Blazin’ Saddles: More to come from Eritrea's Biniam Girmay after historic Gent-Wevelgem win
History was made on Sunday as Eritrea’s Biniam Girmay became the first African rider to win a cobbled classic at Gent-Wevelgem. Felix Lowe rounds up this and the other main talking points from a busy weekend of cycling action – as Elisa Balsamo’s hot streak continues, Quick-Step struggle at home (but not abroad), and Wout van Aert shows he’s still the man to beat at Flanders.
Gent-Wevelgem: Highlights of men's race as Eritrean rider Biniam Girmay makes history
With the first half of so-called Flanders Week done and dusted, the scene is set perfectly for Wednesday’s Dwars van Vlaanderen, the last race before the showpiece finale on the weekend: the Tour of Flanders. On top of Biniam Girmay’s emphatic Gent-Wevelgem win in front of his adopted home crowds in Belgium, a busy weekend of cycling action also included the conclusion of the Volta a Catalunya. Here are the main talking points…
Floodgates to open for African trailblazer Girmay
Joining a Belgian team might have been the best decision Biniam Girmay made. In his first season at WorldTour level, the 21-year-old has been riding a far busier schedule than he did previously at DELKO while being introduced to the kind of races he may not have considered otherwise.
And it’s fair to say that the Eritrean has taken to the Belgian cobbles like a duck to water: a solid fifth place in the E3 Saxo Bank Classic midweek forced him and his team to change his programme and enter him into Gent-Wevelgem, where he took an historic win on Sunday. Some debut.
Not only did Girmay become the first African rider to win a cobbled classic, he became the first rider since his current Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen in 2009 to win Gent-Wevelgem on his debut, and in so doing won the race at a younger age than the likes of Sean Kelly, Bernard Hinault, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan did. Illustrious company.
'Wow, wow, wow! Amazing' - Biniam Girmay makes history with Gent-Wevelgem win
Girmay’s win was not any old win, either. The entire peloton came up against a rampant Wout van Aert from a deadly Jumbo-Visma team, with the in-form Belgian, once his big attack Kemmelberg was neutralised, seeing his impressive foil Christophe Laporte go up the road alongside Girmay and two others. One of them was a previous Milan-San Remo winner in Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and the other, Belgium’s Dries van Gestel (TotalEnergies), a rider who had top-tenned at Le Samyn and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne earlier in the season.
Twelfth in his debut Monument at Milan-San Remo 10 days ago, Girmay was the fastest finisher on paper – but still had the poise and power to go early and come round from the back as the peloton closed in on the home straight at Wevelgem. He held off a late surge from Laporte to the delight of pretty much everyone watching – but not to the universal surprise.
For Girmay is the real deal. Fast, tenacious, strong and highly likable, he’s proved himself to be every bit the African “flahute”. He’s a popular figure not just in his team – look how they celebrated with him – but inside the peloton where he’s making his presence really known in what is proving to be a breakthrough year. If 2021 saw Girmay notch his first pro win outside Africa, as well as finish second in the U23 world championships, 2022 has seen him take things up a level: victory in his second race of the season, the Trofeo Alcuida, followed by a string of top 10s in Paris-Nice and Milano-Torino, and that promising 12th in La Classicissima.
'I did not expect this' Girmay reacts after historic Gent-Wevelgem win
Fifth at E3 showed he had the legs and temperament to get a ground-breaking result at Gent-Wevelgem, where he reacted to Laporte’s move with 24km to go before making it into the winning move. Van Aert was full of praise for the man of the moment, Girmay.
It’s really big. Obviously in the last few weeks there has been some talking about him but winning a classic like this is another step forward. It seems like he’s taking steps every day, so it’s impressive and congrats to him.
Fellow Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot winning back-to-back polka dot jerseys at the Criterium du Dauphine and leading the Tour’s KOM standings for four days in 2015 was already a huge step up for African cycling. But Girmay’s victory in a Belgian cobbled classic serves up a whole new dimension of meaningful landmarks and sends shivers of excitement through the spine just thinking about where things can go now for the African continent. And to think, Girmay hasn’t even made his Grand Tour debut yet.
