HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Biniam Girmay placed his name in cycling’s history books last weekend as the first African rider to win Gent-Wevelgem.
The shy Eritrean put in an assured performance in his debut at the one-day race, getting into the key break before smoking his companions in the sprint to the line. As a young rider in his debut at WorldTour level, the ride was spectacular whichever way you put it.
Expectations were high for Girmay at the men’s Gent-Wevelgem race on Sunday after his fifth place at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, but there was an added pressure. In a sport that is still dominated by white Europeans, the 21-year-old knew that any major result would be a first, not only for his country of Eritrea but for the entire African continent.
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“I knew that there was nobody like me winning a classic or winning a grand tour. When you win as the first guy, there is also a bit of pressure. Everyone is looking to you and talking about you. This also makes you a bit… After yesterday, I feel the pressure,” Girmay said in a press conference at his team’s hotel in Zedelgem.
When told after his own win at E3 last Friday, Wout van Aert issued a noise of surprise that Girmay had never ridden the course before, not even in a recon. The same was true for Sunday’s race, with the Eritrean only adding it to his schedule at the last moment, instead of doing a race in France.
Though he knew nothing of what lay before him over last weekend, he had the knowledge of sport director Aike Visbeek in his ear the whole time. Along with the support of experienced riders such as former champion Alexander Kristoff, and peloton stalwart Adrien Petit, Girmay’s inexperience was not a hindrance.
“From the start to the finish line, I go with Aike because I don’t know the roads,” Girmay explained. “He was my road, he told me left, I go left, he told me right, I go right. Until the finish line, he told me about everything, and it was the perfect scenario. Also, when we won, I could hear him cheering.
“When we passed 300 meters, I was confident because I am also good in the short, explosive sprints. I started earlier, but it wasn’t that early. I think it was the perfect timing.”
Girmay’s success has been well received within the peloton, though his rivals will be thinking of ways they can beat him. He said Monday that the support within the pack was just as uplifting as taking the win last week.
“I’m more happy about the way that the big riders respond to me. Even during the race and after E3, everybody come and say it’s really good for cycling,” he said. “They are really motivating me and they are giving me a lot of advice. This made me feel really happy and I’m really happy about all these guys. It means a lot to me, they come up and they say ‘congrats, good job, keep going.’”
Girmay fever has been building in Belgium since his silver medal performance in the U23 worlds road race last year. He has become a popular figure in the country with plenty asking for an autograph or a selfie with him, while he received some of the biggest cheers when he was introduced to the crowds in Ypres ahead of Gent-Wevelgem.
That popularity has also translated over into media attention and there was a large contingent of eager journalists — including VeloNews — waiting for him as he returned from a short training ride with his teammates. Girmay is growing more comfortable with the increased attention, but it’s not his natural environment and he talks quietly when he responds to questions and often issues a nervous laugh.
For Girmay, that is how he wants to remain. While he may have little choice if he continues to perform as he has, Girmay doesn’t want to be the big star courting the cameras.
“I don’t like to be like this in front of cameras. I like cycling and winning but I don’t like to be ‘the famous guy.’ I don’t think I’m ready for what will happen,” Girmay said when asked if he was ready for the attention to grow even further.
“I know where I come from, I am a quiet person. I never used to be like this in front of the camera, even in my home country. Maybe I would be with one guy for social media, not like this. It’s different. This is my first time after Leuven, so I think I need to take time.”
Girmay’s determination to stay grounded, and his team’s support of that, was in full show over the weekend as he batted back questions about sticking around in Europe for an extra week to ride the Tour of Flanders. Instead, he set off for Paris on Monday afternoon to begin his journey home to Asmara, Eritrea to spend time with his family.
While it may be a disappointment for fans not to see what Girmay could do at De Ronde, he’s not feeling that way himself. At 21, he’s got plenty of time to experience it, and spending time at home is what he wants after three months in Europe.
“After everything, family is the most important thing. From my side, the family is the most important thing. I have to take care of them of course because for three months my wife has taken care of the baby,” Girmay said. “Also, the Tour of Flanders is not in my plan. We will see for the next years because this is the beginning, so we have a lot of time.
“When I started the season, I told my wife my schedule, she accepted, and I also accepted it. Now, if I tell her that it would be one week longer it would not be easy. It is important for me to spend my time in Eritrea.”
With his home city of Asmara sitting at just under 2,400 meters of elevation and Eritrea’s mountains going even higher, Girmay can also put in a solid stint at altitude before he heads to the Giro d’Italia in May.
After his standout spring campaign, expectations will once again be high for Girmay at the Giro, but the team is keeping a lid on its own ambitions for him. First and foremost, the team wants a stage win and everything after that will be a bonus.
Further into the future, there are a wealth of possibilities for Girmay as he gets older and gains more experience. Visbeek hopes that there will be a lot more to come and Girmay will be fighting it out with stars such as van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.
“Realistically, he won a classic so I think he will be a player for the classics for the victory, and for that he needs to get more experience. He will get a bit more pressure now. He was coming as a bit of an outsider, but we take it step by step,” Visbeek said.
“The next race is in Frankfurt, where we have some good chances, and then we go to the Giro. He is one of the future riders that can be on the level of Michael Matthews and John Degenkolb and this kind of rider.
“Hopefully he can battle more with Wout and Mathieu for the victories. We are lucky in cycling that we are in this situation where we can have profiles like Biniam, Wout, and Mathieu and I think the future is bright for cycling and also for Biniam.”