Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by Zac Williams/SWpix.com
When Gazzetta dello Sport, the venerated Italian sports daily, publishes a wild transfer rumour — and over the years, there have been a few — cycling usually laughs it off. It’s striking though, how often the rumours turn out to have more than a grain of truth to them.
The latest centres around Biniam Girmay, the celebrated Eritrean rider who took a thrilling success in Ghent-Wevelgem two weekends ago.
Extraordinarily, but perhaps predictably, Ineos Grenadiers are named by La Gazzetta as his suitors, reportedly hoping to spirit the 22 year old away from Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert and add him to a roster that includes Grand Tour winners Egan Bernal, Richard Carapaz, Geraint Thomas and super talents such as Adam Yates, Dani Martinez, Richie Porte and Filippo Ganna.
Ineos don’t need another hot talent, but that is unlikely to stop them from securing Girmay if they want to. Yet — if true — it’s a move that will stick in the craw of those who have long advocated greater diversity in cycling.
Girmay’s breakthrough win in Ghent-Wevelgem was about much more than just racing.
It had a political, social, cultural dimension, and a global significance not just for cycling, but for all sport. It was a win borne of resilience, perseverance and ambition. It was much more than a victory in a bicycle race. It was a win that came against all the odds, that shattered the preconceptions and racism — because that bigotry was long present — that had always held all black riders back.
There was a moment, two years ago, when the peloton and the top teams — including Ineos — had a chance to make a powerful statement in support of BLM — the Black Lives Matter movement.
Remember September 2020, a fractured season and the Tour ending as summer slid into autumn?
Sport was brimming with gestures of solidarity. Athletes took the knee across most sports, from F1 to the NBA. Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James and later former fast bowler, Michael Holding, became highly vocal, deeply passionate, advocates of greater diversity across sport.
As the 2020 Tour closed on Paris, there was talk of what could be done by teams to support the BLM movement.
There were many mixed messages. I spoke to some World Tour team bosses who told me that they really wanted to make a show of solidarity in Paris, but needed to check what their sponsors thought first. Other teams didn’t think all the riders would support the initiative, while other simply laughed the idea off.
Ineos Grenadiers boss Dave Brailsford told me: “We all agree that racism can’t exist and we should be very much on the front foot.”
Of the few riders who braved the issue, Tao Geoghegan Hart said: “Cycling has a problem with diversity and inclusivity. This is a fact.”
Kevin Reza meanwhile, the only black rider competing in that year’s Tour de France said: “I don’t carry as much weight in world sport as Hamilton or LeBron James, but I feel really free and ready to fight and move forward.”
In the end there was a gesture of sorts, with Reza being ushered to the front of the bunch at the roll-out of the final stage and some riders sporting Sharpie-marked masks, trumpeting ‘No To Racism’ at the sign-on. But that was it and no, nobody took the knee.
By the spring of 2021, Reza was bemoaning the lack of solidarity shown towards black riders. “Since the Tour de France, nothing much has changed. I heard a lot of talk but didn’t see much action taken in the different organisations who manage our sport. It’s a pity but that’s how it is.”
The reality is of course, that none of the top teams had any significant interest in Binian Girmay until he won a cobbled Classic. There was no major initiative among World Tour teams to promote or develop black riders, or to dispel the old mores that even now, still persist in the peloton and the following team cars. It took Girmay’s irresistible success to blow that bigotry away.
Five years after Reza had been racially abused by a former Ineos Grenadiers rider, Gianni Moscon, in 2017, former UCI President Brian Cookson admitted that Moscon should have been more harshly dealt with. “I do agree that in the current circumstances a case of racist abuse in any branch of the sport might attract a more severe penalty,”he said.
It’s a supreme irony that Ineos, a team who repeatedly defended Moscon, privately and publicly, for his racist bullying of another black rider, and who gave him several second chances, should be vying for the now highly prized Girmay’s signature.
But perhaps we are naive to be shocked by the team that promoted Sky’s ‘Ocean Rescue’ campaign, only to subsequently get into bed with one of the world’s wealthiest polluters, fracking proponents, Ineos.