Eritrean star Biniam Girmay won’t race this weekend at the World Road Championships, but there are conflicting explanations as to whether lingering injury or visa issues is the main factor truly behind the change.
GCN reported following swirling rumours that Girmay and three other riders on the Eritrean national team – Natnael Tesfatsion, Merhawi Kudus, and Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier – were denied visas to enter the UK, leaving the seven-rider elite men’s squad vastly reduced. But neither Girmay nor his trade team, Intermarché-Circus-Wanty, have confirmed that is the reason he won’t line up in Glasgow.
The 23-year-old crashed badly at Clásica San Sebastián, Intermarché said in a statement announcing his withdrawal from Worlds, with Girmay suffering from contusions and pain in his hip. A team spokesperson told Escape Collective that Girmay had “nothing broken, that’s the good news. But it was a bad crash.” The team had no information about any UK visa issues but noted that Eritrean riders also had difficulty getting visas for the 2015 World Road Championships in Richmond, Virginia.
A representative at the UK Home Office responded to Escape Collective’s request for comment with a short, boilerplate statement that “we do not routinely comment on individual cases” and that “all visa applications are carefully considered on their individual merits in line with the Immigration Rules.”
Kudus, who just finished the Tour de l’Ain, is the only rider of the four to publicly address the visa reports, albeit obliquely: he re-tweeted the GCN post, adding “Sad!!” and tagged the UCI’s account.
Escape Collective contacted EF Education-EasyPost (Kudus’ trade team) and Lidl-Trek, where Tesfatsion and Ghebreigzabhier ride, and were referred to the Eritrean Cycling Federation for comment. An e-mail request for comment to a federation address bounced back undeliverable.
Girmay’s own comments in the Intermarché announcement made no mention of visa issues. “I’m of course very disappointed to withdraw from the selection for the World Championships, which were a main goal for this season since last winter,” he said. “I had a good feeling after the Tour de France, but my crash in the Clasica San Sebastián caused too severe pain to be able to defend my chances in the worlds. My priority is now to recover from this crash and then the preparation for the last part of the season, with nice goals in one day races such as the Grand Prix de Plouay and Canadian classics.”
As with citizens of many other African nations, Eritrean riders face onerous visa and entry rules for most international travel that requires them to visit embassies or other visa application centres in person and sometimes wait hours for appointments. Girmay has an existing visa for the European Union, but will need a visa for the Canadian grand prix races; he and Intermarché will be responsible for that process rather than the federation.
Two years ago in Leuven, Belgium, Girmay finished second in the men’s U23 Worlds road race, announcing himself to the wider cycling world just weeks after joining the WorldTour with Intermarché. Since then his career has gone from strength to strength, with Gent-Wevelgem and Giro d’Italia stage victories and a debut Tour de France this summer. Not only will he be missed from the party in Glasgow, but the trail of flag-waving fans he leaves in his wake whenever he’s at a bike race will be absent too.
Andy McGrath and Jonny Long contributed reporting.
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