Eritrean Merhawi Kudus sticks out, and rightfully so. The 23-year-old recently logged second place on a Valenciana mountain stage behind Nairo Quintana and battled with Fabio Aru, Rui Costa and Romain Bardet in the Tour of Oman. They are some of the best performances ever by a black professional cyclist.
Kudus comes from one of Africa’s poorest countries, with Eritrea reporting a GDP per capita of $754.90. Yet with his long, skinny toothpick-like limbs he will be riding with Quintana, Bardet, Aru and Alberto Contador – all from cycling-rich first-world countries – in the Abu Dhabi Tour. And this is expected to be the start of Kudus’s winning season.
“I can’t explain it,” he tells Cycling Weekly of his motivation. “It’s not about a contract or winning. It’s my habit, it doesn’t matter the race.
“When I jump on the bike to ride, I really enjoy it. Since I was a kid, I was really dreaming to be professional racing in Europe. I have it now. Now, I am dreaming of being a Grand Tour stage winner or taking another big win. That’s my dream.”
He is one of only a handful black African professionals. He and fellow Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first black African professionals to race in the Tour de France in 2015, with Steve Cummings picking up a stage win on Nelson Mandela Day for their South African MTN-Qhubeka team.
MTN was promoted to WorldTour level in 2016 where they continue to race as Dimension Data, now boasting new names like Mark Cavendish. That top-tier licence opens the door for it to race in any event, and Kudus has now completed all three Grand Tours, including the Vuelta a España twice, and raced against every star.
“Now, it’s Aru and Bardet,” Kudus says of his star rivals. “Races like Valenciana are definitely motivating, especially with Quintana, who is already world-class among the GC contenders.”
A long way from Musanze
Kudus – with his welcoming smile, brown skin and cropped frizzy hair – came a long way from Eritrea. The third-world country is rich is cycling culture thanks partly to Italian colonisation, but struggles to support any sort of infrastructure enjoyed by budding US or British cyclists.
When I first met Kudus, it was at the 2012 Tour of Rwanda racing for the UCI World Cycling Centre’s African branch. He blasted away to win the first road stage and nearly won the race overall. He only folded under pressure from the South Africa team.
One night when the race arrived in Musanze, famous for its gorillas living in the volcanic hillsides, I went to interview to Kudus in his room. It was filled with a jasmine or lavender scent from an oil one of his team-mates used to massage the other’s legs. Four of them bunked in the same room that night.
He mostly only spoke his local Tigrinya language at that time. He was shy and quiet, but had that same hair, smile and motivation you see today.
Afterwards, the head coach of the team and the Africa centre, J.P. Van Zyl stopped me in the hallway. “This kid, 18 years old, he’s going places,” Van Zyl said. “He’s a born cyclist. He was born with a brain for cycling.”
“I remember that,” Kudus says. “It was one of the first times out of my country, after only going to South Africa first.
“Everything was quite difficult for me. The communication, the food in the races. I’d only been to South Africa for three months and then we went to Rwanda.”
A couple of pieces fell into place for Kudus. First, he earned chance to race and train at UCI’s main development centre in Switzerland and second, at the same time in South Africa, Doug Ryder was slowly building the MTN-Qhubeka team that would offer many Africans a path into the professional ranks.
Kudus bases himself in Lucca, Italy, with the Dimension Data team and many other professionals, but he calls Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea in Africa’s east, home.
He lives in the city situated on a rocky plateau at 2325 metres. It is ideal because he sleeps at altitude and trains below. He cuts through the palm-lined streets with elegant buildings reminiscent of southern Italy and descends switchbacked roads resembling those you would see in the Alps. He will ride to Massawa along the Red Sea and back up to the Kebessa Plateau.
“In December, when I was riding in the early mornings, there would be fog and it would cover the plain,” he continues. “I really enjoy those months. I ride through the fog and you cannot see in front of you. And then I descend into the sunshine.”
When Doug Ryder received the wildcard invitation from the Tour de France, he wanted to make sure his team consisted of home riders as well as Europeans like Cummings. Kudus, then 21, made the nine-man team.
He was the youngest rider of the 2015 Tour, which was a success for Eritrea’s debutants. Teklehaimanot wore the polka-dot mountains jersey for four days, the first African to do so. The Eritreans following the Tour sang and danced loudly in their country’s colours.
The duo returned to a hero’s welcome, paraded through Asmara’s streets and greeted at the national stadium by President Isaias Afwerki. State television ERI-TV beamed the images live around Eritrea. Kudus’s popularity remains high.
“The big thing is communication when he’s back in Eritrea,” says Dimension Data coach Trevor Court. “They have to go to internet cafes and telephones don’t work at times.
