The Vuelta a Espana was a race of high and lows for Merhawi Kudus. The 23-year-old finished second on stage five to Alcossebre, coming close to realising his dream of a Grand Tour win, only to crash out of the race two day's later.
The result of the crash was a fractured ankle that ended his fourth season with Dimension Data. Rather than dwell on the disappointment, Kudus has been buoyed by the result and with the support of his Eritrean compatriots, remains focused on his goal of winning a Grand Tour stage.
"My dream for the future is to win a stage in a Grand Tour and to win the overall classification of a race like Tour of Switzerland," Kudus said according to De Velo. "After finishing second in the Vuelta, I didn't turn my phone on until after dinner. When I turned it on, there were hundreds of messages on Whatsapp and Facebook. I tried to reply to all but after one hour I had to turn my phone off again. There were too many.
"The support from Eritrean fans was amazing. Cycling is our number one sport and everyone uses cycling as transport too. There are a lot of local races on the weekends. Cycling is a big sport in the country. I feel some pressure to achieve something significant in cycling but most of that pressure comes from myself. I feel like my dream is for me and for African cycling. I would like to make an impact on the sport. This is my dream."
Kudus made his debut in the European peloton back in 2013 as a stagiaire with Bretagne-Séché Environnement, before inking a deal with MTN-Qhubeka from 2014. Growing up in Asmara, Kudus explained that while cycling is a popular sport in Eritrea, he was initially shocked by the size and support of the sport upon his arrival in Europe.
"I didn't realise how big the sport was. When I first got to Europe, it was a totally different world for me," he reflected. "The first time I went to Europe I visited Switzerland. It was February and it was snowing. I had never seen snow before. We went training in the mountains in the snow and it was a shock to my system.
"Many traffic islands and narrow roads was something else that was new to me. Racing in a group of 200 guys on these narrow roads was not something I was used to. I'm a climber and it's important to start a climb in the front. The fight for position to get to the front before the mountain was something I had to learn to deal with."
At the 2013 Tour de l'Avenir, Kudus showed his potential with an 11th place finish and transferred his results into the professional ranks with second overall at the Tour de Langkawi and fifth at the Route du Sud in his first neo-pro season with MTN-Qhubeka. Initially in Europe, Kudus explained it was a consistent fight against his perceived lack of bike handling skills due to his skin colour.
"As a black rider, no one wanted to be around me in the peloton because they thought I didn't have good technique," he said. "This is something I could feel around me immediately. Every year it has gotten better. Now, I have many friends in the peloton so things have changed. I feel very comfortable in the peloton and Europe in general."
During his debut season, Kudus lined out for the Vuelta and then made his Tour de France debut the following year. In 2016, Kudus returned to the Vuelta for 38th overall having made his Giro d'Italia debut in May for 37th place. For 2017, Kudus returned to a one Grand Tour programme, explaining it was hard coming to terms with his race-ending crash.
"This year, my season was built around the Vuelta a Espana. It was my opportunity to test myself and see how I've improved. Crashing out of the race was a big disappointment for me because I really wanted to gauge my performance in the third week," said Kudus who now has five Grand Tours to his name at just 23.
"We made big changes to my program this year as we learnt from the mistakes of the past years. Last year I did two Grand Tours and needed a lot of recovery. I had a heavy race volume compared to this year."
Encouraged by his stage 5 result, Kudus added he has fond memories of the Vuelta which was the first Grand Tour of his career that he failed to finish.
"I came so close to winning my first Grand Tour stage. Finishing second on stage 5 is one of the highlights of my career," he said. "We had 16 guys in the breakaway. Movistar had more than one guy and we knew Alaphilippe would be dangerous on the final climb. He was the favourite for us. I couldn't follow everyone so when Lutsenko attacked, I had to stay calm. There was a head wind on the final climb so it was hard to chase him but I am very happy with second place.
"It gave me great confidence for the next days because stage 9 was my big target. Unfortunately, luck was not on my side when I crashed out of the race on stage 7. I fractured my ankle and have been on crutches for a month."
Back in Eritrea for the off-season following his recovery from his ankle injury, Kudus is recharging for the 2018 season and aiming to continue writing chapters of African cycling history.
"I feel some pressure to achieve something significant in cycling but most of that pressure comes from myself," he said. "I feel like my dream is for me and for African cycling. I would like to make an impact on the sport. This is my dream."