A year on from his breakthrough Spring Classics campaign, Biniam Girmay kicks off his 2023 campaign at the weekend as he takes on Milan-San Remo, leading an Intermarché-Circus-Wanty team built around him following his rapid rise.
Two years ago, the Eritrean was a promising young rider playing out the final few months on a dying Delko team. The autumn saw him move to his current Belgian squad, claiming U23 silver at the Leuven Worlds among other promising one-day results before last year’s super spring that saw wins at Gent-Wevelgem and stage 10 of the Giro d’Italia.
Now, for the first time, Girmay comes to the Spring Classics as a top favourite for many of the one-day races that fill out the calendar over the next month or so. And after signing a four-year deal to stay at Intermarché last spring, the team is effectively built around him as the main star, with major results-getters Alexander Kristoff, Domenico Pozzovivo, and Jan Hirt heading elsewhere over the winter.
So far in 2023, Girmay has tasted victory on the opening stage of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, while he can also look back at several podium spots from the Challenge Mallorca and the recent Tirreno-Adriatico. He showed good condition with third and fourth places at the latter, but he’s not yet in top form, he said.
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“I’m better in the spring, of course. But I’ve been almost one month away from the races so I’m building up. We will see,” Girmay told Cyclingnews and other media at Tirreno-Adriatico.
“I’m not at 100%, but I still have some results. For sure, this race has given me a good preparation. So, let’s hope to be in shape at San Remo. It’s one of the big goals of this year for me and also for the team. We try to do our best and my shape is getting better every day.”
Milan-San Remo, the first Monument of the season, has a reputation as being the easiest race to finish but hardest to win. It measures in at a mammoth 294km, though the seven-hour length is the toughest factor of the parcours.
Of course, the final climb of the Poggio is the pivotal moment of the race. The 4km, 3.6% hill to the south of San Remo isn’t a major challenge in isolation, though battling for position and charging up at near 40kph after 290km of racing makes it a far tougher proposition than it looks on paper.
Then there’s the descent, a winding 3km path back down to the coastal road into San Remo. Last year’s winner Matej Mohorič crested the climb at the front and then used his descending skills – and a dropper post – to solo to victory. Being among the leaders at the top will be key again on Saturday.
“In general, it’s all about the positioning and also about the legs,” Girmay said, who underlined his own positioning and bike handling credentials.
“Sometimes I ask myself – I don’t know how I’m always in a good position. It’s just like a gift. I think I grew up like this because in Eritrea most races are kind of like Belgian races. Corners, left, right, small roads, in the city always.
“We have downhills like [the Poggio], always. We don’t have straight downhills, it’s always left and right, small roads. I train on this kind of road so for me it’s not a problem.”
On his Milan- San Remo debut last time out, Girmay was among the leaders at the top of the Poggio, if a touch behind the leading quartet of Mohorič, Pogačar, Wout van Aert, and Søren Kragh Andersen.
He ended up closing out the day in a respectable 12th place, though a podium is the goal this time.
“For sure it’s a hard race but I have a dream to get a podium in San Remo, so I’ll try to do my best,” he said.
“In the downhill, you have to take a little bit of risk but this is of course what you have to do because it’s a big race. You also need to know which riders you have to follow. Some strong guys can miss their position and then they come back and they spend energy.
“So, it’s all about seeing the right movements because now Tadej Pogačar is there, the race will be different. It’s different from the last few years because they already start the race on the Cipressa, not just on the Poggio.”
Girmay is a rarity in the pro peloton as the first black African who can consider himself a major star and contender for Monument titles.
His major victories so far have understandably come with sentiments hailing their importance for Eritrean, and by extension, African, cycling – “For me, for my nation, also for Africa, this means a lot,” he said in Leuven – but now the mindset has changed, and the focus goes beyond representing his country and continent.
“Now I need to change the mindset because I’m not racing only for the people or for the fans,” he said. “So, you have to race also for yourself. By any means, if you win Flanders or San Remo, for me it’s the same: you win a Monument.
“I think it’s the easiest race to win of the Monuments but it’s also difficult to win. So, I just prepare myself as best as I can and I give everything.
“I cannot say now to do this or this because it’s totally difficult. It’s also my second year so we don’t need to forget this. I’ll just try to do my best.”