Date: Tuesday, 10 October 2023
After a successful 2022, the Eritrean had high hopes for the 2023 season
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. After winning a major Classic and a stage in the Giro d’Italia in 2022, many had even greater expectations for 22-year-old Biniam Girmay in 2023, including Girmay himself. But instead, the Eritrean sensation struggled through much of the year, and a stage victory in the Tour de Suisse was the highlight in a season marred by sickness, crashes and injury.
But those who know Girmay know that his greatest strength is not his power or speed but his own sense of inner calm, which frankly beguiles his age.
“Last year was incredible. Everything was happening so fast. Last year was a first for everything. It was my first Grand Tour, my first Classics, and everything went well – way better than I could ever have expected.” Girmay told Rouleur in a recent interview. “Okay, it is never easy to repeat something like that, but sometimes just really small things make a huge difference. Details matter, especially for sprinters, I think. And if one little thing is off, it can make a big difference.”
In hindsight, 2023 got off to a good start as Girmay won a stage in the Volta a la Communitat Valenciana in early February. According to Girmay, his condition was only improving as he raced towards his first main objective, the Belgian Classics. But he got sick just before the first Flemish Classics, and then, of course, there was a high-speed crash mid-way through the Tour of Flanders that brought his spring campaign to an abrupt halt.
“We were just racing so fast. The last time I looked at my computer, we were going like 75km/hour, and everyone was racing so close together,” Girmay recalls. “The guys were really getting nervous. And then the guy in front of me changed his position just a little, but it was enough to hit his wheel, and the guys ran into me from behind, and I lost my balance. I don’t remember anything after that. I lost consciousness for two hours. And when I woke up, I found myself in the hospital. Even today, I still don’t remember anything.”
Images from the high-speed crash are horrific, as Girmay went rolling on the pavement, with riders falling on and around him. Surprisingly, Girmay suffered no fracture but was badly concussed, and his body was covered in cuts and bruises. It would be more than two weeks before he could even consider getting on a bike again.
Rebooting, Girmay then set his sights on his next objective, his first Tour de France. After winning a stage in the Tour de Suisse, he appeared to finally be back on track. So, when he came to the start of the Tour, his sights were firmly set on winning at least one stage. But at the Grand Départ in Bilbao, Girmay, admittedly, struggled to find his rhythm, and a third place on the stage to Bordeaux proved to be the highlight of his first Tour de France.
“Everything was so different at the Tour. It was different than the Giro. It was different from the Monuments. You could sense the tension building already a week before the race. The expectations are so high,” Girmay says, looking back on the month of July. “Mentally, you have to be so strong. The Tour de France is just another level altogether. All the fighting for position, all of the sprint trains just going full gas in the final – It is like nothing else I have experienced. It was a huge learning curve. But now I know.”
Girmay was clearly frustrated by his Tour de France debut, yet both he and his Intermarché-Circus-Wanty team are playing the long game. “The first step is to be constructive about everything and to learn from each situation,” says his sports director, Aike Visbeek. “Biniam is very young still. He is only 23 and has not lived in Europe that long. The key is to learn and understand what we can do better because we are still very much in the learning process. We are still trying to figure out the best way to balance living in Eritrea and racing in Europe, fine-tuning our training and preparation.”
Visbeek insists – even after his eye-opening 2022 season – there were a lot of firsts in 2023, with the Tour being the biggest. “This year in the Tour was one of the highest levels for sprinters in a few years. I don’t think he expected the Tour to be that big or the racing to be that aggressive. I think he was a bit overwhelmed at the Tour. There was a whole new level of intensity that was new to him. I mean in the Classics, you fight with Classics riders, but in the Tour, you are fighting with all of the sprint trains. There was just a whole other level of intensity.”
Visbeek also admits that Girmay made some small mistakes, and in the Tour, such errors come with huge consequences.
After finishing third on stage six to Bordeaux, Girmay and his team were focused on the following day to Limoges, as the uphill sprint suited him perfectly. “He was just so focused on the sprint that he forgot to drink enough. And he got dehydrated,” Visbeek recalls. “And after a week of racing at the highest level in the Tour, well, small mistakes like that are very costly.”
Visbeek also says that the team is trying to find the best way to adapt to Girmay’s life in Eritrea and his racing in Europe. “He trains very well in Eritrea, but the problem is that he has no one that he can really train with for a good six hours. There are guys that can be with him for four hours, but not six. And in a bike race, it is the last two hours that count.”
But despite the different setbacks in 2023, one senses that they belong to the team as much as Girmay himself. Both stepped up to the WorldTour together in 2021 and they have experienced success and setbacks together. The fact that he has a contract through to 2026 is nothing if not a testament to the confidence they have in Girmay.
“When I was in the hospital after my crash in Flanders, somebody from the team came to visit me every day in Belgium,” Girmay recalls. “I was in the hospital for two weeks after the crash, and every day, someone from the team came to visit me and stay with me for like two hours. I cannot say enough about my team. At the beginning of the year, they said to me clearly that they didn’t expect me to repeat last year. And they stressed that I have a four-year contract and that I still have time to develop.”
Girmay, however, also understands that he is already a national hero in his native Eritrea. He knows that his fans are following his every result, hoping for his next exploit. And he does not want to disappoint.
“To be honest, I don’t get the feeling that he is getting pressure from the international cycling community,” says Visbeek. “But he is getting pressure from his fans back home in Eritrea. And he puts pressure on himself. Biniam wants to win. But you know there are a lot of boxes you need to tick if you want to be up there with the best, with Van Aert, Van der Poel etc. And he is not ticking all of the boxes yet. This is something we talk about. And we are focused on ticking more boxes so that he will be there in the future.”
Visbeek works closely with Girmay throughout the year, and despite the lack of big results in 2023, he is optimistic as they head into 2024. “Last year Biniam won Gent-Wevelgem, and then this year he finished last (ed. actually he finished 96 out of 97 finishers), but he finished in the freezing rain. He finished a 250-kilometre race in the freezing rain in five-degree temperatures for the first time. And in the Tour, he had some bad moments, but he finished it and even got sixth on the Champs-Élysées. But, mostly, he finished his first Grand Tour.”
For Visbeek, this year’s Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour are important steps in Girmay’s evolution as a professional. Both are important boxes that are now ticked.