Xylon van Eyck, an ironman athlete, media personality and cycling brand ambassador from South Africa, told Cyclingnews: “This win is significant because they 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. He will be relatable to them. It’s so significant.”
You can bet Girmay will now be even more of a marked man – although not at Flanders: he is taking a well-deserved break from the bike to visit his wife and daughter in Eritrea. My, will there be a warm reception for him back home wherever he goes…
Two very different second places for Laporte
Christophe Laporte has been one of the revelations of the season, the Frenchman fitting seamlessly into the Jumbo-Visma engine room since his move from Cofidis, where he was a utility man who only really got to go for wins once Nacer Bouhanni had been moved on.
But Laporte has not simply – or even at all – become another second tier sprinting option for Jumbo-Visma, in the mould of Mike Teunissen; he’s become a key component of Wout van Aert’s support team not to mention an option in his own right should his leader become marked out, as was the case on Sunday.
After Van Aert and Laporte crossed the line arm in arm for a Jumbo-Visma one-two at E3 on Friday, the Belgian champion admitted afterwards that there had been no discussion as to who would take the win; teammates like Laporte would have their chances later in the season, was Van Aert’s message.
Such a chance certainly didn’t look like it would fall on Sunday when Van Aert made what looked like the decisive move on the third – and most difficult – ascent of the Kemmelberg with 34km remaining. But here was a turning point in the race.
'This is the big one' - Van Aert's incredible attack at Gent-Wevelgem
Perhaps these one-twos have become the norm for Laporte since his move – after all, his maiden win for the team came ahead of teammates Van Aert and Primoz Roglic on the opening day at Paris-Nice. Because it was Laporte who led the chase on Van Aert, and in trying to stick with his leader, he helped the likes of Jasper Stuyven, Kasper Asgreen and Mads Pedersen to close the gap.
When Van Aert’s move was neutralised and a larger leading group reformed, it was Laporte – completely reborn and reinvigorated since his humdrum Cofidis days – who kicked clear, taking Girmay, Stuyven and Van Gestel with him. With Van Aert seemingly marked out, the Frenchman got his chance after all.
But he was unable to do anything with it. Naively hitting the front of the quartet as they approached the finish, Laporte had an obvious disadvantage in the final sprint. It proved costly, for while he was first to react to Girmay’s acceleration, he didn’t have enough zip to close it down. A second second place in the space of three days. Perhaps had Laporte been gifted E3 then Van Aert may have won Gent-Wevelgem. Who knows. It’s all conjecture. And the game plan so nearly came off.
Belgian Wout Van Aert of Team Jumbo-Visma and French Christophe Laporte of Jumbo-Visma pictured in action during the 'E3 Saxo Bank Classic' cycling race, 203,9km from and to Harelbeke
Image credit: Getty Images
Van Aert still the man to beat in Flanders
Jumbo-Visma threw the kitchen sink at Gent-Wevelgem but only ended up with the tea towel. They still remain the big favourites for the Ronde van Vlaanderen through Van Aert. Speaking after Gent-Wevelgem, Van Aert admitted that the race had gone to plan until the final 250 metres. “We raced how we wanted,” he said at the finish.
Maybe I didn’t have the legs from Friday but we still raced aggressively and we tried to go for the win all together. We tried to set up Christophe for the win in the final with a small group. It was our game plan – or Tiesj [Benoot] or someone else. It was the perfect situation. It’s just a pity that we missed out on the win.
With Benoot also in the mix, Jumbo-Visma have a deadly trident going into Flanders on Sunday. Laporte and Benoot will get their chances on Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen while Van Aert rests up ahead of his big objective, where form dictates that he’ll be the outright favourite.
It wasn’t so long ago that Van Aert winning major classics looked fraught with difficulty given the attention he was getting from all his rivals. But the arrivals of Laporte and Benoot have given their leader a new lease of life. What’s the point of sitting on Van Aert and refusing to tow him if one of his teammates just runs away with things themselves? Shrewd business for the Dutch team this winter – business from which everyone at the team, not least Van Aert, is benefiting.
