Biniam Girmay: A black African rider will win a Grand Tour stage soon

The first black African to podium at the cycling world championships talks about the lack of diversity in the sport and why the future of Eritrean riders looks bright: "We believe we can do it."

By Alessandro Poggi

The African cycling revolution is here.

One day after Rwanda was confirmed as Africa's first host of a world championships, on Friday 24 September Biniam Girmay set a new milestone in the sporting history of the continent.

The 21-year-old sprinted to silver in the under-23 men's road race at the worlds in Belgium to become the first black African to medal in the competition and cement Eritrea's reputation as Africa's leading cycling nation.

Girmay is one of the four Eritrean riders currently competing at World Tour level and following in the footsteps of their compatriot Daniel Teklehaimanot, who in 2015 became the first African to win the Tour de France's polka dot jersey as leader of the King of the Mountains category.

At Leuven the young Eritrean puncheur equalled the feat of South Africa's Louis Meintjes, who claimed world silver in the same category in 2013.

The new Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert rider had already made a name for himself in early September, when he took his first professional race on European soil in France at the GP Besançon Doubs. His big cycling break came in 2018: after sweeping three golds at the African Junior Road Championships, he joined the UCI's World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland, where he honed his talent.

Now the Eritrean rider is setting his sights on further success, aiming to win a classic race one day, or maybe a stage at the Tour de France.

Girmay spoke exclusively with Olympics.com to discuss his history-making moment, why cycling is so big in Eritrea and when we should expect a black African rider to win at a Grand Tour.

You made history for Africa, has it sunk in yet? Have you had time to reflect on your achievement?

BG: “It’s almost two weeks now, but I still feel good and motivated. Even now I’m in touch with my family and people in Eritrea, so I’m enjoying this moment, I feel really good.”

What was the reaction back home?

BG: “Everybody was surprised. There were big celebrations in my home city, I saw some pictures…I saw hundreds of people. Still now I keep receiving phone calls from Eritrea, also some members of the Eritrean government called me and they are all super happy. Everybody is asking me: 'When do you come back home? We need to enjoy it!'. The president of the Eritrean cycling Federation is waiting for me, they are organising a celebration in front of the local media…”

How proud is your family?

BG: "What happened is that I lost my phone in the car and I only found it after the race. So I could only speak with them the day after. My father and my mother couldn’t believe it, they watched the race but they said they couldn’t spot me in the last kilometre, and they realised it only when I passed the other riders in the last few metres. On the Sunday after the race my family joined for a dinner to celebrate and they called me via Zoom to congratulate me."

Who else congratulated you?

BG: "I received many messages on social media and keep receiving them, they were like 5,000 or even more. (Giro d’Italia winner) Tao Geoghegan Hart messaged me, also (MTB Olympic champion) Tom Pidcock and many others."

If you look back at the race, what’s your best memory?

BG: "My best memory was to see my teammates working for me from the beginning to the finish line. We worked together like a big national team, staying in the front, all in one line. They even stopped when I needed to pee or take a water bottle… So I’m really pleased for this, because we usually have only one or two professional riders and we lose each other during the race, but this time we worked like a team and we were motivating each other also before the race."

What about that sensational sprint moving from 12th to second position in the final stretch?

BG "I’ve done something similar before, but maybe I’ve never passed so many riders…When I look back at it I realise I took a lot of risks. But that’s the way I like it, either winning or losing. So when I crossed the finish line it felt amazing."

After the race you said: ‘This means a lot for me, for my nation and for Africa’. Why?

BG: "I feel very happy for my nation because my people like cycling a lot, it’s a cycling country. I am also happy for Africa because I won a silver medal the day after the UCI announced the 2025 world championships in Kigali, Rwanda. That means that we have a bright future and me winning could be a big motivation for cycling for the continent."

Why do you think your silver medal made headlines around the world?

BG: "Because you look now in the peloton you don’t see black riders, maybe just one or two. Still now we are not many, we are just a small group. A black African never made the podium at a senior World championships or in a Grand Tour…"

In the last few years more and more African riders have joined professional teams. Are things slowly changing?

