time.

“We are getting more experience and we are progressing physically and mentally every day and we keep working and fighting to be at WorldTour level,” he said. “This has been happening for a long time and I am happy to see myself in this group. There is a really good future over the next years.”

Becoming a classics man

Girmay picked up cycling as a pre-teen, initially racing on the mountain bike before discovering his talents on the road.

He made his name as a future cycling star when he took a clean sweep of the African national championships in 2018. After helping his country to the team time trial relay, he romped to the individual TT title by almost a minute and then won the road race title from a two-up sprint.

“I am from the capital Asmara. It is the cycling zone in Eritrea and every Sunday there is a race,” Girmay said. “I started when I was 12 years old with a school of racing and then I rode mountain bike and also I started road racing when I was 15 years old.

“I came to Europe in 2018 with the UCI [World Cycling Center]. After I won the African continental championships, they invited me to race internationally. I did a lot of races with them and gained a lot of experience. It means a lot for me because I went to Europe in 2018, every year and every step, and every new experience, I learned a lot and it worked well today.”

Girmay is the newest of the Eritrean WorldTour group after signing for the Belgian Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert last month. He started his tenure at the team with eighth place in the opening stage of the Tour of Poland.

His first win for them came soon afterward at the Classic Grand Besançon Doubs after he made it into a group of attackers that included Thibaut Pinot and Nairo Quintana.

Most Eritrean riders that have turned professional have been strong climbers — little surprise given the country’s capital is over 2,300m above sea level — but Girmay is from a different mold.

His silver medal in Flanders is proof of his talents as a sprinter and he wants to develop that talent as well as become a good classics rider, like one of his favorite riders, Peter Sagan.

“For now, I am really looking forward to the classics races and some hilly races,” he said. “I think my sprint is the best capacity I have, so I am working on becoming faster in the bunch sprints and the small uphills.”

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