Biniam Girmay has delivered on the promise that he showed earlier this season, grabbing the 10th stage of the Giro d’Italia in style, and delivering a powerful counterpunch back at Mathieu van der Poel as the two riders settle into a tremendously fun rivalry. Girmay’s Inermarché team played the stage perfectly, reeling in every one of the late-breaking moves that animated this stage and fighting toe-to-toe with all the big teams so that their star could be in position to contend the sprint. After finding himself boxed in on a few of the race’s earlier sprint stages, Girmay bet big on his ability to outkick the field and he risked opening things up for his rivals by going first. He did just that, and van der Poel grunted and charged and actually came around to briefly fight level with Girmay, only to melt under the pressure and flash a thumbs-up to his rival as Girmay crossed the line as the first black African rider to win a stage of any Grand Tour.
The story of Girmay’s career has understandably thus far been told as a series of firsts: the first black African rider to win a medal at a UCI World Championship, then a Belgian cobbled classic, and now a stage of the Giro d’Italia. Eritrean cycling fans and those around the world interested in the African cycling project have been waiting for one of Eritrea’s promising young riders to break through on the biggest stage in the world for years, so it makes sense that Girmay’s achievements are primarily being appreciated through this lens. However, Girmay’s star turn through the first half of this year’s Giro should be cause for a reevaluation of his potential. Girmay, who just turned 22, looks like the sort of rider who will not top out at achieving a bunch of firsts; he looks like a superstar in the making.
Again, van der Poel is a useful foil to understand how strong Girmay is. MvdP is the straight-up best rider in the professional peloton. He’s finished in the top 10 in 10 of the 11 Monument Classics he’s raced, and he’s held the leader’s jersey in both of the Grand Tours he’s raced. He is also a rabid competitor who has held onto leads he had no business holding and has only let up early in exactly one sprint that I can recall, so to see him tipping his cap to Girmay, after losing to him despite having better position, during his own Giro d’Italia debut, tells you a good deal about how much he respects Girmay, who is unlucky to have only won a single stage of this year’s race. Girmay has finished in the top five six times already, and would have probably won one of the stages Arnaud Demare took if he’d been luckier with his positioning.
The first stage of the Giro may as well have been created in a lab for van der Poel to win his first career pink jersey. Many of the peloton’s top sprinters are contending the first Grand Tour of the 2022 season, though the parcours for Budapest’s opening stage featured a nasty little uphill kick at the end, the sort that negates the raw power of the pure sprinters in favor of more well-rounded riders like Girmay and van der Poel. Of course, the Dutchman won, and he did so by rounding Girmay’s wheel in the last few meters. What stands out in the highlight reel is less van der Poel’s solo brilliance, but the ease with which he and Girmay zoomed around a quartet of riders going full gas. These two guys are on another level.
Like van der Poel, Girmay had a problem with his champagne cork today, though unlike MvdP, Girmay’s issue was serious enough that he had to skip his post-ride press conference because he was taken to the hospital.
I really hope this is not such a serious issue that it knocks him out of the race, because there are more battles for him and van der Poel to fight. He’s shown serious finishing power in hybrid, classic-style stages, the ability to fight hard for position in all the little proxy wars that determine who gets to show their finishing power, and he is developing the necessary racecraft to know when to pick his spots. The Giro stage win is a fantastic achievement, but it feels like it is just the start.