Biniam Girmay was on Monday preparing to return home to Eritrea to celebrate his 22nd birthday and soak up the adulation of becoming the first rider from a sub-Saharan African country to triumph at one of cycling’s classic races.
He won a thrilling sprint finish to claim the Ghent-Wevelgem course ahead of the Frenchman Christophe Laporte.
Dries Van Gestel from Belgium was third.
Girmay finished the 254 kilometres in five hours, 37 minutes and 57 seconds.
“I came here to get a good result but I didn’t imagine it would be so incredible,” said Girmay after his victory.
“I was feeling better and better and more and more confident.”
Girmay turned professional in 2020 with the French team Delko.
He joined the Belgian outfit Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux (IWGM) in August 2021 just before the Tour of Poland.
And the following month, he won the Classic Grand Besançon in eastern France.
Later in September he took silver behind the Italian Filippo Baroncini in the under-23 road world championships between Antwerp and Leuven.
Girmay, who started the season with a victory in Majorca, hailed the significance of Sunday’s win: “In the sprint, I was up against some strong riders but I was confident. It will change everything for me.”
The victory for the team came six years after their Belgian rider Antoine Demoitié sustained fatal injuries during the race.
The 25-year-old fell from his bike and was run over by one of the support motor cycles. He died later in hospital.
“This is a historical victory for our team, for African cycling and for cycling in general,” said IWGM team manager Aike Visbeek.
“Since the loss of Antoine Demoitié we have a particular link with this race.”
Visbeek added: “The credits go to Biniam Girmay. He worked very hard to achieve this level and his investment led to a fantastic success. We will celebrate this success with all our partners, staff and riders.”
Girmay came to prominence in 2020 when – at the age of 20 – he became the youngest winner of the African Cyclist of the Year trophy.
He retained the honour in 2021 on the back of his exploits at the world championships.
Girmay said he would return to Europe to race the Giro in Italy between 6 and 29 May.
Reflecting on his first classic race win in northern Europe, he said: “It was only in the final hectometres that I started to believe in the victory.
“I launched my sprint with 250 metres to go … I closed my eyes and I gave all I had left.”
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