Tri Motrat – Epizod 87
The significance of Girmay’s talent, and what might follow, is intriguing. Many believe his success will spark change in a sport lacking in diversity. Africa’s success in the sport could change; it could become a continent that produces not just riders, but winners.
Two of the six black African riders in the World Tour peloton are from neighbouring Ethiopia, but the rest, like Girmay, are Eritrean.
That is one very small (a population of about 3.7m) and poor (13th lowest in the World Bank’s global rankings of GDP per capita) nation, punching above its weight on a continent of 1.2bn people.
Girmay is a family man who has shunned the typical professional cyclist’s path to a life in Andorra or Monaco. He still lives in Asmara – Eritrea’s capital. It’s a city, and Eritrea a country, which has the bicycle woven into its culture, thanks in part to more than 50 years of Italian colonial rule.
“Cycling is in our blood,” adds Girmay. “The first time I rode a bike? I don’t know. I was really, really small – aged three. Really small.”
“Cycling is like football in our country. I like Lionel Messi, but I choose Biniam Girmay,” says one Eritrean fan nearby.
“It is our culture,” says another, as more and more gather, some with children no more than two years old, circling us on their tiny balance bikes.
“We grow every single kid with a bike. Their first gift is a bike – we use it as transport to go to school, go to work… every single person has a bike. If you visit Eritrea you will see it.”
And that’s the real trick. Eritrea is difficult, almost impossible for many westerners to get to. It is a highly-militarised one-party state which has been led by President Isaias Afwerki for 30 years.
The population is subject to compulsory decades-long military service and government control of many parts of their lives. It is sixth from the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index, which measures the independence of the world’s media.
Eritrea was at war with neighbouring Ethiopia in 2000 – the year that Girmay was born in Asmara. That tension has lingered throughout his and his five siblings’ childhood.
Conflict in Tigray, a breakaway Ethiopian region that borders Eritrea, draws in the country’s troops to this day.
“In 2020 all of my friends went to war,” says Selam Amha Gerefiel, a cyclist from Tigray.
“Some of my friends died, some friends who lived – some riders – lost legs, or arms. It’s difficult, so I couldn’t stay there.
“I had one friend – I enjoyed my time with him – every day we were training; every day going to the coffee shop; we go everywhere and I lose him because of the war.
“I can’t stay close to people; I get close to people, then they die.”
Gerefiel got out and is now part of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre (WCC). Based an hour from Tafers, cycling’s world governing body’s flagship facility is flanked by snow-capped mountains and a crystalline blue river.
Gerefiel’s story is heart-breaking, and not an easy one for her to recall over quinoa and pan-seared sea bass in the Centre’s restaurant, just one table away from where president David Lappartient entertains guests.