Mathieu Van der Poel’s magnificent gesture enhances significance of Biniam Girmay’s historic Giro d'Italia stage win
The way that Mathieu van der Poel congratulated Biniam Girmay on his Stage 10 victory in the Giro d’Italia even before the Eritrean crossed the line was a mark of respect from a rider who doesn’t take losing lightly. Felix Lowe on how a burgeoning rivalry – as encapsulated by the Dutchman’s fantastic thumbs-up gesture – is proof that we’re experiencing a true golden age of racing.
Watch the moment Girmay became first Black African to win Grand Tour stage
The advent of Eritrea’s first ever Giro d’Italia stage winner was far from a box-ticking exercise. Biniam Girmay didn’t just win a routine bunch sprint or kick clear from a reduced field on terrain that suited his strengths. Nor was he gifted the historic win – the first for a Black African rider in cycling’s Grand Tours – or triumph because others had gone home or thrown in the towel.
Girmay won in quite ridiculous yet utterly glorious circumstances. Distanced after taking a wrong turn, he had to fight back while relying on his superb Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert team-mates to put out all the fires in his absence. He then had to go from distance and beat arguably the best rider in these circumstances and over this terrain of his generation.
And Girmay didn’t just beat Mathieu van der Poel. He broke him. He snapped his elastic at the very moment when his own could and should have been torn in two. He pushed and pushed and pushed the Dutch superstar so far and for so long that his rival had no choice but to buckle and concede defeat – in a two-up slumping of the shoulders that recalled Van der Poel’s unexpected loss to Denmark’s Kasper Asgreen in the 2021 Tour of Flanders.
Biniam Girmay and Mathieu van der Poel shake hands after the Eritrean's win in Stage 10 of the Giro d'Italia 2022
Image credit: Getty Images
But it was what happened next, before Girmay’s arms reached for the skies in celebration of his landmark win, which made for the image of the day: Van der Poel gave his vanquisher the thumbs-up. The 27-year-old had launched his sprint late, had clawed his way back and had got level; they were shoulder to shoulder for what felt like an eternity before he sat up and could only watch and approve as Girmay – who peaked at a VdP-in-Siena-eclipsing 1400 watts on the home straight – ran away with it.
For a great champion who hates losing, this was the highest mark of respect – a sporting and human show of congratulations before his rival had even crossed the line; a gesture which caught the significance of the moment and – quite literally – single-handedly contributed to the legendary framing of a watershed moment in the sport.
Girmay had become the first Black rider to win a Grand Tour stage. But from Van der Poel’s perspective at that precise moment, Girmay had simply become the rider that had beaten him, Van der Poel: a rider who has worn yellow and pink in his debut Tour and Giro, a multiple champion across numerous disciplines and categories, and a double winner of the Tour of Flanders who recently beat the best all-round rider in the world so convincingly that he consigned Tadej Pogacar to fourth place in a two-horse race.
Girmay’s performance and achievement alone would have made this moment one that would go down in the annals of the sport. But Van der Poel’s gracious concession that he was beaten by the better rider – after what has been an absorbing rivalry between both riders ever since the opening stage in Budapest – gave extra sparkle to this milestone.
Class knows class when it sees it – and the defeated Van der Poel was first to congratulate Girmay in the subsequent melee at the finish in Jesi.
To appreciate the full beauty of Girmay’s win, though, you cannot merely look through the prism of Van der Poel’s gesture no more than you can simply replay the final five-hundred metres and marvel at the 22-year-old’s sheer speed and astounding confidence in striking out so early.
This was the culmination of a thrilling tussle throughout the preceding 196km between the Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert and Alpecin-Fenix teams of the two protagonists – teams who combined to reel in the day’s breakaway trio, infiltrated the subsequent counter-attack, then helped nurse back their leaders in their respective times of need. Dries De Bondt, Lorenzo Rota, Jan Hirt and Domenico Pozzovivo can all sleep soundly tonight, with their heads held high.
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If you can’t fault their teams, however, you can certainly call out the two riders for individual mistakes that contributed to the excitement and unpredictability, while adding yet more grist to the mill of their simmering rivalry.
Both Girmay and Van der Poel needed to fight back at different times: the latter after a mechanical issue with 55km remaining and the former when he totally misjudged a corner and went the wrong way just 6km from the finish.
As Girmay recovered, Van der Poel followed attacks from Simon Yates and Richard Carapaz before putting in an opportunistic solo surge of his own – not for the first time in this Giro (his perhaps over-zealous aggression in the Naples circuit race last weekend comes to mind). In so doing, Van der Poel probably expended more energy than was strictly necessary.
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But here lies the key to why we find him so compelling: he attacks even when he doesn’t need to; for all his brilliance he’s a tactical mess whose strengths often paper over his shortcomings, whereby providing the necessary handicap, if you will, to help level the playing field.
We’ll never know whether Van der Poel could have given more in the final sprint had he not tried to eliminate the need for a sprint in the first place. But this misses the point. It’s irrelevant. It’s pure whataboutery which only deflects from the significance and stardust of his opponent’s win and the work of Girmay’s team.
“It means a lot,” an emotional Valerio Piva, the Intermarche sporting director, said when quizzed about the hugely symbolic win. “A new continent coming at the top of cycling – I think that is the future and I think it’s very important for cycling to see victories for riders from Africa.”
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And if Van der Poel’s gesture enhanced what was already a standalone monumental moment for a modern-day trailblazer, the contribution from veteran Italian Pozzovivo in leading out Girmay on the home-straight won a collective thumbs-up from the millions of fans watching all over the world.
There is something satisfying that, in this latest display of cycling’s new golden age unfolding before our eyes, a contribution from a 39-year-old who struggled to find a team this winter could well have made all the difference.
Sadly, events which followed Girmay’s win have conspired to bring about another image by which we will remember this stage: that of Girmay being released from hospital sporting an eyepatch.
By a quirk of coincidence and shared misfortune, Girmay managed to mirror Van der Poel’s podium mishap from the opening stage of the Giro by firing a Prosecco cork into his eye. But with far worse consequences: his continuance in the race is now unlikely.
How sad that the man who made history has been brought down to earth in such a way – floored by the very means by which he was meant to celebrate his watershed moment. We wish “Bini” a rapid recovery.