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E3 Saxo Bank Classic: Biniam Girmay impresses with confident ride to fifth in debut

Wout van Aert called the Eritrean a 'big talent' after he made it into the group of favorites at the Belgian classic.

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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — In a day of great racing, Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) was one of the highlights of the E3 Saxo Bank Classic on Friday.

Girmay is riding his first full season at WorldTour level in 2022, but he didn’t show an ounce of self-doubt as he bashed the cobbles and chased down attacks in the group of favorites. At 21, Girmay was four years younger than the next eldest in the breakaway, Jhonatan Narváez.

What made his ride even more impressive was that his E3 debut was just his second cobbled race this season and this season and he had never even seen most of the major climbs that he raced over.

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In the end, Girmay ran out of gas and was distanced when Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte made the race-winning move on the Paterberg. He stayed with the other major contenders, however, and was just pipped for fourth by Matej Mohorič.

“It is a long time since I did the cobbles at the world championships and I have never trained on the cobbles, so this is my first time in total. It’s hard, but I’m also in good shape at the moment. I also think about the positioning and not the pavé,” Girmay said.

“I had a little bit less experience, I don’t know the roads, this is my first time. I didn’t even watch the race on TV. It was really difficult and sometimes I am a bit back in the positioning, sometimes I was at the front. But my team did a good job to keep me at the front. E3, for me, was one of the hardest races in my life.”

While Girmay had very little experience in racing on Belgian roads, he had plenty around him at the team and he relied on some of his older teammates to ensure he was in the right place at the right time.

“I need more experience about the positioning. I don’t know exactly which corner is coming, but we have already some experienced guys like [Andrea] Pasqualon and [Adrien] Petit so those guys also tell me that in this moment you have to be there. I think about the positioning in the right moment, and this is more experience I need,” he said.

“I know that everybody was on the limit, but I tried my best and I followed all of the attacks. In the last 800 meters, he came from behind me so I couldn’t react. Otherwise, I’m happy.”

Girmay has a good record when it comes to racing in Belgium after taking a silver medal in the U23 road race at the world championships last year. He has developed something of a fan club in the country and he was happy to hear plenty of vocal support for himself on the roadside.

“I am happy because I have a lot of Belgian fans so if they see those guys they are also like my family. I saw in the race everyone was shouting ‘Biniam allez, allez’ so this means it feels like home so it’s enough for me,” Girmay said.

High praise from Wout van Aert

Girmay was due to head to France this weekend for the La Roue Tourangelle one-day race, but his performance in Harelbeke has meant a slight change in plans for the young Eritrean and he will now ride Gent-Wevelgem.

However, he hasn’t been enticed to stick around in Europe for a little longer to ride next week’s Tour of Flanders. Instead, he will head home to see his family and spend time training at altitude ahead of his grand tour debut at the Giro d’Italia.

“For the next season, but for this year I already had my plan, and we are not going to change it. We just keep continuing like this, but in the future, all the classics in Belgium are in my head. I really need to race in Belgium more as soon as I can,” he said.

Girmay’s performance didn’t go unnoticed by those around him and race winner Wout van Aert called him a “big talent” after issuing a clear noise of surprise when he found out that Girmay hadn’t ridden the parcours even once before.

“He’s riding impressive already the whole season and if it’s true what you are saying that it’s all-new for him then it’s even more impressive that he ends up in a race like this in the front,” van Aert said. “I think it’s clear that he’s a big talent and I think it’s exciting for cycling to have new continents on top of the WorldTour. I don’t know him personally but hats off for his performance.”