Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by Zac Williams/SWpix.com
Cycling’s pursuit of diversity is bringing out the most dogged and driven characteristics in riders, none more so than in Biniam Girmay’s momentous victory in Ghent-Wevelgem.
But the brutality of the cobbled Classics or the mountain stages in one of the three European Grand Tours does not compare with the obstacles that Girmay would have faced as a young child growing up in Eritrea. Born in April 2000, the 21 year old lives in Asmara, at an altitude of 2,300 metres. While he will now return home to spend time with his family as a genuine superstar, Eritrea 20-odd years ago, and even now, is not a hospitable or secure place to live.
The aftermath of the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict cast a shadow over Girmay’s infancy, with malnutrition and life expectancy rates at shocking levels. Democracy, human rights and accepted freedoms remain under threat. How on earth could a young athlete seek to flourish against such a backdrop?
Yet there he was, on the finish line, a debutant, capable of outwitting and out-sprinting some of the most experienced Classics riders in the World Tour. Girmay’s journey from war-torn Eritrea, to World Tour stardom was complete. It was a stunning moment, a ground-breaking win, that brought a lump to the throat of those so weary of cycling’s archaic attitudes while it dispelled old and largely racist cliches.
Even more powerfully, it will have kick-started a reappraisal by cycling’s traditionalists of what black cyclists can achieve. Finally, they will have taken their blinkers off. How had they been so dismissive of this young phenomenon’s talent? And how many more potential Biniam Girmays are there yet to be tracked down?
The same can be said of the ingrained resistance to the growth of women’s racing. Until Lizzie Deignan rode skilfully and determinedly to victory in the terrible conditions of the inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix last autumn, the old myths still persisted. Deignan’s was another momentous win, that kicked the received ‘wisdom’ into touch and irrefutably established that inaugura women’s Roubaix as an instant and unmissable classic.
Those two moments — Deignan’s joy in the velodrome and Girmay’s disbelief and shock — demonstrate that diversity in cycling is now real. Change is happening. It is only the beginning, and the all-too recent embarrassment of the laughable Black Lives Matter ‘protest’ in Paris at the end of the 2020 Tour de France, allied to the shockingly sexist marketing of races as recently as 2019, makes you realise that there is still a long way to go.
But there has been change. There have been breakthroughs. Girmay’s win was historic. Deignan’s blew away gender tropes. The Tour de France Femmes is coming this summer too. The commercial and sporting impetus is gaining momentum. Now the once ‘impossible’ seems distinctly possible.
Allied to this, is the positioning of sponsored professional cycling as about more, much more, than just winning races, getting in the break, and hogging TV time for sponsors. Lachlan Morton’s latest exploit, his one thousand kilometre non-stop ride to the Ukrainian border, demonstrated that huge numbers will engage with such powerful moments on social media. There was no competitive element to this, at all. Morton was racing against himself. Yet over $300,000 was raised.
So what comes next and how soon? Could a black professional finish on the podium of the Tour de France, even win it? Statistically of course, with such low representation in the World Tour, it’s highly unlikely. Girmay’s success has kicked open a door but it may take another generation for the impact of his win to be fully realised. When it happens matters, of course, but it’s not the key takeaway. What Girmay’s memorable victory showed us, was that one day, it probably will.