Eritrea is a nation of gritty and gutsy rider. Merhawi Kudus is the youngest of all but already the first ever black African to have successfully raced in all the three prestigious World Grand Tours: La Vuelta, Le Tour and the Giro in less than two years.
He has also got the record four grand tours, only equalled by the living legend himself, Teklehaimanot the man. It wasn’t long ago back in 2012 when Daniel Teklehaimanot made a grand entrance and opening the flood gate as the first ever black African debutant on the grand tour of La Vuelta only two weeks after he made another history by becoming the first rider to represent Eritrea at the Olympic road race.
The momentum continued when, three years later, both Daniel and Merhawi graced into the biggest stage in the history of cycling calendar as they both became the first black Africans to ride in the 102nd edition of Le Tour de France. That was 112 years since its first inception back in 1903.
Following Eritrea’s total domination for the second year running in 2011 in both the Road, the ITT and TTT, it was remembered President Isaias Afewerki saying in his short congratulatory speech setting the bar for our athletes that African cycling is now conquered, the challenge thereafter is to conquer the world cycling at the highest level.
Now Team Dimension Data has a record six Eritrean riders in it after Mekseb Debesay at the start of the season as well as Metkel Eyob and Amanuel Gebregziaber later in the season joined the team.
Eritrea has also got three more professional riders (the young Amanuel Mengis, Meron Teshome and Meron Amanuel) based in Germany as well as two more based in UAE, Elias Aewerki and the two-time a continental African Road champion, Tesfom Ogbamariam both riding for Team Sharjah.
Now with Merahawi Kudus on his second La Vuelta and his 4th Grand tour at such a tender age makes it a total of 11 Grand Tours for Eritrean riders since.
Even-though that is unprecedented achievement, Eritrean riders could easily have had much more grand tours under their belts if only Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane weren’t denied their deserved chances of, at least, two more grand tours each (if not more) while they were with their previous respective teams.
Nevertheless, ever since they joined the Renaissance first African pro team (MTN Quebeka now Team Dimension Data), they have enjoyed their fair shares of opportunities to shine. Nine of their total 11 successful grand tours was made possible after they joined the current African Team and have since played a big part in helping their team promoted from a Professional Continental Team (PCT) into the Elites World Tour (WT) teams.
Before Eritrea celebrates its 30years Independence anniversary in 5 years time, a grand total of 30 or more grand tours is most likely to be achieved. But such triumph wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of struggle, perseverance and test of characters over the years by our pioneers.
As young athletes, it was indeed extraordinary for Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane to endure and pass the test with flying colours and grew much stronger so as to reach where they are right now and able to see the fruits of their bitter struggle by enjoying their sport at the top level now.
First that got denied a deserved chance was Daniel when he was racing for the Swiss based Cervelo Test Team as a trainee rider in 2010. After the Swiss outfit signed Daniel from the World Cycling Centre in Switzerland, the hope was high.
However, despite landing a jackpot, the team hadn’t selected Daniel for the Grand Tours of La Vuelta that year after he had fully demonstrated his prowess by emphatically winning a climbing stage in the Nations’ Cup in Canada ahead of the two great Colombian climbers, Darwin Atapuma and Quintana Nairo.
Coincidentally, both Colombians are now the GC leaders at the current Vuelta á España, respectively.
However, later that year after all the grand tours were done, the upbeat Teklehaimanot stayed mentally strong to go on and achieve a great feat at the World U23 Championship for the second year in a row in his national colours.
But the best of Daniel hadn’t come until later that same year, where in a space of two weeks, Daniel showed utter dominance by winning all the six Gold medals available for offer at the Continent’s biggest cycling competition. He literally helped Eritrea smash into the Continental African Championship and had since helped his country dominate in almost all the continent’s cycling events.
However, soon following his triumph, Daniel Teklehaimanot ended up without a club for over a year after sponsors decided to pull the plug out on his Cervelo Test Team causing it to be disbanded and never to be heard from again.
After over a year without a team, Daniel signed for the new WT team Orica GreenEdge based in Australia the following year. He made an immediate impact after he was handed in his grand tour debut later only a couple of weeks after his successful Olympic road race in the 2012 season.
Before that, he had shocked the Polish spectators who had never seen a black athlete in the flesh, let alone on the podium, when Daniel climbed on the podium as King of Mountains (KOM) for three consecutive stages in the Tour de Pologne (WT race).
But despite his good form and brilliant performance for his team, he was denied of an opportunity in any of the three grand tours the following year. The lack of serious effort by his team to secure one of its own pro-rider a working visa in Europe, which was compounded by Fortress Europe’s usual visa discrimination caused Daniel to miss out on the majority of that season’s races.
His first race that season didn’t come until the Criterium du Dauphine in June 2013 where Daniel showed a stellar performance until he was unlucky enough to be amongst a few riders who the commissars had to withdraw from the race simply they lost their chipped Dossard numbers to a torrential rain ripping it off and blowing it way in the wind.
