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De Velo: Merhawi Kudus – I have a dream and I am working hard to achieve it

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Wednesday, 01 November 2017

Merhawi Kudus – I have a dream and I am working hard to achieve it

Merhawi Kudus
Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka
I grew up in Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. My father used a bicycle to cycle to work. Riding a bike to school or work is not uncommon back home. I knew about the Tour de France because they show it on Eritrean TV. I didn’t really understand it at first. We have local races at home where you get prize money when you win. If you’re riding for a local team, you get a small salary every month and there is a team apartment that the riders share. When I was growing up, I thought this is probably the same for the Tour de France riders.
I didn’t realise how big the sport was. When I first got to Europe, it was a totally different world for me.
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.
That was one of the big challenges coming from Africa.
As a black rider, no one wanted to be around me in the peloton because they thought I didn’t have good technique. 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.
But there is no place like home.
When I’m in Europe for over 4 months, I start missing Eritrea a lot. If I have a 15 day break from racing, I usually go home. Asmara is high altitude so it’s good for training. It’s a win-win situation.
When I’m home during the off season, I try to use the downtime to improve my English. I’ll speak English to my friends or get a private teacher for one hour a day.
© Muscat Municipality / PauMer / Kare Dehli Thorstad
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.
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.
It worked as I started getting results in the beginning of the year already. Finishing in the top 10 in both Valenciana and the Tour of Oman gave me confidence. After that I was a little disappointed in Pais Vasco because I couldn’t contend for a good placing. My coach and I made some more adaptations and in Tour of Switzerland I started feeling like the changes were working. When I could climb with the best guy in Vuelta Burgos, it confirmed the changes were working. This made me very excited for the Vuelta.
I came so close to winning my first Grand Tour stage. Finishing second on stage 5 is one of the highlights of my career. 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.

Photo: Stiehl Photography
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. I decided to stay in Europe. I didn’t go back home because I didn’t want my mom to see me on crutches. The Vuelta was on TV every day in Eritrea and my family was very worried.
I share an apartment with my teammate Natnael and he was a great help around the house when I couldn’t walk. I’m off crutches now so I’m ready to go home and enjoy the off season.
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. 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.
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