Girmay Sees Disappointing 2023 as Part of a Learning Process

By We Love Cycling

Biniam Girmay’s disappointing season could be summed up by his experience at the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow. The 23-year-old Eritrean is Africa’s most successful rider ever and was thought to have a good chance for a top-10 placing in the road race, if not for the win. But first he – as well as several other African riders – was refused a visa to enter the UK and, almost at the same time, he was forced to withdraw from the competition because of injuries sustained in a crash during the Clasica San Sebastian.

“I’m, of course, very disappointed to withdraw from the selection for the World Championships, which were a main goal for this season since last winter,” he said in a statement posted on the website of his Intermarché-Circus-Wanty team. “I had a good feeling after the Tour de France but my crash in the Clasica San Sebastián caused too severe pain to be able to defend my chances in the Worlds. My priority is now to recover from this crash and then the preparation for the last part of the season, with nice goals in one-day races such as the Grand Prix de Plouay and Canadian classics.”

Unfortunately, the remainder of Girmay’s season was also disappointing as he failed to finish the Bretagne Classic–Ouest-France and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal, placed 38th in the Grand Prix Cicliste de Québec, while two seventh-place finishes represented his best results of the last ten races of the season. This left Girmay with a mere two victories for the entire year: a stage of the Tour de Suisse and a stage of Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. As he himself admits, this was a letdown following a breakout season in 2022 when he won Gent-Wevelgem, the Trofeo Alcúdia–Port d’Alcúdia and became the first Black rider to win a Grand Tour stage when he took one at the Giro d’Italia. He also racked up podium finishes in the Grand Prix de Wallonie and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec.

“Last year was incredible. Everything was happening so fast,” he told Rouleur. “Last year was a first for everything. It was my first Grand Tour, my first Classics, and everything went well – way better than I could ever have expected. Okay, it is never easy to repeat something like that but sometimes just really small things make a huge difference. Details matter, especially for sprinters, I think. And if one little thing is off, it can make a big difference.”

Biniam Girmay
Girmay at the 2022 Giro d’Italia. © Profimedia

Illness and crashes are not mere details, and these misfortunes definitely had an impact on Girmay’s performances. He fell ill ahead of the Flemish one-day Classics and suffered a crash at 75 km/h during the Tour of Flanders, which set him back early in the campaign. He was unconscious for two hours following that crash and woke up in a hospital. “Even today, I still don’t remember anything,” Girmay said.

So perhaps it was no surprise that he did not perform up to expectations in the Tour de France, a third-place stage finish being his best result. But it was also Girmay’s first Tour, and as he admitted, “All the fighting for position, all of the sprint trains just going full gas in the final. It is like nothing else I have experienced.” But he came out of the race a better rider, saying: “It was a huge learning curve. But now I know.”

It is important to know that Girmay was the only Black rider to compete in this year’s Tour, so he must surely be shouldering a great deal of pressure, mostly from himself, since he knows that he is riding for millions of cycling fans back home. “It’s a big moment for me and for the African riders because all around the world they know [now] that Africans can do better,” he told Eurosport after last year’s Giro stage win. “I hope we can do more.”

Both Girmay and his sports director, Aike Visbeek, are optimistic about 2024, despite the obstacles still to overcome, for both the rider and the team. “Biniam is very young, still,” Visbeek told Rouleur. “The key is to learn and understand what we can do better because we are still very much in the learning process. We are still trying to figure out the best way to balance living in Eritrea and racing in Europe, fine-tuning our training and preparation.”

As he noted, learning to compete on the World Tour is a process, which is often slow and sometimes the progress is difficult to see. For example, in 2022, Girmay won Gent-Wevelgem but this year he finished 96th out of 97 finishers. But, as Visbeek pointed out, he finished a race held in freezing rain, conditions that were no doubt new to him. “And in the Tour,” he added, “he had some bad moments, but he finished it and even got sixth on the Champs-Élysées. But, mostly, he finished his first Grand Tour.”