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Biniam Girmay: ‘Gent-Wevelgem win is so important for me, for my team, and for African cycling’

'When I saw 250 meters I didn’t want to wait because if I wait then maybe they can accelerate. I just closed my eyes and kept going,' says Eritrean.

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WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — Cycling history was written on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Wevelgem, Belgium, when 21-year-old Eritrean rider Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) became the first African rider to win a classic.

Girmay sprinted to victory in Gent-Wevelgem, a one-day race that wasn’t even on his schedule until Friday night.

“Unbelievable. Amazing. We just changed my plan a few days ago on Friday night. I just came for a good result. This is unbelievable,” Girmay said.

“I’m happy my team decided for me to do this race. This is so important for me, for my team and for African cycling. This is a really important moment for us.”

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Daniel Teklehaimanot was the first Eritrean rider to step into the spotlight at the biggest races, wearing the mountain jersey at the 2015 Tour de France and 2017 Giro d’Italia. Winning a spring classic is on another level, Girmay realized, when he answered questions at the post-race press conference.

“This is much bigger. First we cracked the podium but we were not winning. Today we won so this is really different,” he said. “We [Eritrea] are really passionate about cycling. We only know the grand tours and some big classics. They know how hard the WorldTour races are. Today’s race wasn’t live on television but my family and friends will have watched the race. After the world championships there was a big welcome. Today was also amazing.”

“I’m really surprised, especially after Friday’s E3 Saxo Bank Classic,” he said. “This is my first time on the cobblestones. I told myself to keep going and then I see myself among the big riders fighting for positioning and fighting for the good result. I’m really happy about Friday but today I didn’t expect to ride like this and be on the podium. This is a surprise for me also.”

No Tour Flanders, but the Giro d’Italia looms next

Biniam Girmay celebrates history from the Gent-Wevelgem podium. (Photo: KURT DESPLENTER/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

Gent-Wevelgem is one of the major spring classics with nearly 250 kilometers of racing on often narrow roads, tackling nine typical steep Flemish – sometimes cobbled – climbs, and gravel roads.

The cobbled Kemmelberg climb is often decisive and was climbed three times in this edition. During the two first ascents Girmay ended up losing ground on the top guns but the chase groups bounced back.

“It’s not an easy race. I didn’t know the race and just watched parts of the race on the phone or the television. It’s unbelievable to race like this and to go in the breakaway. I suffered a lot,” he said. “Through the radio I got really good directions. If there’s a climb or cobblestones, narrow gravel sections. Ten kilometers before a special section they update us.

“If we’re not in a good position they tell us when we have to go. I also thank my teammates. If I’m behind they come to bring me to the front,” he said. “I lost a lot of positions in the first section and also on the cobblestones. I didn’t feel comfortable but then I started feeling better. I tried to ride smart and follow the wheels. In the end we knew everybody was waiting for Wout Van Aert. I just played it a bit easy.”

During the final ascent on the steepest side he was present in the first chase group that quickly regained contact with the lead group that featured top favorite van Aert. During the final 35 kilometers the race became more tactical and as more groups with sprinters were coming back Girmay marked a move from Van Aert’s teammate, Christophe Laporte.

“There were really strong guys with me so I was a bit afraid. I was at the back and that gave me confidence, especially when you enter the last 250 meters. I could not expect to win. When approaching the finish I hoped for the top-three,” he said. “Christophe Laporte is one of the best sprinters, especially in the bunch sprint. I was a bit tired. When we came to 400-300 meters then I thought maybe I can try to win because I’m good at short explosiveness. When I saw 250 meters I didn’t want to wait because if I wait then maybe they can accelerate. I just closed my eyes and kept going.”

Usually the winner of Gent-Wevelgem becomes one of the top favorites for next week’s Tour of Flanders but Girmay isn’t planning to start the race.

He’s planning to go back to his family in Eritrea’s capital city Asmara. He’ll celebrate his 22nd birthday at home.

“Since I was 18 years old I went to UCI. When you’re 18 years old and you’re away from home for three months it’s hard,” he said. “Now it’s OK. I like cycling. I have really good people around me in my team. I’ve been here for a long time, for three months. I miss my wife and my daughter. I have to go back home.

“The Tour of Flanders is not on my schedule. I wish I could stay but I stayed almost three months without my family so I have to go back home. Also for my mind, I have to go home. I go home on Tuesday and stay almost one month, until Frankfurt and then the Giro d’Italia.”

After Sunday, nobody will be surprised if Girmay becomes the first Eritrean rider to win a stage in a grand tour in May.