“Sometimes, it’ll be a week or two until I can get training data from him and then it’s too late to make a change. Now, he’s going to the internet cafe to send his data almost every day. We are used to having internet all the time to interact. It’s a big difference there in Eritrea.”
“It’s totally different than Europe, where the internet is fast,” explains Kudus. “We have normal telephone signals, but we don’t have data. If you need internet, you can go to the internet cafe.
“That’s why I really like my country, because I need to be off the internet. We spend too much time on it.
“In Eritrea, I’ll go and check my e-mail and send my training files, but I’ll never chat. When you are in Europe, you are with your phone 24 hours a day. In Eritrea, you can switch off, no WhatsApp, just time with your family and friends. You can read a book or watch TV, or walk some where. We are not busy by the internet. I like it.”
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Eritrea retains many Italian touches from the days when it was colonised. Cycling is one of them. Kudus’s dad started him down the road. He has one sister and four brothers, his younger 14-year-old brother shares the same desire.
The country has many local races and boasts around 1800 registered cyclists. At night, you can turn on the television at 9pm for news in the Tigrinya language. And every night, the general news is followed by sport: first cycling, then running and football.
“Asmara is really small, but I’m usually quite lazy after training so I use the car just to get to the internet cafe. Also because people are celebrating the cyclists and you have to hide out. If you’re walking around or on your bicycle, everybody stops you, so you have to hide and that’s easier with the car. In the coffee shop, I am left alone. I will give the owners five minutes or so of my time for photos. When I am busy, I have to secretive.”
The Lucca learning curve
Kudus and Dimension Data call Lucca home in Europe. He lives with Natnael Berhane in the small Tuscan town with around 50,000 inhabitants spread out from the city’s famous oval piazza. Mekseb Debesay is near by. Also Daniel Teklehaimanot, who now has his wife and child living with him.
Some Eritreans from Milan will travel to Tuscany with care packages and support every so often. Kudus relies on them, his team-mates, and of course Dimension Data’s support. He speaks some Italian. And his English, like his riding, has improved tremendously.
“I’ve been there for three years and it feels like my second home. I know where I can go and have fun. I’m alone, but not lonely,” he says.
“A girlfriend? Not yet. They call me because when I was in Eritrea, there were many ladies. That’s part of life, but I haven’t got it right yet. It’s not like cycling. It’s harder than winning a grand tour stage!”
Dimension Data scheduled him in several week-long stage races through the spring and summer. From Abu Dhabi, he heads to Europe and will race the País Vasco next. His programme includes the Tour de Romandie, the Tour of California, the Tour de Suisse, and some races like Coppi e Bartali.
“He’s keen to follow the big guys, staying with Contador and Quintana motivates him,” Court says.
“Over time he’s become more calculated. He’s so feisty, though. At the start, he would go after everything. It’s taken some time for him to learn to be calculating.”
Kudus agrees: “Yeah, you have to be calculated. You have to go off of power and watts.
“In the past, I’d follow any guys until there was a big explosion and afterwards I wouldn’t even be able to ride my tempo. So you just need to sit there riding close, but not in the red. Stay in the yellow.”
After the all Grand Tour experiences, Dimension Data wants him to gain experience winning. That will start with smaller stage races at the HC or WorldTour level.
And he has already found success this season at the Tour of Oman, where he took the white jersey for best young rider.
“This is my first white jersey as a professional,” he says. “For a professional under 25, it is quite hard.”
“He’s a super light rider who can win grand tour stages,” Court continues. “It’ll be interesting to see what he can do in the general classification in the coming years.
“We wanted him to be the first black African in those races, and in the Tour he placed 10th in the youth GC at 21 years old. He has a huge bag of experience already. Now he needs to win Oman or Austria, hard mountain stage races.
“Seeing Merhawi prosper is huge for the team. He’s rough, it’s been chipping away at the rocks and finding the diamond. Ever year he’s seeing improvements. He’s sees that he is getting closer.”
“When I was with J.P. in Africa, it was easy for me to win. In my first tours in Africa or Rwanda, I’d get the white jersey or the yellow jersey, and stage wins…
“When I went to the UCI centre in Switzerland, it was quiet hard to face new riders and the big bunches, and other things, but I had good results. I won some, like the Tour de Côte-d’Or overall in France. I had good experiences.
“Now, I have Nathan Haas or Tyler Farrar, even Cavendish, all of them have good experience. You can gain new ideas and experience from them. I’m improving from year to year.”
Kudus adds that it is time for podiums in stage races and the “big wins. … That’s my dream.”