Under a stifling hot Swiss sun, Biniam Girmay rests his forearms on his handlebars, his muscular right leg out at an angle to stabilise himself as he gives pre-race interviews.
He’s no different to any other rider cruising slowly through the gauntlet of microphones on bikes worth around £15,000 – like thoroughbreds on parade.
But, Eritrean Girmay is one of only six black African riders in the top-level World Tour peloton of 534, overwhelmingly white riders.
Girmay’s real distinction though is as one of the finest talents in the sport. Last year he made history as the first black African to win a one-day cobbled classic – in Gent-Wevelgem – and a stage of cycling’s second biggest Grand Tour race – the Giro d’Italia.
And he’s exciting to watch. Girmay is a Mark Cavendish-style sprinter, who wins on flatter or mildly hilly stages.
The 23-year-old Intermarche Circus Wanty rider is in picturesque Tafers, a wealthy Swiss village surrounded by lush Alpine meadows. It is the start line for the third stage of the Tour de Suisse: a crucial warm-up race for the Tour de France, where the whole world may see Girmay break more new ground as the first black African to win a stage of cycling’s greatest race.
“I can’t imagine…” he says through mirrored shades and a big smile. “I don’t know how big it is for us to win a stage of the Tour de France as an African rider – it would be amazing.”
Part of the reason Girmay speaks of ‘us’ could be seen the previous day. He took his first Tour de Suisse stage win, triumphing in a high-speed bunch sprint.
As he crossed the line, a gaggle of Eritreans surrounded him, draping him in the country’s flag whilst running alongside his still-moving bike, chanting his name. One even held an umbrella above his head. If they could bear him back to the team bus on a Sedan chair, they just might have.
The significance of Girmay’s talent, and what might follow, is intriguing. Many believe his success will spark change in a sport lacking in diversity. Africa’s success in the sport could change; it could become a continent that produces not just riders, but winners.
Two of the six black African riders in the World Tour peloton are from neighbouring Ethiopia, but the rest, like Girmay, are Eritrean.
That is one very small (a population of about 3.7m) and poor (13th lowest in the World Bank’s global rankings of GDP per capita) nation, punching above its weight on a continent of 1.2bn people.
Girmay is a family man who has shunned the typical professional cyclist’s path to a life in Andorra or Monaco. He still lives in Asmara – Eritrea’s capital. It’s a city, and Eritrea a country, which has the bicycle woven into its culture, thanks in part to more than 50 years of Italian colonial rule.
“Cycling is in our blood,” adds Girmay. “The first time I rode a bike? I don’t know. I was really, really small – aged three. Really small.”
“Cycling is like football in our country. I like Lionel Messi, but I choose Biniam Girmay,” says one Eritrean fan nearby.
“It is our culture,” says another, as more and more gather, some with children no more than two years old, circling us on their tiny balance bikes.
“We grow every single kid with a bike. Their first gift is a bike – we use it as transport to go to school, go to work… every single person has a bike. If you visit Eritrea you will see it.”
And that’s the real trick. Eritrea is difficult, almost impossible for many westerners to get to. It is a highly-militarised one-party state which has been led by President Isaias Afwerki for 30 years.
The population is subject to compulsory decades-long military service and government control of many parts of their lives. It is sixth from the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index, which measures the independence of the world’s media.
Eritrea was at war with neighbouring Ethiopia in 2000 – the year that Girmay was born in Asmara. That tension has lingered throughout his and his five siblings’ childhood.
Conflict in Tigray, a breakaway Ethiopian region that borders Eritrea, draws in the country’s troops to this day.
“In 2020 all of my friends went to war,” says Selam Amha Gerefiel, a cyclist from Tigray.
“Some of my friends died, some friends who lived – some riders – lost legs, or arms. It’s difficult, so I couldn’t stay there.
“I had one friend – I enjoyed my time with him – every day we were training; every day going to the coffee shop; we go everywhere and I lose him because of the war.
“I can’t stay close to people; I get close to people, then they die.”
Gerefiel got out and is now part of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre (WCC). Based an hour from Tafers, cycling’s world governing body’s flagship facility is flanked by snow-capped mountains and a crystalline blue river.
Gerefiel’s story is heart-breaking, and not an easy one for her to recall over quinoa and pan-seared sea bass in the Centre’s restaurant, just one table away from where president David Lappartient entertains guests.
