‘Everyone will believe African riders can do anything’ - Biniam Girmay’s victory transcends cycling

The Intermarché-Wanty rider becoming the first black African to win a Tour de France stage will have a seismic impact on the future of the sport

Like many riders in the professional peloton, Biniam Girmay remembers watching the Tour de France on television as a child from his hometown of Asmara in Eritrea. But for Girmay, there weren't many riders who looked like him on the screen. It was the words of his father that made the young athlete believe that one day, just maybe, he could be one of the first.

“He would say come on guys, turn on the TV it’s time to watch the Tour de France,” Girmay remembers. “He always showed us how the race worked, how difficult it is and that it is the number one sport in the world. I remember in 2011 when [Peter] Sagan won and I asked my father if it would be possible to be part of that one time and my father said: keep working hard and everything is possible.”

There are pivotal moments in every bike rider’s career. Landmark occasions which changed the course of their lives so much so that if they had never happened, the chance to compete in the world’s biggest bike races might have never materialised at all. Biniam Girmay remembers his moment with clarity.

“Everything changed when [Daniel] Teklehaimanot wore the polka dot jersey,” the 24-year-old says. “He showed everything possible that gave me a lot of positives that I could also be part of the Tour and win a stage.”

Girmay was part of the generation that his fellow Eritrean rider inspired when he took home that mountains jersey in the Tour de France. Nine years later, another phase of the cycle has been completed in stage three of the 2024 Tour on the fast, flat roads into Turin.

“There are a lot of obstacles, especially if you are an African rider. It’s not easy because you race in local races so you don’t have a lot of time to show your potential,” Girmay said a few moments after taking the first sprint win of the race, beating his rivals in a frantic gallop to the finish line in Italy. “Today everyone will believe African riders can do everything.”

The date of July 1, 2024 will be written into the history books as the first time a black African rider took a stage victory in the Tour de France, on the biggest platform in the world with millions watching on TV. Those millions will include young cyclists across the globe, including in Eritrea, the impact of which cannot be underestimated. The process of diversifying the professional sport of cycling has been frustratingly slow, but trailblazers like Girmay are key pieces of the puzzle to making change.

“On sprint stages, we don't see a lot of black riders who can win stages. When we grow up, the mentality is that we just do it on the climbs – everyone has a slim body and less weight which means we are more suited to hard endurance races,” Girmay says. “For me, mentally I grew up as a sprinter with [Mark] Cavendish and Sagan as idols. To win today is unbelievable and gives me a lot of motivation."

Eritrea will be alive tonight celebrating Girmay’s victory. Each day 3,948 kilometres away at the Tour de France, fans have stood with flags and proudly shouted the Intermarché-Wanty rider’s name as he signs on at the podium.

“Before I came to France two weeks ago, every single day I went to training [in Eritrea] they said they were waiting for the Tour de France if I won one stage they would also celebrate there. Now, I don’t know what to expect, it’s going to be on fire,” Girmay smiled when questioned about how his fans at home would celebrate his win.

While many professional riders relocate to Andorra or Monaco, Girmay still bases himself in Asmara, and his ties to his country are crucially strong. He talks in subject pronouns when describing the impact of his win, explaining what “we” have or what it means to “us.” It’s symbolic of the gravity of today’s stage: Girmay has the support of a nation behind him when he unleashes his sprint.

“It means a lot personally for me but especially for the continent because it’s been a long time since a black African rider won in the Tour de France,” he added. “That means a lot, especially for Eritrean cycling because we have a long history of cycling and we have the cycling blood. We know a lot about the Tour de France, so to win today was amazing.”

Girmay’s win today should be a catalyst for more change in cycling – it does not mean that the work is done. In 2023, Girmay was one of only six black African riders in the top-level WorldTour peloton of 534, overwhelmingly white riders. Role models and trailblazers like the Girmay are the very top of the pyramid, but there’s plenty of talent below them to be discovered. 

The Intermarché-Wanty rider ended his interviews after winning his debut Tour de France stage with a plea. He asked for teams to broaden their horizons when it comes to talent spotting, helping forge pathways for more riders to join the peloton. Years from now, he wants children watching the Tour on television in Asmara to see more riders that look like them in the peloton.

“As a junior rider, I remember I would do anything because I needed to learn and know the culture in Europe. It's totally different to Eritrea. If you have to do this, you're already losing time. The UCI has already started to have African riders on the development team and this needs to continue to search for young talent and give them support so they can be part of the European races,” Girmay says.

“Cycling is more global now. I hope it will continue like this and we will inspire young riders in Africa. The teams have to look at young talents from outside of Europe.”

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