Africa's newest star made his debut today with a win in the Tour of Rwanda. Eritrean Merhawi Kudus, only 18 years old and in his first UCI-registered race, took the first stage to Nayagatare.
"Look at this guy, he's 18 years old. I'm quietly confident in him," JP Van Zyl told Cycling Weekly as we waited for the race to kick off this morning in the capital city, Kigali. He heads the World Cycling Centre in South Africa, which also operates as a feeder team for a new second division team, MTN Qhubeka.
Kudus smiled back at us. Van Zyl told him to switch into the young rider jersey he earned in the prologue time trial the day before in Kigali. He obliged and later in the day, the stage running east through the banana and tea fields, he obliged again. Van Zyl, a former track cyclist from South Africa, told Kudus to make the race.
Kudus shot off on the final climb to break down his escape companions and helped maintain their precious one-minute gap into Nayagatare.
"We do power tests on the CompuTrainers [at the centre]. You can also look at the riders, the way they ride. He's tactically smart, and I didn't worry about him [today]," Van Zyl continued as Merhawi cooled down. "He's a born cyclist; he was born with a brain for cycling."
The UCI funds Van Zyl's centre with £63,000 a year, the money and work has helped African cycling develop from nearly nothing in 2005 to seeing its first black African in the WorldTour. Daniel Teklehaymanot, also from Eritrea, made his debut this year with Australian first division team, Orica-GreenEdge, thanks to the centre.
Kudus after stage one of the 2012 Tour of Rwanda
Teklehaymanot won the Tour of Rwanda in 2010 and graduated to spend time in the main centre in Aigle, Switzerland, at the UCI's headquarters.
"JP has really helped in my life; he's provided some good training for the last three months and helped me prepare for this Tour. I'm lucky," Kudus told Cycling Weekly.
"My country is coming up, it has some big riders, three years we've been African Champion and first in Rwanda in 2010 [with Daniel Teklehaymanot], and the Tour of Eritrea and the Tour of Faso. My country's very, very strong."
Van Zyl travelled Eritrea's capital city Asmara to screen Kudus and other cyclists for the World Cycling Centre.
"They are very poor people, but very proud," Van Zyl said. "I understand why they are such good riders, they are very disciplined people, they don't have a lot of money, but they respect each other and the older people. I think that this is what's necessary to succeed in cycling."
The race travels through the mountainous, western part of the country over the next six days. Van Zyl will continue to work with Kudus in the tour and throughout next season. A trip is planned to MTN's base in Lucca, Italy, so his feeder team can ride some the Under 23 Nations Cups. Kudus will be able to show himself directly in front of the Europeans, who are already starting to call.
"GreenEdge is doing a good job by taking on Africans with Teklehaymanot, but one rider is one rider, we want some more people," Van Zyl said. Today, he showed that with Kudus he is ready with more riders.
African MTN-Qhubeka team aims for Grand Tours
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