By Gregor Brown | Velonews
Eritrean Merhawi Kudus of Dimension Data sat on the sea wall in Muscat taking in the rugged cityscape after the Tour of Oman finished. He said the white jersey, his first at bike racing’s top level, holds importance as he raced among stars like Rui Costa, Fabio Aru, and Romain Bardet.
Kudus beamed a welcoming smile and wore the white jersey proudly. He aimed to win the overall in Oman, but taking the best young rider’s jersey and placing fourth overall is good enough for now.
“It was not bad I kept the white jersey,” Kudus said.
“This is my first white jersey as a professional. For a professional under 25, it is quite hard. I have under 23 jerseys, but no under 25 white jerseys. Last year, I lost it by 18 seconds. It is really something for me so I am really happy.”
It astonishes some followers that Kudus is still only 23 years old. He has already raced all three grand tours, including the Vuelta a España twice.
Now, like always, Kudus wants to win. He showed that by attacking with Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) on day 2 of the Middle Eastern race and trading punches with Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi) and Fabio Aru (Astana) on Saturday’s Green Mountain summit finish. He left behind Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), who finished second in last year’s Tour de France to Chris Froome (Sky).
“The [6km] climb was a little short, when I saw 2km to go I was a little bit surprised,” added Kudus. “I was a little bit nervous. I started early and the effort was quite long.”
Dimension Data’s performance manager Rolf Aldag has worked with stars Tejay van Garderen, Tony Martin, and Mark Cavendish. The combination of Kudus’s win and the gentle Arabian Sea brought a smile to Aldag’s face.
“The whole team is happy because we did what we wanted to do with Lachlan Morton attacking early on,” the German said. “We isolated the leaders and he blew all the other teams’ helpers. It was men against men with Costa and the other obvious ones. They caught Merhawi back this time but next time it might work. You can’t be disappointed when you execute the plan perfectly.
“The longer climbs are better for him, long and steep because he is not a power climber. You’re always amazed when you see how much power his legs can produce, though. That makes him always competitive on steep climbs.”
Those long thin legs, similar to the ones that carry the famous east African marathon runners, took him to second place in the Volta a Valenciana behind Movistar’s Nairo Quintana two weeks ago.
They took him to 10th overall in the Tour de France’s youth classification in 2015 when he was 21 years old. They helped him make the huge leaps since winning a stage in Africa’s top stage race in 2012, the Tour of Rwanda, with the UCI’s development team.
This season, Kudus and Dimension Data — which also boasts Cavendish and Tyler Farrar on its roster — established goals for him in the shorter stage races like the Tour of Oman and the Abu Dhabi Tour, which begins Thursday and includes many top stars like Alberto Contador (Trek – Segafredo), Quintana, and Bardet.
The four-day WorldTour race in the United Arab Emirates features three stages for sprinters and one summit finish. That 10.6km climb traditionally decides the race. Esteban Chaves (Orica – Scott) and Tanel Kangert (Astana) won the last two editions.
“We are setting achievable goals,” Aldag added. “First [Kudus] needs to obtain experience. He did that. Next is going for results and certain stage races, like Oman or potentially Abu Dhabi and Coppi e Bartali later on.
“Cavendish will race for the sprints, but he will be more than happy to do his share to help Merhawi into the right position. Last time the whole peloton got split in the crosswinds going into the climb. So we have strong guys to do so, like Bernie Eisel who rode with Sky and Froome. We have to ride day to day with GC in mind and see how it turns out.”
“The white jersey keeps my morale and mentality strong,” Kudus added. “I come out of yesterday with a smile, not disappointed. It gives me good motivation.”