BY ANGUS POWER | KEWESE ESPN
Eritrean cycling champion Merhawi Kudus will target the steepest mountain-top finishes to back up the success of Dimension Data teammate Ben King at the Vuelta a España.
It took Dimension Data six months to bag their first five victories of 2018 but in just six days at the Vuelta — thanks to sensational riding from America’s King on Stages 4 and 9 — they have snatched their two biggest wins of the season.
Now, as the Spanish grand tour moves into its second week, ‘Africa’s Team’ will lean on key lieutenants like Kudus to support their ambitions in the general classification (GC) as well as to make an impact when the road ramps sharply upwards.
To describe Dimension Data’s 2018 season as frustrating is something of an understatement.
In April, Bernhard Eisel, the team’s road captain, underwent emergency brain surgery to relieve a subdural hematoma that had developed after a crash six weeks earlier.
In May, the team lost two of their Australian riders: Ben O’Connor crashed out of the Giro d’Italia while chasing a top 10 finish, and Lachlan Morton broke his arm after being hit by a car during training.
And in August, marquee sprinter Mark Cavendish was forced into an indefinite break from the sport after a recurrence of the Epstein-Barr virus that was first diagnosed early last year. The British rider’s season had already been derailed by three serious falls, including this horrific one.
But while the team’s major objectives went unachieved, other riders were ticking off micro-goals along the way. King was one of those riders. Kudus was another.
“It has been a hard year for us,” Kudus tells KweséESPN. “A lot of bad luck for all our guys. It’s not easy with that atmosphere and pressure at every race, but we try our best.”
Exactly what Kudus’ best might be has been the subject of much speculation since, as a 21-year-old in 2015, he became the youngest African to complete the Tour de France.
When Kudus won the Eritrean road race title back in June, it was only the fifth victory of Dimension Data’s meagre haul so far this year. (In 2017, the team won 25 races; in 2016, they won 32.)
But it was also a sign of Kudus’ growing maturity that he could temper his impetuous racing instincts with enough tactical nous to triumph in one of Africa’s most competitive national championships.
“That win gave me more morale and motivation,” says Kudus, who hails from Asmara, the Eritrean capital that sits at more than 2300m above sea level.
“After nationals, I was in Eritrea for a month and did some really good training. Some good numbers. I’m in good shape now.”
That last sentence is uttered in the matter-of-fact tone that can only be mustered by a 58kg climber who knows that on the right terrain he can go toe to toe with the world’s best.
“My biggest result was in the Vuelta last year,” confirms Kudus, referencing his second-placed finish on Stage 5 when he out-climbed erstwhile breakaway companions like Slovenia’s Matej Mohoric and Frenchmen Julian Alaphilippe and Alexis Gougeard, all of whom are Grand Tour stage winners.
King is currently Dimension’s Data’s best placed rider in the Vuelta general classification, sitting in 18th place, three minutes and one second off the lead. But the South African climber Louis Meintjies, who is a further two minutes and 26 seconds down, is still a protected rider for the GC.
“Our main focus is Louis going for the top 10,” says Kudus. “There’s still a long way to go. If he’s in good shape or gets lucky, he can do good things. He’s not far from the top 10. But the breakaway guys are also ready.”
Whether the team plays King or Meintjies as a GC card remains to be seen, but Kudus and fellow breakaway specialist Steve Cummings of Great Britain will be expected to hunt for other opportunities.
However, a featherweight like Kudus has to pick his battles. He needs mountain-top finishes that are, to borrow a phrase, nasty, brutish and short – less than five kilometres long, with gradients maxing out near 20%. On longer or more gradual climbs, Kudus will be out-muscled by heavier, more powerful riders.
“Stages 13 and 14 are quite good for him,” says Trevor Court, Kudus’ coach at Dimension Data. “Both finish on climbs that are 3-4km long and average 13-14%, with really steep sections within the climb.”
Stage 17 is also a possibility.
“Merhawi can definitely compete with the best in the world,” says Court. “He has such a desire and a fire in him that sometimes I actually have to reign him in and say, ‘Just take a step back; think about it a little before you go crazy and attack and blow all your energy’.”
Many of Eritrea’s most talented riders have passed through Court’s hands – including Daniel Teklehaimanot, the first African to wear the king of the mountains jersey at both the Tour and the Giro.
In Kudus and Dimension Data rookie Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier (who looks comfortable in 44th place in the Vuelta GC), Court sees a new wave of African talent.
“It’s not like the peloton is getting any slower,” says Court, “so you can’t be fixed in your ways. I think it’s easier for younger guys who have that drive and hunger to put in the hard yards, to learn and get better. You can’t be afraid to push the boundaries in training. You have to be willing to really suffer.
“That’s the sort of rider we need from Africa – guys who step up and who don’t just wait for things to be perfect. Because the cycling world is never perfect. You have to make things happen.”
Ask Ben King. He has single-handedly put Dimension Data back in the race. Now his teammates need to do the same.