When Eritrean cyclist Biniam Girmay produced his awe-inspiring killer sprint finish at the close of the Under-23 race at the Road World Championships in November 2021, he became 'the first' Black African rider to finish on the podium at the event.
With all of the celebrations given to the emergence of this young, gifted and Black athlete and his winning smile, it seemed it would only be a short matter of time before he would explode onto the 2022 UCI World Tour scene. Of course, he did, and it was again his outstanding sprint finish victory at Gent-Wevelgem earlier this year on March 27 which captured world media headlines:
'Biniam Girmay: Eritrean becomes first African to win a one-day classic with Gent-Wevelgem victory' proclaimed BBC Sport, with CafeRoubaix exclaiming 'Biniam Girmay: Eritrean becomes first African to win a one-day classic with Gent-Wevelgem victory'. The Telegraph added 'Biniam Girmay becomes the first ever African rider to win a cobbled Classic'. VeloNews said 'Cycling history was written on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Wevelgem, Belgium when 21-year-old Eritrean rider Biniam Girmay (Intermarche – Wanty – Gobert Materiaux) became the first African rider to win a classic.'
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Indeed, in the above VeloNews article, Girmay gave his take on the significance of his win: “I’m happy my team decided for me to do this race. This is so important for me, for my team and for African cycling. This is a really important moment for us.”
This writer watched the climax of the race at the Rapha Clubhouse in New York City. Their staff had gathered around huge screens to witness this 'history' in the making. The evening before, I had been presenting my Sunday Times Cycling Book of the YearDesire Discrimination Determination – Black Champions in Cycling with leaders and members of the African American cycling community.
Central to our conversation was the history of Black cycling champions, including the original 'Black cyclone', the track sprinter Marshall 'Major' Taylor, and more recent outstanding Black road racers such as Rahsaan Bahati and Justin Williams. All at some point in their careers they tested their racing ambitions in Europe.
Their stories are central to understanding the narrative of the Black cyclist presence across Europe over the years. Very few riders of this identity have been able to achieve the same highs and victories across Europe as Marshall 'Major' Taylor did over one hundred years ago. However, Girmay, the new 'Black cyclone', has been storming to new heights. And he followed his Gent-Wevelgem victory with another 'historic' win - this time on Stage 10 in this year’s Giro d'Italia.

History maker: A real but contentious term

Girmay admirers have taken to social media to fete this 'history maker'. I see this as a real term to use, but also a very contentious one, depending how you choose to see the world of cycling. When the media headlines above state: 'Cycling history was written on a sunny Sunday afternoon', it should be noted that Moses L Kamara of Lunsar Cycling Team took the Stage 3 victory at the 2nd Tour De Lunsar, in Sierra Leone on that same day.

'I'm in awe' – McEwen salutes Girmay after historic win at Giro d’Italia on Stage 10

From my point of view Moses is also a significant 'history maker'. This exciting new bike race in Lunsar, West Africa may not have been known by those at the Rapha New York City store. There is no criticism of this from me. However, the hegemonic European cycling history narrative continues to determine for cycling fans what is 'Grand' or 'Classic' and 'history making', and those terms cannot be applied to what is happening outside of this world.
This same European narrative of cycling applies the term ‘the first’ towards any that is 'other', and uncritically, as if this is offering some kind of accolade of prestige to the Black cyclist who achieves in their world. In absorbing the imposed media discourse around his victories Girmay also called himself "the first". But it is a wonder from now on, who could be the 2nd, 3rd, 9th or 55th Black cycling athlete to achieve a podium place at the UCI Road World Championships or a stage win at the Giro?

Reasons for optimism?