BG: "Of course there’s some change, but not a lot. Black African representation is still very low, we are talking about one rider a year becoming pro… My silver medal didn’t come overnight: I started to train a few years back with the UCI at the World Cycling Centre, I got experience riding in the peloton and on narrow roads, and I learned different kinds of racing. But that’s just me, many of my teammates only come to race at the world championships. So like this it’s not possible to get results, you need time to learn to race and you should start when you’re young.

But there’s some change and I hope it will continue. This year we are 7-8 Eritrean riders, so it means that things are starting to change. Also other African riders, from Rwanda from example, are now racing in Europe with the national team. So I think that will see more African riders in the coming years and we will see an improvement in the performances too."

Biniam Girmay joined his new team Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert in August. CREDIT: PHOTONEWS

Why are African athletes very successful in other endurance sports, like middle distance or long distance running, but they haven’t managed a breakthrough on the global cycling stage yet?

BG: "I think it’s about a lack of opportunities. African and Eritrean runners are very strong of course, but in running you don’t need to fight for a position like in a big cycling peloton. Power and endurance count only for 50% in cycling, the rest is about positioning, bike settings and other details. So if you don’t find the opportunity when you are young, you can’t compete with the other riders from Europe. This is the big difference in my opinion."

How long should we wait to see a black African rider win a stage at the Giro or the Tour de France?

BG: "I think it will happen soon. Probably not next year, but it won’t take too many years. Now there’s a small group of Eritreans more or less my age, riding for some established teams like Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec and Qhubeka NextHash. They are really strong, smart and hardworking. So we are a lot, we have self-confidence, we believe we can do it. Before it was like: ‘OK, we participate.' Now it’s not like this, we go to a race to win, like the others. We go for a stage win, we go for the GC (General Classification). Things are very different than before."

Winning silver at the U23 world championships was an important milestone for you and the whole African cycling movement. What are your next targets?

BG: "I’m working to win classic races one day, like the Amstel Gold Race, and a big monument in the future. Winning a stage at one of the three Grand Tours is another goal for me: I hope I will be able to participate in one of them next year, I think in my team there’s a very good atmosphere, we feel that everything is possible and everyone is pushing each other.

For me and all the Eritrean riders the Tour de France is the dream race, along with the Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix. Le Tour is special in my country, in our families it’s common to watch every stage in front of the TV."

Eritrea has a long cycling tradition documented in our original series 'Africa Cycling Revolution': how easy was it for you to take up cycling?

BG: "In our country cycling is the first sport, it’s in our blood. Every weekend there’s a local race, especially in my city, the capital Asmara. Thousands of people gather along the roads. I used to play football, then when I was 11 I started to follow my older brother who was doing cycling, like my dad. I liked to take care of his bike, then I started to ride and I loved it. When I was a small kid I preferred to only watch the races as I was scared of crashes, then I began washing the bike of my brother, I tried his helmet and his jersey, even if it was too big for me.

At the beginning it was more of a game for me, then at 12 I started racing in mountain bike and I had lot of fun. We were a group of kids, some of us didn’t even wear a helmet, but we loved fighting in the race, I really have fond memories. Mountain bike for sure helped me develop as a rider, especially with the bike handling. After three years riding MTB I crashed a lot, but I also learned a lot. So at 16 when I switched to road cycling, everything felt much easier. I still prefer to train in Eritrea because my home is at 2,300m, so I can climb up to 3,000m. There are also less cars around and I can freely train on many empty roads, plus the weather is nice and also my family is there…"

Can you tell us more about your love for the sport?

BG: "Up until now, I’m not riding for the money. Even when I signed the contract with my new team, I didn’t talk about the money, I asked about the racing programmes, the bikes…Because I just love riding the bike, I really enjoy it a lot. It allows me to travel to nice places, like in Italy, or visit countries for the first time, like Belgium. This way I don’t mind spending three-four months a year in Europe without my family and friends. Of course, sometimes training is painful, but it’s good to suffer because you have a motivation for the next day. What I really hate is cycling in the rain!"

How do you see yourself in the future?

BG: "I would like to continue to cycle as long as I can. I could go on even after I’m 60, because I love it!"