Merhawi Kudus - remember the name because you might be hearing it a lot more, if his team is to be believed. MTN-Qhubeka directeur sportif Kevin Campbell praised the intelligent ride by the 20-year-old Eritrean that saw him take second place in the general classification at the Tour de Langkawi.
“We knew he was a great climber, but he showed that he was something out of this world almost. So we were very happy with the way that he went, but it’s not surprising,” Campbell told Cyclingnews.
“He rode a great ride on Genting, because he obviously didn’t panic when the move went. We had two riders in the move and then, as we had told him before, rode up the climb at his own pace. He rode fantastically well and even at the top he caught the escapees and still had the wits to race for the win.”
The Tour de Langkawi is Kudus’ first race after joining the South African team for this season. He was supposed to have a ride with MTN’s feeder team in 2013 but visa problems meant he went to Switzerland to ride for the UCI’s World Cycling Centre instead. The Eritrean put in some solid victories in Europe, including overall victory at the Tour de Côte d’Or, which told MTN that they were onto a winner with the young rider. However, there was still an element of uncertainty as to how he would perform when he took the step up to the professional level.
“We didn’t know what to expect. He’s been racing well at a continental level, as he did last year. Now we are racing against some really top quality riders,” said Campbell. “It’s very encouraging to see that he’s right up there with the top guys. As he matures, in terms of racing strategy, tactics and physical strength we know that the sky is the limit, he really is a fantastic talent.”
Kudus was one of two Eritreans at the Tour de Langkawi this year. Europcar rider Natnael Berhane finished 19th in the general classification. Cycling is huge in their home country, with almost a million people turning out to watch the final stage of the Tour of Eritrea. Despite this passion, they have been massively under-represented at a professional level with visa issues being one of the many barriers that make it difficult.
However, in recent years young riders have been creeping into the top two tiers of the sport. There are now six professionals from the cycling crazy country, including Daniel Teklehaimanot who became the country’s first Grand Tour rider at the 2012 Vuelta a España, and Kudus says there is more to come. “The Eritreans little by little they improve but still we have some good riders in our country,” he told Cyclingnews.
“They have a lot of fans and they have a lot of support. In Eritrea everybody likes the bicycle. I don’t know how to explain but they have good motivation. The dream for an Eritrean is to compete in the Tour de France and hopefully after two or three years I will be there.”
MTN-Qhubeka hope that his second place in Langkawi is just an initial insight into what Kudus is capable of. They are being careful not to put too much pressure on the young rider. The team believe that he can turn into a great stage racer, but this year is all about learning the ropes. “We don’t want to put him under too much pressure, from a results point of view, we just want to give him every opportunity to develop. If he can pull out a good result in a race or on a stage like Giro del Trentino then it will obviously be good for him and good for us and good for Eritrean cycling ultimately.”
For Kudus, his ambition is to become the African Champion this season.