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Biniam Girmay: The African Cycling Superstar

By Andrea Champredonde

If you haven’t heard of Biniam Girmay already, you should have. Especially if you call yourself a road cycling fan. His image adorning sports pages everywhere following his Gent-Wevelgem victory may have left the impression he emerged from nowhere. But it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Let’s look at the rise of Biniam Girmay and learn more about this young Eritrean cyclist who rides for Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert. One thing is for sure, he has cemented his name in cycling history by being the first African and person of colour to win a World Tour Race and a one-day classic at the tender age of 21.

Eritrean Biniam Girmay during a press conference of the Intermarche Wanty Gobert Materiaux cycling team.

Cycling fever

Biniam preferred football (soccer) at 10 but his older brother, who was already into cycling, coaxed him over to the sport and eventually into racing. His father purchased an expensive bicycle for him, the same one he used to complete the 10-kilometre ride to work. It was the start of his cycling fever and career.

He got noticed after becoming a triple junior African cycling champion in 2018, winning the road race, time trial, and team trial. He was picked up by the World Cycling Centre (WCC) that same year. The WCC institute was founded by the UCI to help cyclists from countries with less favourable economics and with no or limited cycling infrastructure. Located next to the UCI headquarters, their juniors and elite riders get exposure to international racing.

As a junior at the WCC, Biniam caught the attention of the cycling community and his peers by being one of the few riders (the other: Robbie Hunter) to beat Remco Evenepoel when he was on a 20-race winning streak (out of 30 starts) as a second-year junior in 2018. Impressive stuff.

In 2019, wearing the colours of the Eritrean National Team, he outsprinted Niccolò Bonifazio and André Greipel to a stage victory in Gabon’s UCI Africa Tour event, La Tropicale Amissa Bongo. He took another stage in the Tour of Rwanda. Despite his success, the only team that showed interest in him was the small French (Marseille) UCI Continental ProTeam Delko-Provence.

One door closes, another opens

Biniam left the security of the Swiss WCC program in 2020 for a five-year contract with Team Delko-Provence. That multi-year deal and financial commitment for a small team is a testament to the talent and potential they believe he held. The 2020 pandemic hit, forcing Delko into financial difficulties midway through the 2021 season and immediate closure. They had to give up their rising talent.

The Belgian team, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux (IWG) snapped him up. Unperturbed by the team change, Biniam ended the 2021 season with a bang by finishing second place in a sprint for the line at the U23 World Championships in Leuven, Belgium. In yet another precedent, it made him the first rider from Eritrea and the first African of colour to land on a UCI World’s podium.

The 2022 season so far

Success was no stranger to Biniam in the early 2022 season. He won stage two of the Mallorca Challenge, the Trofeo d’Alcúdia in a sprint finish, finished fourth in stage six of Paris-Nice, tenth at Milano-Torino, twelfth at Milano-Sanremo, and fifth at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic. Not to mention his biggest result to date, Gent-Wevelgem, at the tender age of 21.

The Gent-Wevelgem victory secured his name in the cycling record book by making him not only the first African winner of this illustrious one-day classic but also the eighth youngest winner of all time. His performance has put Eritrea on the map and shown that African cycling is present in the pro peloton.

Contract extension and UCI team points

Arguably one of the most humble of UCI pro teams, Team IWG is fighting for UCI points in 2022 to avoid relegation to the lower ranks in 2023. Having teammates like Alexander Kristoff, Jans Bakelants and Taco Van Der Hoorn, among others, puts them in a promising position as the Grand Tour season begins. Watch Biniam in his Grand Tour debut at the Giro.

The team has taken on an undisputable vibe this season, making a name for themselves and compiling victories with one of the smallest budgets in pro cycling. This has certainly brought more sponsors to their quasi-Cinderella story. Biniam feels at home with the team and extended his contract with them for an additional two years. He’ll be with them through 2026 with a significant boost in salary commensurate with his results and potential.

Rumours suggest bigger teams like Ineos Grenadiers expressed an interest in Biniam but he’s happy to keep the momentum going with a team that has been with him from the early days when others weren’t giving him a second look. As one of the sport’s brightest rising stars, his humbleness and integrity make him even more attractive.

A future World Champion?

Biniam isn’t the first pro cyclist of colour to be present in the pro ranks, a handful of others (Daniel Teklahaimanot and Merhawi Kudus among others) came before him with varying levels of success but the takeaway is what Biniam represents for the future. He did more for Africa, African cycling and cyclists of colour in one day than any predecessor.

Biniam turned 22 on April 2nd. His continued presence and success have enlarged the possibilities for African riders and cyclists of colour to reach the World Tour level. The 2025 World Championships will be in Rwanda. Will Biniam Girmay be on the podium? Stay tuned to find out! We’ll see who can’t help but root for him on that day or any day for that matter.