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Biniam Girmay: ‘It’s still possible for African riders to reach the WorldTour’

Intermarché-Wanty’s Eritrean puncheur Girmay says loss of Qhubeka team was a setback for African cycling, but insists there are still routes for its riders to the top.

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SAINT-SAUVEUR-DE-MONTAGUT, France (VN) – Runner-up in the world under-23 road race in Belgium last September and winner of the Trofeo Alcúdia in Mallorca at the start of this season, 21-year-old Eritrean Biniam Girmay is riding just his second WorldTour stage race this week.

Sixth on Paris-Nice’s opening day into Mantes-la-Ville and again on stage three on the tough uphill sprint into Dun-le-Palestel, the youngster has been the stand-out performer for the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert team.

Talking to VeloNews just before the start of stage five, Girmay acknowledged that the stages that he was targeting have now passed but that he’s still hoping to get some more out of the “Race to the Sun,” even if only more very useful experience of competing at the very top level, which is still so new to him. “I feel good after the first four days, I’ve still lots of motivation, I feel strong, but we’ll see after today,” he said.

“The first three days before the time trial were quite flat, and now we’re into the second half of the race where it’s harder. We’ve got some good climbers in the team like Georg Zimmermann and Rein Taaramäe so I’m expecting that we’ll be working for them, but I might still might a chance.”

Girmay comes from a sporting family who lives in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. A footballer as a kid, he changed sports when his father, a long-time cycling fan, bought him a bike in his early teenage years.

Inspired by the exploits of the likes of Daniel Teklahaimanot and Merhawi Kudus, who in 2015 became the first Eritrean riders to appear in the Tour de France, he rose through the junior ranks, his successes leading to the offer of a place at the UCI’s World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland.

Also read: History-maker: Girmay scores first road worlds medal for Eritrea

“It’s a long story about how I got there, but the short version is that after I won two gold medals in the African championships in 2018 they contacted me and that led to me going to Switzerland and starting to race in Europe,” he explained.

Winner of a stage in the Tour of Rwanda and La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in 2019, he left the WCC to join the Marseille-based Delko-Provence team in 2020 and moved to Intermarché halfway through 2021. He ended the season with a flourish, producing a dazzling sprint in the U23 world championship in Leuven, Belgium, to clinch second place, making him the first rider from Eritrea to finish on a worlds podium. He backed that up with fifth place in the season-ending Gran Piemonte semi-classic.

He sees one-day races as his forte at the moment and says that he’d love to race in Paris-Roubaix, which he did as a junior. Asked about the prospects for other African riders reaching the WorldTour, he insists that his example shows that it is possible, but acknowledges that the loss of the Qhubeka team from the top division at the end of 2021 has closed off one route that was previously available.

“Of course, the loss of Qhubeka probably has made things more difficult, but I think there are still ways for riders from Africa to become pros,” he said. “I managed to find my way into a WorldTour team and I didn’t come through with Qhubeka, so there is the opportunity for riders to find another path. The UCI’s World Cycling Centre at the UCI is one option, success in African races is another.”