It’s incongruous to put it mildly. But there is an open-door policy in Aigle-Martigny, where the WCC is dedicated to housing athletes who simply cannot thrive without a safe environment.
“I am the second-oldest in my family, so I needed to go to war,” continues Gerefiel.
“But then I arrive here in Switzerland and it’s better, but mentally hard for me. When I go to training, I am on the bike but my mind is about my family, where they are, if they live or die… I didn’t know.
“When I go training on my bike, it feels better. I have a good feeling on the bike – it’s better than staying inside.”
Girmay is a teacher, but also a former student – a graduate of the WCC himself. Girmay’s journey there was less hazardous, but by no means easy.
Regular trips to an Asmara internet café to post his power data was one way of getting noticed before he backed up his stats in local races, watched by UCI talent spotters.
“He was a junior, aged 18, when he came for the first time here,” says Frenchman Jean-Jacques Henry, who is in charge of talent detection at the WCC.
“It was tough to prepare Bini; he had to change a lot of things: his lifestyle, his routines. It’s true that those riders who come to us, they come with their habits which are not really in relation with performance.
“It was too cold for him when he arrived in July. For us, it was warm. He didn’t like cobblestones [which riders of Girmay’s ilk often tackle] and he didn’t understand tactics. For him, it was weird.
“He had a big job to do – and now he can win on the World Tour. He learned to enjoy it.
“He was always smiling at everybody, and never stressed. He enjoys life.”
The journey for African athletes is always a difficult one. Even if you are white African, from the boarding schools of Johannesburg in South Africa.
Four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome, who was born in Nairobi, Kenya, had to sneak out in the small hours to train behind trucks on motorways and surreptitiously entered himself for big competitions when officials refused to back him financially.
“Think about it… if you’re a kid growing up in the UK, you wouldn’t have to look too far to find a local bike club and have organised training sessions,” says Froome.
“In most parts of Africa, those clubs don’t exist. So, if you’re 12 years old, you wouldn’t know where to start.
“There’s no entry plan to get you into the sport and, even if you do manage to get yourself onto the start line, let’s say things go really well, how is that meant to get the attention of a team manager over in Europe?
“It feels like this uphill battle all the way. So, for these guys who have made it onto the European scene, they will have to have done something remarkable and really eye-opening.”
It’s why there are projects starting up like Field of Dreams in Rwanda, driven by Froome’s Israel-Premier Tech team, which has built a bike track, taught technical skills to under-privileged children and initiated community projects, such as road improvements.
It is catching on. Ineos, formerly Team Sky, where Froome enjoyed the majority of his success between 2013 and 2018, are setting up a similar project in Kenya.
Ineos famously perfected the art of marginal gains in a sport which was not ready for it. Now, their rivals have caught up and key for both is the precious, primary resource of riding talent.
There is no better untapped source than Africa.
“Out in east Africa, in my opinion, they are pure endurance athletes,” Froome adds. “They’ve got the heart and lungs to be incredible athletes. That hasn’t translated to cycling yet because they don’t have infrastructure or support.”
“Trust is a big thing. So many people have taken so many things from Africans and Africa, that it takes ages to build trust with individuals,” says Doug Ryder, a South African who has done more than most to introduce African talent to Europe.
Ryder is manager of the Q365 team, which works with Qhubeka, a charity dedicated to donating bikes to African children, promoting sustainable mobility across the continent.
“For me, it’s beautiful to see colourful flags of African riders on teams. We [as a single team] were never able to sustain all of Africa, but if other teams saw the value… that was a first big goal.”
There are East African riders on four of the 18 World Tour teams this season.
But it’s Girmay’s presence at the very front of races which can really push things forward.
“It would just be massive, just massive for African cycling if Girmay wins a Tour stage. It’s only a matter of time, over the next five to 10 years that a whole wave of African talent will be making it onto the European scene,” says an impassioned Froome.
Froome knows this. He’s seen the potential, not as champion, but as a lost cycling soul in his own youth, riding with black Africans in cycling clubs in Nairobi.
But, more importantly, Girmay’s fans know it.
“He is an African king,” says one. “We are proud. Eritrea is known for some bad things like war; now it is different.”