It seems agreed by many cycling commentators that the 'Biniam Boom' could have a serious nuclear impact on the nature of road cycling. Not for damage (although some ultra conservative traditionalists will feel threatened by this). But, a 'boom' of change and transformation in how ethnic identity will be represented across the sport in the future. The former South African cyclist, Xylon Van Eyck said: “This win is significant because there are so many bike riders watching this who will see a rider like them at the top of the sport, and from today they’ll believe that they can do it.”
This is a hopeful prognosis. But, I think we don’t fully know. Time will tell. We can use history for some sense of comparison. We can look at the 'Biniam Boom' in juxtaposition to the golfer Tiger Woods, and when he burst on to the world scene to become 'the first' to win a golfing major, the US Masters in 1997. This was over 25 years ago, and it is not as if this 'Tiger Boom' has stimulated an influx of Black champion golfers that transformed ethnically diverse representation in golf.
Still, respected riders and cycling journalists remain convinced that the 'Biniam Boom' will drive a potential transformation of broader ethnically diverse representation in the sport. The 2020 Giro winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, who made it his personal quest to find a Black rider to mentor at World Tour level, and as a way to ignite ethnic diversification amongst the professional peloton, said of Girmay's Gent-Wevelgem victory:
“This is unbelievable and unreal… I am shaking from watching that, it’s been so incredible… Eritrea, I think you [VeloNews] and your readers are aware how massive cycling is for the nation. This will just be incredible for them.”
Whilst cycling journalist William Fotheringham wrote: “Wonder if we will look back at today in a few years, maybe five or 10, and see Biniam Girmay’s Wevelgem win as a turning point for cycling’s spread worldwide, [a] similar impact to Lucho Herrera’s stage win in the 84 Tour. Hope so. Feels like a massive moment.”
It is true that since Herrera’s victory in 1984, Colombian riders have been given clear passage to showcase to the world their abilities at 'Grand Tours' and in the 'Classics' on a regular basis. With the correct management in place and genuine interest from leading World Tour teams, Colombian riders such as Egan Bernal have achieved victory at the Tour De France and the Giro.
However, Black cyclists emerging from the African continent have been showing their capabilities for many years. The rise of Eritrean cycling and making of Biniam Girmay is no fluke. He stands on the shoulders of Daniel Teklehaimanot, 'the first' African to wear the climbers' polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France in 2015, and Natnael Berhane before him. More new 'Black cyclones' are emerging from Eritrea, such as Henok Mulubrhan and Natnael Tesfatsion.
And not just male riders. Several Black female racers have emerged on to the world scene through the developmental work of German based Canyon-SRAM Generation team. In January 2022 they announced their eight-rider roster as a new UCI Continental squad. This consisted of Olivia Shililifa, an U23 road race champion of Namibia, Fatima Deborah Conteh of Sierra Leone, Valentine Nzayisenga of Rwanda, and Llori Sharpe of Jamaica. They all aim to rise further as World Tour racers, seeking to match Teniel Campbell of Trinidad and Tobago, currently the sole Black woman racing at this level.
No doubt the greatest revelation this year for a Black female cyclist has been Taky Marie-Divine Kouamé of France. In October, she added the world title to her Junior World Championship Track Sprint 500 metres win from 2019. But the Black female riders mentioned here are a drop in the ocean amongst the white and European dominance across the sport at the World Tour level.

The barriers still to overcome

When considering the high-profile media focus on Girmay as a 'history maker', it can be argued this is a diversion from the reality and truth about the many barriers to accessing and achieving in cycling faced by Black people born in countries such as the UK, USA, France, Canada and Australia due to racism. There are thousands of Biniams, Daniels and Natnaels of African heritage, born and living in these countries. Could the 'Biniam Boom' in cycling not trigger the cycling talent ID hunters to bring this talent to the fore for future development and potential future national representation?
In July 2021 British Cycling launched its #OurRide strategy, announcing many new goals for tackling the “ethnicity gap in the sport”, including: “Being more ambitious in our approaches to recruitment by employing from a more diverse talent pool.”
It was the evidence from my work which showed that genuine structural changes were required at British Cycling for tackling their ethnicity gap. But their action must not just be about Black people being invited into the house to sit on what is a constructed Diversity and Inclusion group for British Cycling manufactured to assist with performative outcomes. The best and most knowledgeable Black British people in cycling should be recruited to lead at the highest level on the British Cycling executive leadership team, where the real decision making for the sport takes place.
Meanwhile across the African continent, according to Team Africa Rising, advancing numbers of Black riders on the World Tour scene is being held back by a multitude of constraints including the lack of access that Black people have to virtual technology for supporting training and racing, too little highly-competitive racing across the African continent, and obtaining travel visas for racing in Europe. The latter is framed as a contentious argument, on whether this is just an issue for Black riders, where some white riders from Africa claim that they have also faced this problem. Still, when I spoke to Ugandan National Road Race Champion Charles Kagimu of Team Amani, he was truly clear about the obstacles and issues faced by the Black professional cyclist from Africa.
“When you are preparing for a race and you are thinking about the visa situation. It affects your mental capacity. Increases the stress. Most countries do not have embassies. If I can’t travel from Nairobi I have to go elsewhere to travel. Having to apply for a visa doesn’t put you in a great situation.”
Kagimu also raced in the Tour of Rwanda this year, finishing 21st overall amongst a field that included an U23 Great Britain national team, able to travel with ease from Europe to Africa for their racing on 30-day tourist visas at no cost. This gives a sense of the differences given to the licencing of Black professional cyclists based in Africa and white European cyclists in being able to practise their profession across the world.
But this issue is not an apparent one if you are shaping up as the next Black cycling racing superstar.
Although he has been reluctant to say it about himself, Biniam Girmay is a huge role model for aspirant racing cyclists to see, whether Black or white; it is the grace and formidable power of the cycling athlete that captures the attention. Biniam, the new 'Black cyclone', seems likely to storm on for years to come.
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Former elite racing cyclist Marlon Lee Moncrieffe is a Doctor of Education at the School of Education, University of Brighton, UK. His ground-breaking book Desire Discrimination Determination – Black Champions in Cycling won the Sunday Times Cycling Book of the Year award 2022.
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