Merhawi Kudus (Dimension Data) showcased his early-season form with a fine display on the Mas de la Costa climb at the recent Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana, beaten only by Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and the Eritrean has continued in similar fashion at the Tour of Oman.
Every time the road has climbed this week, Kudus has been to the fore. Spinning at his usual high cadence, he placed fourth on the uphill finale at Al Bustan, and then 8th at Quriyat on Thursday, alongside Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Fabio Aru (Astana). Those performances leave Kudus fourth overall ahead of Saturday's decisive leg to Jabal Al Akhdhar, better known as Green Mountain, just 21 seconds off the lead of Ben Hermans (BMC Racing).
"Green Mountain is the main objective for me, but it's very close between everybody on the bunch so it's going to be hard tomorrow. Still, I'm looking for a result," Kudus told Cyclingnews in Yiti on Friday.
A year ago, Kudus placed 6th as Vincenzo Nibali won atop Green Mountain. On that occasion, the ascent was extended to 7.5 kilometres in length, but for 2017, the finish has been returned to its previous positon lower down the mountainside, making for a final climb of 5.7 kilometres at an average of 10.5 per cent. At that distance and that gradient, there is precious little room for tactical finesse.
"I think it's going to be all about the strength on the climb because it's just so hard," Kudus said. "Compared to last year, the climb going to be two kilometres less, so it's going to be more about power."
In that respect, Kudus has been aided by the heavy 2016 racing schedule that saw him line up in two Grand Tours, the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España. The miles run up there, allied to a solid winter in Eritrea, have laid the foundations for his fast start to the new season. "It gave me a lot of experience and big power, so for sure they will help me this year," he said.
In 2017, however, Kudus will curtail his Grand Tour participation in order to focus on shorter stage races. Though he only turned 23 last month, Kudus has already completed four Grand Tours in his career, having lined out in the Vuelta as a neo-professional in 2014, and then joined fellow countryman Daniel Teklehaimanot as the first Eritreans to ride the Tour de France the following year.
Preparing for a three-week race is a time-consuming business, and the demands of the programme meant that Kudus was forced to pass up on some week-long events well-suited to his climbing talents. This year, his long Grand Tour appointment will come at the Vuelta a España in August. In the coming weeks, meanwhile, he will race at the Abu Dhabi Tour, Settimana Coppi e Bartali and Tour of the Basque Country, always with the aim of securing results in the here and now, rather than building towards far-off goals.
"Last year I did two Grand Tours and it takes a long time to prepare for them and a long time to recover afterwards, so there is not as much chance to get results," Kudus said. "I am also too young, at 23, so I want to recover from last year when I had a lot of big volume of races and training. This year I want to build up a bit steadier."
Kudus' European base is in Tuscany, though he travels back to Eritrea as often as his race schedule allows. A gap of a month is usually the smallest possible window, given that the trip requires layovers in either Turkey or Egypt. No matter where Kudus, Teklehaimanot, Natnael Berhane and Mekseb Debesay race in Europe, there seems to be a group of boisterous Eritrean fans to be support them. The adulation back home, Kudus explained, is even more intense.
"In Eritrea, cycling is the first sport, and there are a lot of fans, so it's even bigger than when we are in Europe," he said. "First Daniel came, then Natnael, then me, and last year we had Mekseb, so from year to year, we're getting bigger and bigger. I hope in the coming years there will be more Eritreans in the WorldTour."