A MILESTONE MOMENT FOR AFRICAN CYCLING AS GIRMAY TAKES VICTORY
Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux) continued his stunningly rapid rise up the professional ranks with victory at Gent-Wevelgem.
Far from being fatigued from his revelatory fifth-place finish at E3 Saxo Bank Classic two days ago, the 21-year-old looked even better here, staying in contention over the climbs and then forming part of the decisive four-man selection that formed on the flat run-in to the finish, all while reserving enough energy to beat them in a sprint.
The result marks a significant moment in cycling history, as he becomes the first Eritrean and the first black African to win a major Classic.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 highlighted just how little black representation there is in cycling, when Kévin Reza was the only black participant at the Tour de France during the peloton’s half-hearted show of solidarity on the Champs-Élysées stage.
In this context, the success and sudden stardom of Girmay (and his performances this week suggest he is very much going to be one of the sport’s very biggest stars) could have a similar impact as the Colombian riders of the 1980s did for their nation. He could be seen as an inspiration not only for other Eritreans, but for potential cyclists across the whole continent.
All that is of course an awful lot of pressure for a 21-year-old, and we should be cautious of expecting too much or deifying him. Girmay certainly appears not to be getting carried away; he still intends to go home and visit his family rather than compete at the Tour of Flanders, despite his scintillating form.
But there’s no doubting his extraordinary talent, and that he looks set to become a star of the sport for years to come.
BALSAMO COMPLETES MOST IMPRESSIVE WEEK OF HER CAREER SO FAR
Some riders struggle when wearing the rainbow jersey, the pressure of its iconic status weighing them down, and its visibility preventing them from ever going under the radar.
But not Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo), who has improved leaps and bounds since winning at the World Championships last year, and won yet again today.
This week has been her best yet as a professional, with her win here at Gent-Wevelgem (which she named as her favourite race) following successes at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Classic Brugge-De Panne in a remarkable hat-trick of back-to-back WorldTour Classics victories.
The Italian has established a winning formula that no-one seems able to break. Despite there being many tricky climbs spread across these races — including two ascents of the fearsome Kemmelberg today — she always manages to keep herself in contention come the finish, and no-one is able to match her sprinting pace.
With the whole team united behind her (including an invaluable Ellen van Dijk — more on her later), and sprinting rival Lorena Wiebes (DSM) having crashed out of contention earlier, Balsamo always looked the likely winner, and delivered on those expectations in the finale.
LAPORTE USES FREEDOM TO FINISH SECOND
For the first time in his three cobbled Classics appearances this spring, Wout van Aert did not take the win, but his Jumbo-Visma still came within an inch of victory as Christophe Laporte was just edged out by Girmay in the sprint.
The team were once again the strongest, spending much of the race at the front of the peloton, and placing three riders (Van Aert, Laporte and Tiesj Benoot) in the eight-man leading group that formed after the final ascent of the Kemmelberg.
Having not been able to ride away from the rest as they had at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, they decided to attack in tandem, with Laporte marking the decisive move with Girmay, Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Dries Van Gestel (Total Energies) shortly after Van Aert’s attempt to go clear on the Kemmelberg hadn't succeeded.
Laporte has been so good this spring that he is worthy of co-leadership status rather than just domestique, as appears to be the case based on how content Van Aert was to let his group ride away while he sat on the wheels of the chasers.
While all eyes are on Van Aert, Laporte enjoys more freedom with his attacks, something that could yet play to his advantage this spring — and potentially see him end his current run of successive runner-up finishes, and claim what could be a career-best victory in one of the remaining cobbled Classics.
NEW WOMEN'S ROUTE, SAME OUTCOME
In an attempt to shake up a race that has become a little formulaic in recent years, more climbing was added to the women’s Gent-Wevelgem route this year, including a second ascent of the Kemmelberg.
But despite plenty of exciting racing and countless number of attacks, the result was the same, as a large group contested a bunch sprint at the finish.
A sprint was far from a foregone conclusion, however. Grace Brown (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) looked especially dangerous, and twice looked as though he might have defied the sprinters, first by going clear over the final time up the Kemmelberg, then with one final acceleration 3.5km from the finish.
Fearful of Balsamo’s finishing kick, both Jumbo-Visma and SD Worx were clearly not confident that their respective sprinters Marianne Vos and Lotte Kopecky could defeat her in the finish, and so attacked relentlessly throughout the race.
Kopecky herself made a move earlier on with Jumbo-Visma’s Anna Henderson plus Liane Lippert (DSM) and a typically lively Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), and their riders continued to attack during the flat-run in to the finish, with Coryn Labecki (Jumbo-Visma), Marlen Reusser, Chantal van den Brock Blaak and Christine Majerus (all SD Worx) trying umpteen times to go clear.
Ultimately the teams were right to doubt their chances in a sprint. Both came close, with Vos finishing fast to finish fourth and Kopecky not giving up when Balsamo overtook her and holding on to fourth, but the Italian again came out on top. They will hope the more challenging terrain of the Tour of Flanders will help them drop her next week.
VAN DIJK THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A SPRINT AND A SUCCESSFUL BREAKAWAY
Both the men’s and the women’s races culminated in a furious battle during the final 3km flat run-in to the finish between those trying to go clear and those trying to keep things together, with attackers succeeding in the former, and the sprinters having their way in the latter.
The reason for these different outcomes boiled down to just one rider — Ellen van Dijk. The Dutchwoman used all of her skills as world time trial champion to moto-pace the peloton, setting the pace almost every time there were flat roads inside the final 50km.
At one point, after she found herself in a group that had slipped clear from the rest of the peloton, she dropped back in order to help Balsamo, who had missed the split. A mere matter of minutes later, she’d already dragged Balsamo and everyone else back up.
By contrast, no team or individual was able to control matters in the finale of the men’s race in the same way. The strongest team, Jumbo-Visma, had representation in the attack that went clear, meaning it was up to the others to do the chasing.
Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl were again below par, and perhaps lacked the incentive to fully commit after their main sprinters Fabio Jakobsen and Florian Sénéchal had already been dropped out of contention.
Alpecin-Fenix perhaps should have done more given they had both Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen, but seemed reluctant to rally entirely behind one of them. Merlier ultimately won the sprint in the peloton, but unfortunately for him it was a sprint for sixth place rather than for victory.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.