The Tour de France, established in 1903, has long been one of the most prestigious and challenging cycling events globally. However, for much of its history, it was a competition dominated by white European riders, with little representation from other ethnicities. The journey of black riders in the Tour de France is a testament to resilience, determination, and the gradual breaking down of barriers within the sport.

The First Black Rider

In 1914, Samuel Etienne was the first black cyclist to compete in the Tour de France. Hailing from the Caribbean island of Martinique, Etienne faced numerous challenges, from racial prejudice to the physical demands of the race. Though he did not complete the Tour, his participation marked the beginning of a slow but significant change in the sport’s demographics.

Modern Era: Progress and Representation

Yohann Gène: The Pioneer

Yohann Gène, from Guadeloupe, a French island in the Caribbean, is recognized as the first black participant in the modern era of the Tour de France. He rode the Tour de France seven times for Europcar and Direct Energie from 2011 to 2017, and notably, he is the first black rider to finish the Tour de France, achieved in 2011 with Gene completing all his Tour de France participations. Gène’s consistent presence in the race marked a significant milestone for black cyclists.

Daniel Teklehaimanot
(Photo credit: Tim De Waele)

Daniel Teklehaimanot: A Historic Breakthrough

Daniel Teklehaimanot, an Eritrean cyclist, made history in 2015 by donning the polka dot jersey, awarded to the King of the Mountains, at the Tour de France. This achievement marked him as the first black African rider to wear a leader’s jersey in the Tour. Teklehaimanot’s success was a significant milestone, showcasing the potential of African cyclists on the world stage.

Merhawi Kudus: Youth and Promise

In the same year, Merhawi Kudus, another Eritrean, became the youngest rider in the 2015 Tour de France at just 21 years old. His participation highlighted the emerging talent from Africa and underscored the importance of supporting young cyclists from diverse backgrounds.

Nic Dlamini: South African Representation

Nic Dlamini, a South African cyclist, has been another prominent black rider in the Tour de France. Dlamini’s journey has been marked by perseverance and advocacy, as he has often spoken about the need for greater inclusion and support for African riders in professional cycling.

Tsgabu Grmay: Ethiopian Excellence

Ethiopia’s Tsgabu Grmay has ridden the Tour de France for three different teams: Lampre in 2016, Bahrain-Merida in 2017, and Trek-Segafredo in 2018, after leaving MTN-Qhubeka. Grmay’s participation across multiple teams highlights his versatility and the growing recognition of African cyclists in the global cycling community.

Natnael Berhane
Natnael Berhane
(Photo Credit: ASO)

Natnael Berhane: Eritrean Presence

Eritrea’s Natnael Berhane, also a former Dimension Data rider, rode the 2019 Tour de France for Cofidis. Berhane’s inclusion in the race adds to the growing list of Eritrean cyclists making their mark in professional cycling, showcasing the depth of talent emerging from the region.

Challenges and Advocacy

Experienced Voices and Systemic Issues

Experienced voices in professional racing, like Robbie Hunter, have railed at length about the challenges African riders face. Hunter has highlighted that even when African riders register impressive wins, such as Biniam’s early victory over the largely undefeated Remco Evenepoel as a junior, WorldTour teams remain reluctant to sign them up. Several Eritrean riders have reported being made to feel like a burden by the teams that do sign them. They report receiving lower wages to compensate for the supposed challenges of supporting them and risk being dropped for being “difficult” – a common stereotype levelled at minoritised groups – if they speak up against unfair treatment.

Delayed Recognition

Biniam Girmay’s own successes were arguably delayed by these dynamics. Despite a strong track record in African races, he only drew WorldTeam attention following his silver medal in the U23 World Championships, when he was signed by Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux. Drawing on his experiences representing young cyclists, Hunter has noted that a European competitor would have received offers sooner and with less impressive results.

Biniam Girmay Gent Wevelgem 2022
Biniam Girmay wins the 2022 Gent Wevelgem
(Photo credit: Luca Bettini/SprintCyclingAgency)

Biniam Girmay: A New Era

Biniam Girmay, an Eritrean cyclist, has recently made headlines with his groundbreaking achievements. In 2022, he became the first black rider to win a Classics race by triumphing at Gent-Wevelgem. This victory was a historic moment, highlighting his talent and the progress being made towards greater diversity in professional cycling.

After winning a stage at the Giro d’Italia in 2022, Girmay continued to make history. On July 1st, 2024, he broke new ground by winning a stage of the Tour de France. In doing so, Girmay became the first black rider and the first Eritrean to win a stage in the biggest cycling race in the world. His achievements are not only a personal triumph but also a significant milestone for African cycling and for the sport as a whole.

Girmay’s Reflections Before the Historic Win

Just three days before his monumental victory, Girmay gave an interview to Reuters, expressing his readiness and determination. “Last year I was really nervous before the start. It’s the biggest race in the world and to be part of that made me really nervous, and I panicked from the start to the end of the Tour,” he said. Reflecting on his first attempt at the Tour, he admitted, “The first thing I learned is that it’s a different atmosphere than other races, even Monument (classics) or the Giro. The level of the riders especially in sprint stages, it’s crazy.”

Girmay acknowledged the lessons learned from his initial experience and the mental preparation required for success. “I will be more relaxed,” he noted, despite the added pressure of his previous successes. “The target is just to win a stage – me or my team have never won a stage on the Tour. Becoming the first Black African to win on a grand tour changed things, and sometimes it puts pressure on me. I think second is not enough anymore.”

Biniam Girmay 2024 Tour de France Stage 3 win
Biniam Girmay celebrates this Tour de France stage win
(Photo Credit: ASO)

The First Tour de France Stage Victory

Biniam Girmay sprinted to victory in the mostly flat third leg of the 2024 Tour de France, becoming the first black rider to win a Tour stage. Girmay dedicated his win to all Africans, saying, “We must be proud now. We are really part of the big races. Now it’s our moment. It’s our time.” Aike Visbeek, the performance director for Girmay’s Intermarché-Wanty team, added, “There is a whole continent that has been waiting for this. It’s been done now, and I hope it will open the floodgates for more riders from Africa. He’s an ambassador in every way.”

Unlike his Giro victory, which was marred when he was rushed to a hospital after getting hit in the left eye by a prosecco cork he popped open during the podium celebration, Girmay was able to get through the ceremony at the Tour de France unscathed.

Main photo credit: Getty