Biniam Girmay is one of those talents where, if you know, you know. He is a product of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre, (the conduit by which riders from nations without a top-flight development pathway are developed by the UCI itself) and is currently plying his trade at Delko. His is a name that his been on certain people's lips for a while, and though he is currently on a second-tier French team, much more is expected for him in the next few years.
This weekend past, Girmay managed to get himself into the breakaway on stage two of Tour de Alpes Maritimes et du Var, bagging the king of the mountains lead in the process.
It represents a milestone for the young Eritrean rider, but it’s far from his first success. He has won stages of Africa’s most prestigious races, the Tour du Rwanda and Gabon’s Tropicale Amissa Bongo, already in his short career.
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It is, perhaps, the first time the wider cycling world has seen him succeed, however. A televised race in Europe with a trip to the podium. It doesn’t get more ‘legit’, at least not in old-world cycling.
Because this is the biggest challenge for African riders; not only must they overcome massive disadvantage and institutional prejudice to break into European racing, they must then contend with all the culture shock that this entails, and still deliver excellent performances. Arguably better performances than European or North American riders would have to in the same position.
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The kid who beat Remco
One oft-repeated piece of trivia about Girmay is that he was the only guy who ever beat Remco Evenepoel as a junior. In fact, this is a claim from rider agent and Tour de France stage winner, Robbie Hunter – and it wasn’t one guy, it was two.
“Girmay, when he was racing as a junior with Remco Evenepoel was one of two people who beat Remco but no one wanted to take him as an athlete. The only team that wanted to take him at the time was Delko.”
Hunter spoke out last year about the massive obstacles African riders face in getting seen, let alone signed by WorldTour teams. In this context, Girmay is one of the rare fortunate ones whose enormous talent was enough to steamroller through the redtape and hesitance associated with signing African cyclists.
The fact that Girmay has penned a five-year deal with Delko is a sign of what they believe he might be able to do. It has been suggested that Delko is trying to follow a similar model to that employed by Androni Giocattoli Sidermec.
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The Italian ProTeam has made it a habit to sign up bright talents – mostly from Colombia – to long contracts, so that when the WorldTour does come calling, a release ‘fee’ is paid to Androni. The most famous example of this was the move to Team Sky of Egan Bernal, with a reported buyout payment of €350,000. In this way, ProContinental teams are able to invest in bright talent, without fear of having their prospects pinched at the end of their contracts.
Of course, it’s a gamble – and it relies on the team continuing to exist for half a decade, something of a rarity in professional cycling – but if Girmay is a success, either in winning for Delko or netting them a fat payout, this could become a viable new model for talent ID and development. No pressure, then, Biniam, but a whole new way of doing business that furthers African cycling and prevents ProTeam’s being plundered as unofficial development squads to the WorldTour behemoths rests on your shoulders.
What can he win?
The most intriguing question related to Girmay is what sort of rider he will be. His stage win in Rwanda came from a reduced bunch kick after a lumpy stage ridden almost entirely at altitudes over 2,000 metres. His three victories in Amissa Bongo comprise two flat, full-field sprints (one where he beat André Greipel and Niccolo Bonifazio both), as well as a slightly more fractured sprint finish after an intermediate day.
In Europe, his top 20 in Paris-Tours last year is intriguing, as are his podium performances in Tour de Doubs and stage three of the 2020 Coppi e Bartali. All these results represent bunch or group sprints at the end of a punishing day of action; and so, the classics are a natural conclusion for him. Where the 20-year-old’s results tail off a little is in races over 200km. He is still very young, of course, and if he can develop his endurance a little more don’t be surprised to see him in the mix for major monuments in a few year’s time.
His ability to perform at altitude is a bit of a head scratcher. It is, on the face of it, a massive boon, but so few sprint finishes in European races happen at 1,800 metres above sea level that it’s hard to see where exactly he might deploy this fantastic talent. Tour Colombia springs to mind, as an emerging race that grows in stature every year, as does a points classification jersey in races with a whole bunch of climbing. A climber’s classic like Il Lombardia is also not out of reach.
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