Biniam Girmay, Africa’s leading professional cyclist and one of the favourites for the world championships road race in Glasgow on Sunday, is understood to have been denied a UK visa by the Home Office.
The Eritrean, a stage winner in the Giro d’Italia and also winner of the Gent-Wevelgem in Belgium, finished the Tour de France on 23 July. He immediately continued his pursuit of a visa to enable him to race in what the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has called the “Super Worlds”.
Girmay crashed in his most recent race last Saturday. However, with four days remaining to the elite men’s road race, Girmay is now understood to have withdrawn from the championships, along with several others who were facing similar issues in obtaining a visa.
The 23-year-old’s visa delays were first reported on Wednesday morning, but had been known of for some time. His team sponsor, Intermarché-Circus-Wanty responded to the news by posting on social media that he was withdrawing due to his injuries, despite having tweeted last Sunday: “great news” and confirmed that he had left hospital with “no fracture or serious injury”.
One of those who has assisted Girmay with his visa application told the Guardian: “If the UK wants to organise a world championships, then maybe facilitate and help the riders to get a visa, or call it the European championships.”
Girmay is not the only African rider to be missing out in Glasgow, with his compatriots Natnael Tesfatsion, Merhawi Kudus, and Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier also reported to have been denied visas to enter the UK.
The UCI has not yet responded to a request for comment, but a Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not routinely comment on individual cases. All visa applications are carefully considered on their individual merits in line with the immigration rules,” adding: “We have been working closely with organisers to ensure that participants of this event are clear on the visa application process and timelines.”
According to Kimberly Coats, chief executive of Team Africa Rising, which supports the career development of African riders, the problems on visas being issued were due to the “decision-making powers of the UK government”. “Because the riders in question, Eritrean professionals, are far from being flights risks,” she said, “it comes down to a decision by someone processing visas in the UK.”
While other cyclists, such as those from the Ukrainian federation, have enjoyed fulsome support, some African athletes have been stymied by costs and logistics. “For Eritrea, they had to travel to Turkey to apply for visas,” Coats said. “Benin chose not to send riders as they would have had to travel to Nigeria to apply for their visas, along with the expense of sending a team to Scotland.”
Coats said that some federations have reached out to Team Africa Rising seeking staff in Scotland to save on travel expenses. “Many African Federations do not have budgets that can facilitate a $20,000-$30,000 [£16,000-£24,000] event, especially when they know their riders are not at the top levels of the sport.”
Some European nations have had a much more positive experience, according to Andriy Grivko, President of the Ukrainian Cycling Federation, who said that he had experienced “no problems”.
“It was a little difficult to get a licence of participation because of our [world] ranking,” Grivko said, acknowledging the impact of the Russian invasion on Ukraine’s athletes, “but we have had great support from the UCI with help for our accommodation, travel and also vehicles.”
The Ukrainian team are taking 40 in their delegation, composed of 29 athletes and 11 staff to Glasgow, and have enjoyed significant financial support from the UCI, in the region of €100,000 (£86,000), according to Grivko. He added that the UCI had also financially supported the Ukrainian team’s participation in the world championships in Australia in 2022.