There’s one piece of advice that 19-year-old Kiya Rogora has never forgotten. It was a warm September morning in 2021 and the Ethiopian was in the gothic Belgian city of Leuven, grabbing a coffee with his new hero Biniam Girmay.
The day before, the teenager had watched on as the Eritrean became the first Black African to win a medal at the Road World Championships, claiming silver in the men’s under-23 road race. Until that moment, Rogora had never seen someone like himself, someone with black skin, on a podium in Europe.
In Girmay’s feat, Rogora saw what was possible. He was desperate to know what he had to do to reach the same level, so he planned out a few questions and went to meet the silver medallist.
“He told me to think, ‘That guy has two legs and I also have two legs.'” Rogora tells Cycling Weekly. “There’s nothing different. Hard work makes the difference.”
Little did Girmay know what this mentality would lead him to achieve in 2022. When he lined up at the Giro d’Italia in May, he was already a history-maker. The 22-year-old’s victory at Ghent-Wevelgem five weeks prior made him the first Black African to win a Classic, and now his sights were set on becoming the first to claim a Grand Tour stage.
That moment came in Jesi, an unassuming, medieval town in the east of Italy. Frustrated by a string of top-five finishes, Girmay lashed down on his pedals in the finale of stage 10 and tore away from Mathieu van der Poel, the man who beat him to the pink jersey on the opening day. This time, the Dutchman was defeated. Van der Poel sat down in his saddle, gasped for air and dealt his opponent a congratulatory thumbs up. Girmay had done it again.
“I realise I’m making history,” the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux rider said after the race, but sadly he wouldn’t continue. Almost blinded by a stray bottle cork on the podium, the sprint ended up being Girmay’s last action in the Italian Grand Tour. Its impact, though, had been felt worldwide.
For Rogora, Girmay became an even bigger role model. “I’m riding with a lot of nations from Africa right now at the World Cycling Centre and they are all inspired,” the 19-year-old says. “I think we have all seen that it’s possible and we’re trying to be the next one. For me personally, I have gained a lot of confidence from his wins.”
Today, Rogora is Ethiopia’s road and time trial champion. He has also taken top-20s in one-day races in France and Switzerland, always keeping Girmay’s advice in mind. “This year I got a lot of good results because I was thinking we’re all the same. White people, Black people, we’re the same. If you can do it, I can do it.”
It’s this feeling of belief, shared across young African riders, that is likely to be the real legacy of Girmay’s season.
Speaking to Cycling Weekly, South African former cyclist Xylon van Eyck says that, by having role models at the highest level of the sport, Black Africans can now start to trust more in themselves and their future careers.
“They say that you can’t be what you can’t see, and it’s just natural to relate to people who look like you,” Van Eyck says. “We should have 20, 30, 40 Biniams. It is possible. He’s showing that it’s possible.”
In his career as a media executive, Van Eyck has worked with a number of African teams and riders. He says he was never good enough to go professional himself, but felt his opportunities were capped when he first started racing in his local scene.
“We were told before that cycling is a European thing. They’d say, ‘It’s going to take you 10 years to get used to riding in the bunch and how to sit on the wheel.’
"Merhawi Kudus openly speaks about first getting into the pro peloton and riders actively not wanting to sit on his wheel, because they assumed he didn’t know how to ride in a bunch.
“What Biniam is doing now is he’s showing we can do this. We have the talent to do this. We can beat the best and be the best. I don’t think it’s long before he wins a Tour de France stage. I absolutely think he’s going to be the first Black African to win a Tour de France stage. It’s going to happen.”
In order to reach the same heights, Van Eyck stresses, up and coming African riders need “access” across the sport of cycling. “Access to Europe, access to development, access to teams,” he adds. “There were zero Black riders in the Tour de France this year because of lack of access, not lack of talent or because the pool is small.
“Biniam is taking it to a whole new level, showing that it’s not just making up the numbers, it’s actually being competitive.”
Today, owing in part to Girmay’s successes, more and more talent scouts are looking to Africa for the next cycling champion. Rwandan 20-year-old Eric Muhoza hopes it might be him. “I want to ride the Tour de France,” he tells Cycling Weekly. “I want to do the best competitions in the world.”
Next season, Muhoza will join Continental team Bike Aid in Germany, edging closer to his ultimate goal. “I have the dream to be like Biniam Girmay,” he says. “Biniam is my favourite rider from Africa. I want to be like him. I want to ride in the WorldTour.”
Double Ethiopian champion Rogora is also joining the European Continental ranks for 2023, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the man he met for coffee last September. “I want to be the next African history writer,” he says. “I want to do something in cycling that African cyclists won’t forget, like Biniam Girmay”.
As long as he has two legs, the Eritrean might tell him, anything is possible.
This feature originally appeared in Cycling Weekly magazine on 15 December. Subscribe now and never miss an issue in 2023.
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