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Eritrean cyclist makes history with win in Belgium

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

A typical spring Sunday in Belgium means bike racing through narrow cobbled streets and steep hills.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

But yesterday's race from Gent to Weveglem produced an atypical winner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Biniam Girmay makes history.

SNELL: Biniam Girmay of Eritrea, yesterday, just before his 22nd birthday, he became the first Black African to win one of Belgium's classic races.

CHANG: He survived the cobbles and hills, made the winning breakaway. And after 154 miles, he sprinted across the line first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BINIAM GIRMAY: It's amazing. You know, I didn't expect to race like this. And then in the end to win, it's - I don't know. Still I'm surprised, you know?

CHANG: Now, most of the world's most prestigious bike races are in Europe. And cycling remains a largely white sport.

SNELL: Though Eritrea has produced several professionals already.

JOSE BEEN: After it became independent, cycling became a very prominent sport - even bigger than football and athletics, maybe. There's races there every week.

SNELL: Cycling journalist Jose Been profiled Girmay earlier this year.

CHANG: She said he packs a powerful sprint, and she's impressed by his confidence on the bike.

BEEN: A fantastic rider who, for his age, has a amazing insight in the tactics of racing.

SNELL: Girmay now heads home to Eritrea to see his family after three months in Europe.

CHANG: But he'll be training for the three-week tour of Italy and, in a few years, cycling's first-ever world championship in Africa, in Rwanda, in 2025. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.