In the summer of 2018, a teenaged Remco Evenepoel was dominating junior racing in Belgium and beyond with almost absurd ease. A fortnight after casually winning the European Championships by nigh-on 10 minutes, he lined up as the overwhelming favourite for the Aubel-Thimister-Stavelot stage race.
The opening stage, a 90km run through the hilly hinterland of Liège, seemed tailored to the newly-minted European champion's talents, and he duly flexed his way clear of an awed peloton. Only one rider dared to come with him. If that was noteworthy in itself, then the two-up sprint in Aubel was almost shocking, as Biniam Girmay nonchalantly out-kicked the hitherto unassailable Evenepoel.
Gent-Wevelgem, in other words, wasn't the first time a Belgian giant has fallen to Girmay, who scored an historic victory for Eritrean and African cycling on Sunday with his perfectly-pitched sprint on Vanackerestraat.
"I think it's such an important race, especially for me and my team and, of course, also for African cycling," Girmay told reporters as he took a seat in the press room half an hour after his victory. "This is a really important moment for us."
News of Girmay's talent, already signalled when he was lining up for the UCI World Cycling Centre team in junior races four years ago, has amplified exponentially since he claimed a silver medal in the under-23 road race at the World Championships last September. After a strong start to the 2022 season which included a win at the Challenge Mallorca, he was deemed an outsider ahead of Milan-San Remo, but few envisaged he could make such an immediate impact on the cobbles.
Indeed, neither Girmay nor his Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux squad expected as much. He was included in the roster for the E3 Saxo Bank Classic on Friday largely to gain experience, but after placing an assured fifth on his first-ever outing on the cobbles of the Flemish Ardennes – he hadn't even reconnoitred the route beforehand – Girmay was persuaded by Directeur Sportif Aike Visbeek to stay in Belgium for Gent-Wevelgem.
His provisional schedule initially had him down to spend Sunday afternoon in France, racing 'Off Broadway' at French 1.1 race, La Roue Tourangelle.
The raucous reception Girmay received when he arrived to sign on at the start in Ypres on Sunday morning suggested that the 21-year-old is already among the WorldTour's leading men, and he proved as much over the following 249km. He dealt confidently with each passage over the Kemmelberg, and, crucially, he limited the damage when favourite Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) tore the race asunder with a vicious acceleration on the final time up the cobbled hill.
"It's not an easy race," Girmay said. "I suffered a lot, I lost my positioning… At times there was a lot crashes in front of me and then I came back again. But my team did a really good job. They believe in me, they gave me a really good opportunity and a really good position.
"I didn't know the race, but I knew exactly every corner because I had my DS on the radio. They gave us really good directions – but without the experience, it's not an easy race."
After Van Aert's onslaught petered out, Girmay was part of a group that returned to the front of the race with 27km remaining, and he showed the soundest of tactical instincts to follow a move from the Belgian champion's teammate Christope Laporte just 3km later. Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Dries Van Gestel (TotalEnergies) came with them, and suddenly the winning move had taken shape.
Judging the interminable finishing straight in Wevelgem has proved beyond riders with far more experience than Girmay over the years, but his decision making was flawless in the final reckoning. He sat at the rear of the four-man group and then unleashed a rasping acceleration with a shade under 250 metres to go. The dangerman Laporte, who led out the sprint, couldn't get back on terms. Victory was Girmay's.
"I couldn't expect to win. Even with 1km to the finish, I was just thinking that I needed to keep fighting for the top three because Christope Laporte is also one of the best sprinters and I was also a bit tired," Girmay said.
"But when we got to 400 to go and then 300 to go, I said, 'OK, maybe I can try to win,' because in the short explosive efforts, I am also good. When I saw 250 to go, I didn't want to wait because if I waited they were maybe going to accelerate and not give me some space. So I just closed my eyes and kept going."
Next, a trip home and no Tour of Flanders
Eritrea's cycling tradition is a longstanding one, even if, like Colombia in yesteryear, it seemed for generations to exist almost in isolation from the sport in Europe.
Over the past decade or so, riders such as Daniel Teklehaimanot, Merhawi Kudus and Natnael Berhane have graced the WorldTour peloton, but Girmay's victory in Gent-Wevelgem – the first by an African in a cobbled Classic – is a landmark event in Eritrea's cycling story.
"This much bigger," Girmay said, when asked to compare this win with his silver medal at the Leuven Worlds. "We were on the podium but we were not winning. Today we are winning. It's totally different."
Girmay was fêted on his return to Eritrea at the end of last season, and he can expect a similar reception when he flies home to Asmara on Tuesday for a planned visit – assuming, of course, that his Belgian team doesn't convince him to stay a little longer and make his Tour of Flanders debut next Sunday.
"The only person who can decide is Biniam himself and his family. From us, there is no pressure," Visbeek said.
In his post-race press conference, Girmay's answer was polite but firm. "No, I have to go back home. I wish I could stay but I have been three months without seeing my family and I have to go back home. I already had this plan in December."
Girmay will use the time in Eritrea to train at altitude ahead of his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d'Italia in May, and he will warm up for the Corsa Rosa with Eschborn-Frankfurt on May 1. Before taking his leave, however, Girmay assured his Flemish hosts that he would return to race in these parts in the years to come.
"In total I really like it, suffering and fighting for position," Girmay said. "For the future, for sure, I can do more Flemish Classics."
It went without saying, but he can win them too.
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