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After the emoji came the thumbs up.
Mathieu van der Poel had spared his words, instead opting for a cry-laughing face in response to comments from Biniam Girmay after stage eight of the Giro d’Italia when a lack of collaboration saw the breakaway evade the chasing pair.
Two stages later and it was time for the two to face off, and everything finally came together for Girmay to make cycling history as the first black African Grand Tour stage winner.
The Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux rider has found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time on numerous occasions while chasing victory this Italian Grand Tour, and at one point today it looked like it was all coming apart once more as he almost went the wrong way on a corner during the run-in to Jesi.
Here’s how Girmay did it.
The opening salvos
The race was on from the right hand turn at the bottom of the climb to Monsano. Alpecin-Fenix and Intermaché both sought to control, while GC favourites lurked. But nobody could get away just yet. Girmay’s teammates, particularly Domenico Pozzovivo and Jan Hirt, patroled the front and kept things mostly together.
The first key moment came as Vincenzo Nibali (Astana-Qazaqstan) really got things going with 7 km to go, opening up and forcing Intermarché’s Lorenzo Rota to chase. Mathieu van der Poel then led into a corner at a T-junction, Biniam Girmay in his wheel.
With the moto parked directly in the middle of the two possible turns, Van der Poel went left (the correct way) while Girmay went right. Within the blink of an eye, he’d lost 25 places and was now at the back of the select group.
Van der Poel attacks
Next, it was Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) who hit out, Van der Poel tagging on the back of a small escape before trying to go off alone himself. Behind, Davide Formolo struggled with his radio, which appeared to fall out of his pocket and get tangled somewhere on his bike.
In hindsight, this may have been the moment that won Girmay the stage, the extra energy Van der Poel needed in the sprint finish instead spent on an unsuccessful attack. Meanwhile, Girmay was quickly making his way back up the group after the missed-turn mishap. Perhaps the missed turn was a blessing, as it forced patience.
It was Girmay himself who helped chase Van der Poel down before Carapaz came over the top. When was the last Grand Tour stage that saw both GC men and the faster finishers making bids for the same finish line?
Carapaz’s gap was short-lived, however, and into the final 3 km it was now Hugh Carthy’s turn to spend a kilometre off the front, his lanky diesel engine putting up a fight against the chasing group of around two dozen riders.
Rota was back at the front again under the flamme rouge with Girmay in his wheel, and the Eritrean still had Jan Hirt and Domenico Pozzivivo for company. This time last year people were wondering what the team was doing lining up for Grand Tours; Taco van der Hoorn’s stage victory deemed a minor miracle. Fast forward a year and they had the most numbers in the final with one of the most exciting talents on the scene.
Domenico Pozzovivo, 53 kilograms of lead-out fury
After Rota fell away it was up to Pozzivivo, who took it up at the front in what surely must have been one of the very few times he’s ever contributed to a lead-out like this in his 18-year professional career.
Girmay was tucked in behind Van der Poel, however, waiting for his chance. Without waiting for Pozzovivo to pull off the front, Girmay sensed the pace ramping up and didn’t want to get boxed in yet again. He surged through, dragging Van der Poel along with him.
It looked like he may have gone too early as the Alpecin-Fenix man came up alongside, but Girmay persisted. He wasn’t about to let another opportunity slip through his fingers.
Game respects game
Eventually, Van der Poel exploded. Girmay had broken him, a quite uncommon event. Gracious in defeat and enamoured with respect for the better rider on the day, Van der Poel gave a thumbs-up as Girmay sat up across the line, an IRL emoji as cycling history was made.