20-year-old Eritrean Merhawi Kudus is establishing himself as a climbing talent and hot property

Merhawi Kudus of team MTN-Qhubeka keeps improving with the potential to become Africa’s brightest cycling star.

“Scandals mark many of the climbers from the past so it’s hard to compare, but Merhawi looks like he could be one of the great climbers like Marco Pantani,” team sports director, Kevin Campbell told Cycling Weekly. “He’s fluid, he’s light. He seems to live on the climbs.”

A smile usually accompanies Kudus’ brown face and short frizzy hair. The 20-year-old has reason to be happy because his bike took him out of Eritrea and around the world.

Racing for the South Africa-based UCI centre in 2012, he won one stage at the Tour of Rwanda. Last year, he travelled to the UCI’s headquarters in Switzerland. With its team, he raced and won the Tour de Côte d’Or overall and the Freccia dei Vini. He placed 11th behind Ruben Fernandez in the biggest amateur stage race, the Tour de L’Avenir. Second division team Bretagne took note and signed him as a stagiaire. He placed second in the 2.2-ranked Vuelta Ciclista a León.

MTN, Africa’s first professional team and parent team for the UCI’s African centre, had to have this diamond in the rough.

“We heard a few French teams were trying to get him but we said no,” explained Campbell. “He’s an African talent and we are an African team, so we wanted him on the team.”

“Last year, I won races, in France and Italy. I had a chance to understand myself and develop further. I improved a lot: technique and group riding skills. Those races built my confidence,” Kudus said.

“The UCI helped me so much. They helped me achieve those results. With MTN it’s on another level. Plus, it’s better being in the team with other Eritreans, like Daniel Teklehaymanot.”

MTN’s roster includes Europeans like Gerald Ciolek, winner of Milan-San Remo last year, and 18 Africans, five from Eritrea. Teklehaymanot became the first from his country to ride a Grand Tour in the 2012 Vuelta a España. MTN added him to its team over the winter after two seasons with Australia’s first division team, Orica-GreenEdge.

Kudus calls on Teklehaymanot or some of the other Africans for help. In Malaysia’s Tour de Langkawi this week, where he placed second on the Gentling Highlands summit finish, he sat side by side with Ethiopian Tsgabu Grmay regularly.

“I spent time with him, some of the Eritreans and Tsgabu at a training camp in South Africa,” explained former team Sky rider, John-Lee Augustyn. “He’s so light on the bike. The way he pedals looks amazing. He’s got skinny legs but they really travel fast.”

When Kudus sat at the start of Langkawi’s stage five, his legs appeared as big as some riders’ arms.

“It seems his legs are pure bone,” Campbell said. “He’s still a young guy who needs to develop and mature. He needs strength but that will come with age.”

“I need to improve on my individual time trialling,” explained Kudus. “It’s important for the Tour de France and stage races like that. Sometimes you’ll have 50-kilometre time trials.”

Kudus, when not preparing or racing, took mobile phone photographs of his team-mates. He internet searched his rivals’ palmarès. He laughed and joked with Campbell and his team-mates. He acts, as he should, as a teenage boy but has the makings of a cycling star.

“He’s going to have to pick up his game but he’s a gutsy rider,” Augustyn added. “You can see he’s very aggressive. He wants it, that’s what counts at the end of the day. You need that grit.”