Cycling – Racism and diversity (1/3): Biniam Girmay, the tree that hides the forest in the platoon

This article is the first in our article on racism and diversity in cycling. Here is the rest of the program:

One month after conquering the great world of cycling, on the Belgian roads of Ghent-Wevelgem, Biniam Girmay returned to European soil. The young Eritrean, the first black rider to win a major event in the road cycling calendar, took part in the classic Eschborn-Frankfurt on Sunday, in which he took 38th place while his Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert teammate Materials Alexander Kristoff rolled. the podium. And he received a thunderous welcome in Germany from hundreds of fans who came to sing his glory on arrival.

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“Bini!”, “Biniam!”, They chanted in a scene of unprecedented jubilation on the European circuit. Cycling is the only sport that can be followed at the door, it is often said, even if your home is in the course of an event. Fans, then, are accustomed to meeting supporters who have come a long way. From their cycling lands, Bretons and Dutch have a good reputation as travel-sympathizers. We also know the South Americans, especially the Colombians, shaken by the beetles of the 70s and 80s, who were joined by Ecuadorians following their Olympic champion “Richie” Carapaz. Here is now Eritrea and its beloved “Bini”.

The 22-year-old, who had already won a silver medal at the last Espoirs World Cup, is a pioneer, author of historical performances, and a star in his own right. It is also an exception to the award lists that African runners have long been absent from, especially when they are black: South Africans Daryl Impey, Robbie Hunter, even “white Kenyan” Chris Froome have already he wrote some lines of success and history, while colonial France had brought some North Africans to the Tour.

Today it is even more difficult for African runners

From Friday, Girmay will embark on new conquests on the Giro roads, where he will have to be accompanied by two other Eritrean pilots: the young climber Natnael Tesfatsion (Drone Hopper-Androni Giocatolli) and the more experienced Merhawi Kudus ( EF Education-). EasyPost), which is taking part in its seventh Grand Tour. His compatriot Henok Mulubrhan hoped to join, however, having just stolen the Bike Aid team (Continental, 3rd World Division) by the Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè, the African champion did not benefit from the anti-doping control needed to participate immediately in World Tour Events.

Africans are making their place in the biggest races, and even on the podium, but in the opinion of all those directly or indirectly involved in diversity issues, there is still a long way to go to fully integrate a continent that will host the road world championships for the first time in 2025, in Rwanda, 104 years after the birth of the event, in Copenhagen. “An African who wins a Belgian classic for the first time is not enough”awarded by Amina Lanaya, Director General of the International Cycling Union. “We have to have a universal sport.”

Girmay then became an excellent standard, especially because he was a resident of the UCI World Cycling Center, but was the first to mention the difficulty for him and his family to emerge at the highest level of cycling: “It requires a lot of investment from you and your parents”pointed out earlier this year with Cycling Tips. “It’s an expensive sport.” And that, therefore, is not accessible to everyone.

A sprint to history: how Eritrea Girmay triumphed

The young man also points out that the pandemic has limited the chances of attracting Western attention, which is essential for a career, especially today as the Qhubeka team has left the World Tour to return to the Continental level due to lack of funding. “I am sorry to say that today it is even more difficult for African runners,” he said, before launching a call: “If we want more black riders, European teams need to look at more African cycling.”

Cyclists with borders

“I’ve met people in Africa who have made a big impression on me.” From the west of France, where he created the Vendée U in the early 1990s and prospered the professional team that today shines the colors of TotalEnergies, Jean-René Bernaudeau has “I’ve always wanted to go to Gabon, because Tropicale Amissa Bongo is an exceptional race, mixing international teams and African delegations.” He saw that the nations there were structuring their cycling practice, like Eritrea, “which has a great cycling culture for its Italian history”o Rwanda, “where Jonathan Boyer developed an exemplary sports project”. He also recruited pilots such as Natnael Berhane, a Vendée U apprentice in late 2012 before becoming a professional. Not without adventures.

“There is always apprehension when traveling with an Eritrean”explains Bernaudeau. “It’s a country where visas are difficult to get. It was a lot of work for the structure, at the administrative level, making requests, going to the prefecture … We had customs problems that prevented it. Sometimes prevented. current “. “The visa issue is one of our real obstacles”Timo Schäfer, leader of the Bike Aid team, a German structure dedicated to the development of African cycling, abounds. “You have to follow procedures that can be very cumbersome, with significant delays.”

Lappartient: “I was very proud of Africa when Biniam Girmay won Ghent-Wevelgem”

In the women’s peloton, the Canyon // Sram team has decided to integrate its development team into its “Diversity and Inclusion” program. Above all, he recruited Sierra Leonean Fatima Deborah Conteh, who met the African criteria in April, but is still waiting for a visa to discover European competitions.

Freedom of movement can be opposed by everyone from Richard Carapaz (deprived of the Tour of Britain in 2019) to the British affected by Brexit. In China, another alleged breeding ground, a runner like Wang Meiyin saw his career hampered by local authorities, who preferred to take advantage of his talent at home rather than see it in Europe.

Cultural shock

When Girmay flew to his home country in late March, instead of taking part in the Tour of Flanders after his successful Wevelgem, some suggested it might have been a visa issue. But this return was planned for a long time, his team assures us, and the Eritrean is benefiting from a Belgian work visa (valid in the Schengen area) until the end of 2024, and shortly after 2026 after the announcement of the extension of his contract. He is not forced to return to the country, but wants to find his family in Asmara. Take the opportunity to train at altitude, more than 2,000 m above sea level and its European home in San Marino.

For him, as for all the talents around the world who want to pursue a career, the question of adapting to life in Europe necessarily arises, where the training structures, the races, the teams, are concentrated. the institutions and professional perspectives of the future cyclist. Founder of the Bike Aid team a decade ago, Schäfer saw the gradual emergence of African runners : “The situation has changed. At first, it was really very rare to see Africans in Europe. We were the first, with the MTN-Qhubeka team at the time. And we saw that I could pose problems. There were pilots who didn’t they wanted to have an African by their side in the peloton. “

Racism is sometimes expressed in the privacy of team buses, as Janez Brajkovic stated about his former Ethiopian teammate Tsgabu Grmay. He can also work in public, as Kevin Reza, Nacer Bouhanni and Azzedine Lagab have been victims. “There are always racists, it’s part of human history”laments Reza, who was the only black racer in the Tour de France peloton in the summer of 2020, when racial issues took a completely different place in sport.

Kevin Reza (B&B Hotels – Vital Concept)

Credit: Getty Images

A retired young man from the platoon, Reza insists on the need to educate to fight racism, and hopes to see the emergence of color ambassadors to attract the most diverse talents.. “My father rode a bicycle, he knew the great champions of Guadalupe, a little less the champions at a professional level”says what grew up in the Paris region. “More recently, I’ve broadened my vision. I’m not just into cycling. I’m trying to look at what big stars like LeBron James or Lewis Hamilton are doing. It’s interesting that any black athlete is inspired by their experience.” even if it is not the same discipline “.

For young Africans and blacks around the world who are passionate about cycling, there is now Bini.

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