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On Sunday, Eritrean cyclist Biniam Girmay won the Gent-Wevelgem, one of the main one-day races of the international season, at the age of 21. To the general surprise, he became the first African cyclist to win one of the so-called “classics” which are run in the spring between Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. In his second year as a professional, Girmay has thus added to the illustrious list of riders who have won it in its previous 83 editions, among the greatest cyclists of all time such as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Francesco Moser, Tom Boonen, Mario Cipollini and Peter Sagan.
In sport, many cultural and geographical barriers are still consolidated and in particular in professional cycling, a discipline that remains linked mainly to Europe and the United States and is almost absent in many parts of the world. Africa is one of these, especially in its sub-Saharan part, where despite the fact that bikes are widespread as elsewhere, there is a lack of resources, means and knowledge for professionalism.
For some years, however, Eritrea – a country that not surprisingly has a great tradition in track and field cross-country competitions – has been emerging in African cycling with a new generation of athletes represented in particular by Girmay. Over the past decade, five different Eritrean riders have been elected African cyclists of the year. In the past season Girmay had been so for the second consecutive time, mainly thanks to the victory of the silver medal in the line test at the Youth World Cup in Belgium.
Girmay also runs for a Belgian team, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, but for most of the year he lives in San Marino with three other Eritrean riders. When he is not in San Marino – until recently he lived in Tuscany – he often trains in Eritrea, near the capital Asmara, where he was born in 2000.
He will be back shortly to prepare for participation in the next Giro d’Italia, which starts on May 6 from Budapest, Hungary. Given his latest results, he could add some important placings: only in March he finished tenth in the Milan-Turin, twelfth in the Milan-Sanremo and fifth in the Saxo Bank Classic in Belgium, all one-day races.
Last October, after winning silver at the World Cup, he had told: «The percentage of African cyclists is still very low, we are talking about one rider per year who becomes a professional. My silver medal didn’t come overnight. I started training years ago with the UCI at the World Cycling Center, I have experienced riding in groups and on narrow roads, and I have learned different types of racing. But it’s just me: many of my teammates only come to race at the World Championships. In this way it is not possible to obtain results, it takes time to learn to run and we should start young ».
So far the most important result achieved by a cyclist from sub-Saharan Africa had been the polka dot jersey for best climber obtained in 2015 by another Eritrean, Daniel Teklehaimanot, at the Tour de France. The latter is also one of Girmay’s main objectives, but he considers himself more inclined to one-day races: «For me and for all Eritrean riders, the Tour de France is the race of dreams, together with the Milan-Sanremo and to Paris-Roubaix ».