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Pro cyclist Biniam Girmay experienced the ecstasy and the agony of bike racing in the span of a few minutes.
On Tuesday, the 22-year-old Eritrean became the first Black cyclist to win a stage of a grand tour when he sprinted to victory during stage ten of the Giro d’Italia.
In the moments after his big win, Girmay’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Officials handed him a bottle of prosecco to spray in celebration as he stood on the podium, a longtime honor given to winners of bicycle races. But when Girmay opened the bottle, the cork flew through the air and struck him in the left eye. Video footage showed him rubbing his face in pain after the freak accident.
After the celebration, Girmay was transferred to a nearby hospital, where doctors determined he had suffered a hemorrhage to his eye. As a result, he was forced to abandon the race prior to the start of today’s stage 11.
“In order to minimize the risk of expansion of the hemorrhage and the intraocular pressure, it is strongly recommended to avoid physical activity,” Piet Daneels, team doctor for Girmay’s Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert squad, told reporters earlier today. “Our priority is a complete healing of the injury, and that’s why we decided together with the rider and the sports direction that Biniam will not appear at the start of the 11th stage.”
Veteran cycling journalists told Outside this is likely the first time a rider has abandoned the Italian tour due to a facial injury sustained from a flying cork. Podium booze has led to other mishaps, however. Earlier this season, Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel was struck in the neck by a popped cork after opening a bottle of champagne, but he was uninjured by the impact.
Opening champagne, prosecco, or other bubbly alcohol on the podium is a longtime custom in cycling. According to Cyclingnews, Giro d’Italia officials are considering removing corks before the ceremony to avoid future mishaps.
The unfortunate incident does not take away from Girmay’s ride into cycling history. Grand-tour racing dates back to the inaugural Tour de France in 1903. Since then, the overwhelming majority of stage winners at the three grand tours—the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España—have been white and of European descent. Girmay’s home country of Eritrea, in East Africa, has a tradition of bicycle racing, which helped support his rise; in March, he became the first Black rider to win a one-day classics race when he claimed Belgium’s Gent-Wevelgem.
The editorial staff at Outside wishes Biniam Girmay a speedy recovery.