‘What an unbelievable job!’ - Van Aert seals E3 Jumbo-Visma one-two
Dark day for Quick-Step at Gent-Wevelgem
It’s not often that Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl don’t have a rider in the top 10 of a Belgian cobbled classic. But on Sunday you had to keep looking down the results to Kasper Asgreen’s 32nd place before you landed on the highest finisher from Patrick Lefevere’s team.
GCN stats guru Cillian Kelly says it’s the first time since 2009 that Quick-Step didn’t get a rider in the top 30 at Gent-Wevelgem. It was that man Asgreen, the defending champion, who registered the team’s best result in E3 as well – a lowly 10th place on Friday. The pressure if going to be high for the remainder of Flanders Week, with Belgium’s top team really needing a big result in either Dwars door Vlaanderen or the Ronde.
Time for Yves Lampaert to step up on Wednesday before Asgreen finally finds his groove on Sunday. Otherwise, Lefevere will be banking on Julian Alaphilippe bouncing back from injury to save Quick-Step’s spring at the Ardennes.
Pidcock was a surprise entry to the race, eight days after clambering off his bike at Milan-San Remo. He put on a spirited display before being dropped, after which he dug deep en route to finishing 67th. The 22-year-old says he’s struggling to fuel up during races, his liver unable to process carbs meaning he hits the wall all too often.
Pidcock is confident that he can get to the root of the problem, but it’s a concern ahead of a period of the season in which he expected to excel. Elsewhere, Ineos have a young classics squad who all seem very capable and hungry, but just lack the collective experience or killer instinct to make the difference. Like with Girmay, you sense that a big win is just around the corner for Jhonatan Narvaez. But this spring may prove too soon for a team in transition.
No beating Balsamo right now
Rainbow curse? What rainbow curse? A third win on the bounce for Elisa Balsamo makes the Italian world champion very much the rider to beat in the women’s peloton. After victories in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda and the Classic Brugge-De Panne, Trek-Segafredo’s Balsamo held off Marianne Vos in a thrilling finish to Gent-Wevelgem.
Balsamo fought Susanne Andersen tooth-and-nail for Lotte Kopecky’s wheel on the home straight before surging clear from the Belgian champion’s slipstream to hold off Vos’s charge to the line. With three wins from three WorldTour races, no one is in better form than Balsamo in professional cycling right now. Can the 24-year-old make it four at Flanders?
'Incredible riding' - Balsamo holds off Vos to sprint to Gent-Wevelgem victory
Higuita realises potential in Catalunya
Over in Catalonia, Ineos Grenadiers were far more aggressive as they looked to propel their man, Richard Carapaz, to overall victory at the expense of Sergio Higuita on the final day of the Volta a Catalunya. Sixteen seconds separated the two riders going into the seventh stage, which played out over six laps of the hilly Montjuic circuit in Barcelona.
Carapaz had pipped his Colombian rival to victory in Stage 6 after the duo lit up the race with a splendid 125km breakaway through hilly territory to depose overnight leader Joao Almeida, the Stage 4 winner, at the top of the standings.
Highlights: Carapaz beats out Higuita in tense finale
On the sixth and final lap on Sunday, Carapaz was launched by teammate Carlos Rodriguez but couldn’t make the difference as Higuita closed him down. A group of 18 crossed the line together as Italy’s Andrea Bagioli took the win to give Quick-Step something to smile about away from their woes on the cobbles. It was the team’s second win in three days following Ethan Vernon’s spirited sprint scalp in Stage 5, the 21-year-old Briton’s maiden pro win met with wild celebrations over the line.
For Higuita, the 24-year-old made up for missing out on a stage win by securing his first ever GC win in a stage race outside his native Colombia. With four finishes in the top five ahead of his ninth place in Barcelona, Higuita capped a solid week in Catalonia. The pint-sized climber is certainly reaping the rewards from his move from EF Education First to Bora-Hansgrohe over the winter. Keep this progression going and a maiden Grand Tour stage win at the Vuelta later this year is surely on the cards.
Highlights: Higuita clings on for GC win as Bagioli surges to Stage 7 win