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

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

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

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

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“Bini!”, “Biniam!”, They sang in an unprecedented scene of jubilation on the European circuit. Cycling is the only sport you can practice within reach, it is often said, even if the house is an event going on. Followers are therefore used to meeting supporters who have come a long way. From their cycling-breathing lands, Bretons and Dutch have a good reputation as fan-travelers. We also know the South Americans, in particular the Colombians, cradled by the Escarabajos of the 70s and 80s, flanked by the Ecuadorians in the wake of their Olympic champion “Richie” Carapaz. Now here is 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 historical performances, and a star in his own right. It 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.

Today it is even more difficult for African runners

From Friday Girmay will undertake new conquests on the roads of the Giro, where he should be accompanied by two other Eritrean riders: the very young mountaineer Natnael Tesfatsion (Drone Hopper-Androni Giocatolli) and the more experienced Merhawi Kudus (EF Education- EasyPost), who participates in his seventh Grand Tour. Their compatriot Henok Mulubrhan hoped to join them but, fresh from poaching by the Bike Aid team (Continental, 3rd world division) from Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè, the African champion did not benefit from the doping monitoring necessary to participate. immediately to the World Tour Events.

Africans are earning a place in major 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. which 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”admits Amina Lanaya, director general of the International Cycling Union. “We must have a universal sport”.

Girmay thus becomes an exceptional standard, especially since he resided in the UCI cycling world center, but is the first to mention the difficulty for him and his family to emerge at the highest level in cycling: “Requires a lot of investment from you and your parents”noted earlier this year with Cycling Tips. “It’s an expensive sport.” And therefore it is not accessible to everyone.

A sprint for history: how the Eritrean Girmay triumphed

The young man also notes that the pandemic has limited the possibilities of attracting Western attention, essential for a career, especially today that 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 riders,” he explains, before making an appeal: “If we want more black riders, European teams have to look at more African cycling.”

Cyclists with borders

“I have met people in Africa who 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 thrive, Jean-René Bernaudeau has “I have always wanted to go to Gabon, because the Tropical Amissa Bongo is an exceptional race, which mixes international teams and African delegations”. He saw the nations there structure their cycling practice, such as Eritrea, “which has a great cycling culture due to its Italian history”o Rwanda, “where Jonathan Boyer has developed an exemplary sports project”. He also recruited bikers such as Natnael Berhane, a Vendée U trainee in late 2012 before turning pro. Not without adventures.

“There is always apprehension when traveling with an Eritrean”Bernaudeau explains. “It is a country where visas are complicated to obtain. It was a lot of work for the structure, at the administrative level, to make requests, to go to the prefecture … We had problems with customs that prevented it. Sometimes prevented from running . ” “The issuance of visas 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 considerable delays.”

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

In the women’s group, the Canyon // Sram team decided to integrate their development team into the “Diversity and Inclusion” program. Notably, it recruited Sierra Leonean Fatima Deborah Conteh, who scoured the African criterium in April but is still awaiting a visa to discover European competitions.

Freedom of movement can oppose everyone from Richard Carapaz (deprived of the Tour of Britain in 2019) to Brexit-stricken Brits. In China, another allegedly fertile ground, a rider like Wang Meiyin has seen his career hampered by local authorities, who have preferred to exploit his talent at home rather than see him in Europe.

Culture shock

When Girmay flew to his hometown in late March, instead of taking part in the Tour of Flanders in the wake of his success in Wevelgem, some suggested it may have been a visa issue. But this return had been planned for some time, his team assures him, and the Eritrean benefits from a Belgian work visa (valid in the Schengen area) until the end of 2024, and early 2026 after the announcement of the extension of the contract. He is not forced to return to the countryside, but he wants to find his family in Asmara. He takes the opportunity to train at high altitude, at over 2,000 meters above sea level and in 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 of adapting to life in Europe necessarily arises, where training structures, competitions, teams, institutions and perspectives are concentrated. career of the future cyclist. Founder of the Bike Aid team a decade ago, Schäfer witnessed the gradual emergence of African cyclists : “The situation has changed. In the beginning 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 it could create problems. There were riders who didn’t want to have a African next to them in the group “.

Racism is sometimes expressed in the privacy of team buses, as Janez Brajkovic testified about her former Ethiopian teammate Tsgabu Grmay. He can also work in public, as Kevin Reza, Nacer Bouhanni or Azzedine Lagab were victims. “There are always racists, it is part of the history of humanity”regrets Reza, who was the only black rider in the Tour de France group in the summer of 2020, when race issues took an entirely different place in the sport.

Kevin Reza (B&B Hotels – Vital Concept)

Credit: Getty Images

A young retiree from the platoons, Reza insists on educating to combat racism and hopes to see the emergence of black ambassadors to attract the most diverse talents.. “My father used to ride a bicycle, he knew the great champions of Guadeloupe, a little less the champions at a professional level”says the one who grew up in the Paris region. “More recently, I have broadened my vision, I am not just stopping at cycling. I try to look at what big stars like LeBron James or Lewis Hamilton are doing. It is interesting for any black sportsman to be inspired by their own experience, even if it is not the same. discipline”.

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

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