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

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

  • Wednesday : Racism and diversity (2/3) – Amina Lanaya: “We want Africans who win”
  • Thusday : Racism and diversity (3/3) – These initiatives that aim to make cycling more accessible

A month after conquering the big world of cycling, on the Belgian roads of Ghent-Wevelgem, Biniam Girmay made his return to European soil. The young Eritrean, the first black rider to win a major event on the road cycling calendar, took part in the Eschborn-Frankfurt classic on Sunday, in which he took 38th place while his teammate from Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux Alexander Kristoff rode on 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 on your doorstep, it is often said, even if your house is on the course of an event. The followers are therefore used to meeting supporters who have traveled a long way. From their lands that breathe cycling, Bretons and Dutch have a good reputation as supporters-travellers. We also know the South Americans, especially the Colombians, rocked by the Escarabajos of the 1970s and 1980s, joined by the Ecuadorians in the wake of their Olympic champion “Richie” Carapaz. Here is now Eritrea and its dear “Bini”.

At 22, the one who had already distinguished himself with a silver medal at the last Espoirs World Cup is a pioneer, author of historic performances, and a star in his own right. He is also an exception in the prize lists from which African runners have long been absent, especially when they are black – South Africans Daryl Impey, Robbie Hunter, even the “white Kenyan” Chris Froome have already written a few lines of success and of history, while colonial France had brought some North Africans on the Tour.

It’s even harder for African runners today

From Friday, Girmay will embark on new conquests on the roads of the Giro, where he should be accompanied by two other Eritrean riders: the very 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. Their compatriot Henok Mulubrhan hoped to join them but, freshly poached from the Bike Aid team (Continental, the 3rd world division) by the Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè, the African champion did not benefit from the anti-doping monitoring necessary to participate immediately in World Tour events.

Africans are making a place for themselves in the biggest races, and even on the podium, but, in the opinion of all those involved directly or indirectly in diversity issues, there is still a long way to go to fully integrate a continent which will host the world road 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”concedes Amina Lanaya, director general of the International Cycling Union. “We need to have a universal sport.”

Girmay then becomes a superb standard, especially since he was a resident of the UCI world cycling center, but he is 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”he noted at the start of the year with Cycling Tips. “It’s an expensive sport.” And which is therefore not accessible to everyone.

A sprint for history: how Eritrean Girmay triumphed

The young man also notes that the pandemic has limited the possibilities of attracting Western attention, essential for a career, all the more so today that the Qhubeka team has left the World Tour to return to the Continental level, for lack of financing. “I regret to say that it is even more difficult for African riders today”, he explains, before launching an appeal: “If we want more black riders, European teams must watch cycling more African.”

Cyclists with borders

“I have met people in Africa that have marked me a lot.” From the west of France, where he created the Vendée U in the early 1990s and made the professional team that today wears the colors of TotalEnergies prosper, Jean-René Bernaudeau has “Always wanted to go to Gabon, because the Tropicale Amissa Bongo is an exceptional race, which mixes international teams and African delegations.” He saw nations there structure their cycling practice, such as Eritrea, “which has a great cycling culture due to its Italian history”or Rwanda, “where Jonathan Boyer developed an exemplary sports project”. He also recruited riders there like Natnael Berhane, a Vendée U trainee at the end of 2012 before becoming a pro. Not without adventures.

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

Lappartient: “I was very proud for 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. She notably recruited Sierra Leonean Fatima Deborah Conteh, who scoured the African criteriums in April, but is still waiting for a visa to discover European competitions.

Freedom of movement can oppose everyone, from Richard Carapaz (deprived of Tour of Britain in 2019) to Britons affected by Brexit. In China, another supposed nursery, a runner like Wang Meiyin saw his career hampered by the local authorities, who preferred to take advantage of his talents at home rather than see him in Europe.

Culture shock

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

For him, as for all talents from all over the world who want to make a career, the question necessarily arises of adapting to life in Europe, where the training structures, races, teams, institutions and career prospects are concentrated. future cyclist. Founder of the Bike Aid team a decade ago, Schäfer saw the gradual emergence of African riders : “The situation has changed. At the very beginning, it was really very rare to see Africans in Europe. We were the first, with those of the MTN-Qhubeka team at the time. And we saw that it could pose problems. There were riders who didn’t want to have an African next to them in the peloton.”

Racism is sometimes expressed in the privacy of team buses, as Janez Brajkovic testified about his former Ethiopian team-mate Tsgabu Grmay. He can also work in public, as Kevin Reza, Nacer Bouhanni or Azzedine Lagab have been victims. “There are always racists, it’s part of the history of humanity”regrets Reza, who was the only black rider 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

Young retiree from the platoons, Reza insists on the need to educate to fight against racism, and hopes to see the emergence of ambassadors of color to attract the most diverse talents.. “My father was cycling, he knew the great champions of Guadeloupe, a little less the champions at the professional level”says the one who grew up in the Paris region. “More recently, I have broadened my vision, I don’t just stop at cycling. I try to look at what big stars like LeBron James, or Lewis Hamilton are doing. It’s interesting for any black sportsman to be 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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