Sports

The Wild Ride of the Champion Cyclist Who Shot a Cork Into His Own Eye

A cyclist winces and holds a hand up to his left eye as he holds a spewing Prosecco bottle in his other hand.
Ow! Luca Bettini/Getty Images

Watching a pro cycling triumph vanish before your eyes can be one of the most captivating moments in sports.

But only when it happens during the race—not as the result of a freak accident after it’s over and done with.

On Tuesday, Eritrean rider Biniam Girmay won the 10th stage of the Giro d’Italia, the sport’s second-biggest event. It was anything but a pedestrian victory. The 22-year-old seemed to have done himself in with a wrong turn four miles from the finish line. But Girmay recovered to win a closing sprint against the more experienced and decorated Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel, who gave a sporting thumbs up when his rival crossed the line.

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Girmay has come a long way in the sport very quickly. He started cycling in 2015, after being introduced to the sport by his cousin. By 2018, he was a junior African champion, and in 2021 he came in second in the under-23 category at the world road racing championships—the best finish ever for a Black African cyclist. And then on Tuesday, he became the first Black African rider to win a stage at the Giro d’Italia. For Girmay, it was a day of unmitigated joy—until he stood on the winner’s stage.

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At that point, preparing the celebratory spray of bubbly, the Eritrean leaned over the large bottle of of Prosecco and shot the cork into his left eye. He winced, squinted, and gamely went on with the spraying. But afterward, he had to go to the hospital, where examinations revealed a hemorrhage in his eye’s anterior chamber. He was forced to drop out of the multistage race the next day.

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Cork-related eye injuries are well-documented in the medical literature. A paper published in the Lancet in 1967 described nine such cases, three of which led to the development of traumatic cataracts. The abstract notes, with more than a hint of judgment, that “all such injuries could be avoided by care in opening the bottle and by awareness of this particular hazard.” A typical Champagne bottle contains more than four liters of carbon dioxide, at a pressure four times that of a typical car tire. Even a professional athlete lacks the resources to react: From two feet away, it takes less than .05 seconds for the cork to reach the eye.

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In the world of sports specifically, this is the most consequential sparkling wine–induced injury since Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn sliced her thumb open on a Champagne bottle at the 2009 World Championships, costing her the rest of that campaign. And it’s a brutal turn for a rider who is just finding a place among the sport’s best.

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Girmay broke through with a win this spring at Gent Wevelgem, a one-day Flanders “spring classic” that’s run on cobbles and steep hills. He’s gotten a reputation as a savvy rider, whose fearlessness, agility, and control helped him recover his position on Tuesday and break free from the pack in the sprint. His team, Intermarché-Wanty, is considered a second-tier outfit, but Girmay has had them punching way above their weight.

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In a video released on Wednesday morning, Girmay looked no worse for wear, and told fans he managed to celebrate with the team after his return from the hospital. His Giro, however, was finished. “I need some rest to give more power to the eye,” he said.

What makes this all the weirder is that two weeks ago, it was van der Poel who out-sprinted Girmay to victory in the race’s first stage—before the Dutchman launched his Prosecco cork right into his own face.

On Wednesday, organizers removed the cork from the celebratory bottle before putting it onstage. No one was injured during the celebration.

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