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Biniam Girmay’s win in Gent-Wevelgem was a groundbreaking moment in the sport of cycling, and according to Xylon van Eyck, the victory will help open the doors for more Black African riders to make the transition to European racing.
Van Eyck has worked in cycling for almost two decades, and while one of his current roles is with the Novo Nordisk team, he has worked alongside teams from Africa and African riders in a number of capacities.
Watching Sunday’s race from his home in South Africa, an ecstatic Van Eyck was understandably impressed with Girmay’s performance after the 21-year-old won Gent-Wevelgem from a powerful four-rider move.
Girmay became the first rider from Eritrea to win Gent-Wevelgem or any cobbled classic.
“This is unbelievable and unreal but it’s been coming. I’m shaking from watching that, it’s been so incredible. I’m watching at home with my family and I’m trying to play it cool. Eritrea, I think you and your readers are aware how massive cycling is for the nation. This will just be incredible for them,” Van Eyck told VeloNews.
Van Eyck felt that while it was important to praise Girmay’s performance, it was also noteworthy to mention the steps that Eritrean and African cycling have made in the last 10 years.
“To understand this win you have to go back in time years ago and remember the work done by others with the UCI African school. For me, in South Africa, it was very interesting to see Black African riders from all over the continent rock up for our racing 12 to 13 years ago,” he said.
“At the time we had the highest level of racing and then you had people talking about the talent and the vision that was out there. That’s when you had Daniel Teklehaimanot coming through, and Merhawi Kudus coming through, and then you started to believe because they laid the groundwork for the younger riders.”
“This win is significant because there are so many bike riders watching this who will see a rider like them at the top of the sport, and from today they’ll believe that they can do it. He will be relatable to them. It’s so significant,” added Van Eyck.
It has been a struggle for Black African riders to gain a foothold in European racing.
There has been an unwillingness from the European sphere to provide regular opportunities. Even when Dimension Data had a WorldTour team, and they provided chances for African riders, there were still a limited number of pathways for riders from the continent to make it to Europe.
While Sunday’s win for Girmay is obviously important, Van Eyck hopes that it will help prove to European teams that the talent is there if they look for it.
“I don’t think it will fling the doors wide open but it will squeeze it open just a little bit more. You have to be exceptional like Biniam Girmay, where teams will lock him into a long-term contract because the talent is so evident. I hope that’s not the case where only the cream off the top comes through. I hope that it opens the door a bit more so that the net is wider and so that teams realize that there’s an untapped market that we’ve not looked at,” Van Eyck said.
“There are other riders looking for teams on a bigger stage, you’ve got riders like Natnael Tesfatsion who is always proving himself. It’s like there’s been a case study done and that if teams were willing to cast the net wider and believe in the guys and put a little bit of effort into connecting with a culture that you might not understand easily, then there are major benefits.
“Intermarché, how much extra mileage are they going to get from the win today than if one of their other riders won? It’s going to be massive for them and their brand. They made history today and well done for them for getting him on the team.”