By Gregor Brown,
Eritrea may be on the verge of celebrating a first grand tour stage winner with 22-year-old Merhawi Kudus. The Dimension Data rider, who climbed alongside stars Vincenzo Nibali and Romain Bardet in yesterday’s Tour of Oman, says that his sights are on a Giro d’Italia high-mountain stage.
One day after he climbed to sixth place on Green Mountain, Kudus was more upset with his gearing choice than he was surprised by his ride. He wanted something easier than a 39×29 so that he could spin away like Chris Froome in the Tour de France.
He will have his chance yet, because South Africa’s new WorldTour team is preparing him for mountain stage wins and perhaps more in the Giro d’Italia this May.
“I came up really fast from Africa to ride the biggest races in the world,” Kudus said along Oman’s rocky coast east of Muscat. “Racing the Tour de France last year was not easy in such a short time, but when you have the opportunity, you have to take it.”
Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot gave Eritrea its first two Tour participants in 2015. Teklehaimanot, the older of the two at 27, took advantage of the opportunity to become the first African to wear the climber’s polka-dot jersey.
Sports director Jean-Pierre Heynderrickx knows Kudus and Eritrea well. He first saw Kudus race in western Africa’s Tour of Gabon in 2013 when he was working with team Lotto. He took note immediately of what he considered a rising star. Last year, after joining the team then known as MTN-Qhubeka, he traveled to help Kudus in his national championships.
“I saw all the fans there and how crazy they are for cycling,” Heynderrickx explained. “It’s unbelievable, thousands and thousands of people. They are fans too. I was walking on the street and they were grabbing me and were asking things about cycling. That was the week before the Tour de France. I can’t imagine what it is afterwards.”
Kudus became an Eritrean superstar when he debuted in the Tour. He looked back on that experience Saturday, saying, “It’s even hard for me to explain. I can’t even believe that I was at the Tour de France.”
Dimension Data will likely focus on its new super sprinter Mark Cavendish in 2016’s Tour de France, while Kudus will have his space in Italy’s grand tour. He appears ready-made for the high Italian Alps with his stick-like structure and legs that appear skinner than Alexander Kristoff’s arms. Standing 5’8″, Kudus says he weighs just 126 pounds.
“When I did the Tour de France, it was a big opportunity and I gained experience,” he said. “This winter, like always, I rested and then worked in the gym on strength and muscles to get some more power.”
Since turning professional in 2014, Kudus has already raced in Italy several times, which would have given him a taste of what is to come in the Giro d’Italia.
“Normally when I’m back in Italy, we will be able to recon some of the stages,” Kudus added. “I’ll talk with my trainer. I raced Trentino last year. I hope to ride Tirreno-Adriatico this year, otherwise, I’ll do some training in Italy.”
2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) told VeloNews Saturday that he knows little of his African rival, but that he took note yesterday when they raced away together on Green Mountain. The stage finished at 1,435 meters after 7.5 kilometers of climbing. Kudus placed sixth, 43 seconds behind stage winner Nibali.
“He has a natural talent, he’s not afraid to get boxed in, to ride echelons or in the sprints,” said Heynderrickx. “He raced the Tour, and it gave him good experience. In the Giro, he’ll focus on the stage win or GC. We will have to decide after one week.”
It should be a good show with stars like Nibali, Mikel Landa (Sky), Ryder Hesjedal (Trek – Segafredo), and of course, Kudus. “I have never seen anyone like him with his cadence,” Heynderrickx added. “If you are riding behind him, it must make you nervous.”