However, a month later, Teklehaimanot bounced back, yet again, with another stellar performance after he won one of the oldest cycling race in the European Tour (90th edition of the Villfranca-Ordiziako classic ) in the Basque Country of Northern Europe. The locals were served with a massive surprise simply because, before that day, let alone a black African to be crowned the winner, one doubts if the locals had even ever seen a black rider on their road.
That season was the last for Daniel before he and Merhawi joined the first African PC Team (Team MTN Quebeka) that already had legendary Eritrean riders Freqalsi Debesay, Meron Russom and Jani Tewelde in it. That year Meron Russom had achieved a great feat after he clocked over 10,000km on the Road and the first Eritrean to do it in all the four continents (Europe, Asia, Africa and North America) in the same season.
Even though, all our riders have been experiencing discrimination by authorities and blatant racism in the peloton, none have bore the brunt of the evilness than Daniel Teklehaimanot. That is why Daniel the man is made of steel.
It was remembered when a racist thug amongst the peloton throwing a barrage of racist slurs at Natnael Berhane at last year’s Tour of Austria. But at least, Natnael can deal with that quite simply because he has a network of support from his team, teammates and Eritrean fans alike. That was something that hardly existed when Daniel often suffered such evilness alone in the early 2010’s.
For instance the visa blockade by fortress Europe and lack of effort by his own team for majority of the 2013 season was so frustrating to say the least. However, the UK’s deliberate discrimination when it detained Merhawi Kudus at the airport was classic of the Brits authorities reputation of racist profiling.
Despite having a visa, Merhawi Kudus was later released but just to get there only a few minutes before the start of the race of the 2015 Tour of Yorkshire. All such palaver was for such unknown race, which is next to nothing compared to what Merahwi was to race exactly two months later in the 102nd Le Tour de France as the youngest rider. Again his team’s support was impeccable.
The following year, Mekseb Debesai took part in the 2016 Tour of Yorkshire while Merhawi Kudus made a virtual presence there in the form a life-size picture of him pulling a high speed peloton as a lead-out rider visibly donning the the side of the team Bus.
Natnael was a star signing for the French based team Europcar in 2013. But despite being in top form that season and being the only rider for his team that season to win a yellow jersey at one of the toughest climbing races in the Europe Tour circuit, he wasn’t selected for 2013 Tour de France.
There was no doubt that his win and many contributions he made had helped his team to get promoted to the elite WT teams for the 2014 season.
It didn’t take Natnael long to make another impact in his first race into the 2014 season by becoming the first African to miraculously win the Amissa Bongo Tour of Gabon, which is Africa’s only first category staged race.
However, his expectation to be rewarded with a place either in the Giro or Le Tour didn’t materialize that season again. First denied a place in the Giro where he himself said in his interview before that with Tewelde of VOA that he was 95% sure he would ride in the Giro.
The last straw was his omission from Le Tour de France only a few weeks after successfully racing in the Le tour precursor, the Criterium du Dauphine. The disappointment was felt across his many fans at home and abroad.
His last competitive outing in his team’s colours came at the Vuelta a España later that year where he didn’t seem as enthusiastic but relatively happy to race alongside his fellow countrymen, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus, riding for their team MTN Quebeka.
After two seasons with Team Europcar and clocking an average of 25,000km over 160 racing days, Natnael joined team MTN Quebeka for the 2015 season. That season, while Daniel and Merhawi became the first black Africans ever to take part in over a century old history of the Le Tour, Natnael himself had a great start to the season performing magnificently for his new African team.
He went globetrotting in four continents clocking a record 14,000km over 84 racing days that included his second La Vuelta on the trot before he was rewarded with his deserved place in Le Tour this season along with Daniel Teklehaimanot again.
It was believed that Natnael’s stellar performance at the Tour of Swiss was instrumental for his subsequent selection for the 103rd edition of Le Tour de France.
For the first time since his success in the last month’s Le Tour, Natnael will today be racing in the one day Classic WT race in the West of France, (Bretagne Classic – Ouest France) stretching a gruelling 247km and not far from the very base of his former team Europcar.
It was good seeing Merhawi and his teammate escape after getting involved in a huge pile up of a calamitous crash after many riders including Merhawi get caught in a high speed of the the last km of stage 5, where Kristian Sbaragli escaped with a swollen shin while others were forced to retire including one struggling in a hospital to save his cycling career.
As Merhawi will be riding in stage-9 of la Vuelta today, he is the only potential GC contender for his team who is worthy of deserving GC protection from his team and teammates at this stage of the race, if not from as early as stage-5.
Today is the second of the four consecutive summit finishes before they get their first break day on Monday after 10 days of racing.
Going into stage-9 today, he is only 11mins behind the GC leader but about 14minutes ahead of his nearest teammate. The earlier the team strategize for the next half of the Vuelta, the better.
Merhawi Kudus is a kind of rider who would pay dividend to the team if given the slightest support. All the Top GC leaders are given full support and protection, so does Team Dimension data give support and protection to their potential GC leaders.
His 13th place finish in the gruelling summit climbing finish of stage-4 was impressive. But again, if he is given the early team protection, the sky is the limit as far as his future results are concerned.