“Working for a rider who is capable of winning is a good lesson for everyone else, and it’s also a way of learning about yourself and pushing yourself a little bit further” – WCC trainer Jean-Jacques Henry
By World Cycling Center,
After Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane, the World Cycling Centre is preparing to send another young Eritrean, Merhawi Kudus, into orbit this year.
Teklehaimanot and Berhane have now turned professional, riding for Orica-GreenEdge and Team Europcar respectively, while their fellow countryman will be wearing the Bretagne-Séché jersey in the Tour de l’Ain, which runs from Friday to Tuesday.
This temporary placement with the French second-division (UCI Continental Professional) team will give 19-year-old Merhawi the best preparation for the Tour de l’Avenir and the Road World Championships.
Like Teklehaimanot and Berhane in their day, Merhawi became the fulcrum of the WCC road team from his first season in Europe. He is not only the rider who achieves the best results; he is the one who gets the best out of all the other riders.
“The young trainees are proud of him and identify with him,” observed Jean-Pierre Van Zyl.
The Director of the World Centre in Africa spotted Merhawi in Eritrea a year ago, and was impressed by his hill-climbing ability and solid performance on the flat, despite weighing only 60 kilos, as well as his calm demeanour and sound tactical sense. Van Zyl took the junior rider from the Eritrean capital Asmara to the training centre in Potchefstroom in South Africa, before sending him this year to the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland.
A special kind of team spirit
In Europe, Merhawi made a strong impression on teammates such as Mikko Paajanen. “He brings something special in terms of team spirit,” the Finnish rider explained. “With him, the team can have specific goals in a race, like taking the yellow jersey and then defending it.”
Merhawi is certainly notching up some good results this summer. As an amateur he won the Tour de Côte d’Or in France and the Freccia dei Vini in Italy, breaking the winning streak of one of this season’s best climbers, Gianfranco Zilioli (Colpack), who had bagged seven wins in six weeks. At the beginning of August he came second in the Vuelta a León, part of the UCI Europe Tour.
In the Spanish race he had the entire WCC team working for him, whether it was chasing down a breakaway, getting him back into the peloton after a fall or leading him out for the final sprint. Isiaka Cissé, a friend from Côte d’Ivoire, said:
“It’s very motivating to ride for Merhawi because he helps us all to get good results. Because he is a pure climber he operates in a different sphere from us. We give it our best to make sure that in the end he achieves what we can’t do on our own.”
With characteristic modesty, Isiaka forgets to say that he has also improved his climbing ability this year, matching the time set by Natnael Berhane in 2012 on the Torgon ascent, near Aigle. Till Drobisch of Namibia can also put on a turn of speed in the mountains, and is achieving some good race results in Merhawi’s wake.
Merhawi’s teammates learn to push the limits
The Eritrean trainee is having a transformative effect on the WCC team.
“Working for a rider who is capable of winning is a good lesson for everyone else, and it’s also a way of learning about yourself and pushing yourself a little bit further,” explained WCC trainer Jean-Jacques Henry.
“When you ride for someone else you push yourself without giving it a second thought, and you learn to better recognise your limits.”
The road group coach believes that the Merhawi effect will soon filter through to individual results. “We have some excellent riders who are also capable of winning. Six months ago, we wouldn’t have believed they could improve to the levels they are now achieving. Sometimes they just lack one or two elements to win. I’d like them to continue watching and learning from Merhawi, who is extremely observant himself.”
Just look at the game the Eritrean rider has been playing in recent weeks with his WCC teammates. It is a combination of racing on grass and rear-wheel repairs. In the beginning he lost time on the mechanical element. So he watched what his teammates were doing, noted the tricks they were using, and learned their skills. Now he’s the wheel change king.