Racing bikes in Eritrea
Merhawi Kudus heads home for his national championships
On Friday, June 24, our Eritrean time-trial champion will defend his jersey in front of thousands of his most cheerful supporters.
For his mum and dad, his four brothers and his sister, it will be the first of two chances this year to see Merhawi race. The second will be on Sunday, June 26: the day of the Eritrean road race championships. Both races will be great festivals. Merhawi can’t wait to race in front of the Eritrean crowds.
“It is always a big celebration every time that I go home to Eritrea,” he says. “What I do in the races is always in the news, especially after 2015 when I did the Tour de France. When I arrive at the airport now, everyone greets me. That makes me happy. That makes me proud.”
This year, Merhawi’s little brother Milkias will be watching Merhawi more closely than ever. He will follow him in the peloton. Milkias Kudus is not yet 18, but he is already winning races against elite riders.
That’s no small feat in Eritrea, where cycling is the national sport.
Cycling was introduced to the tiny east African country by Italians, who ruled Eritrea for much of the first half of the twentieth century. When the likes of Ottavio Bottecchia, Alfredo Binda, and Gino Bartali were capturing imaginations with their feats during cycling’s early decades, Eritrea was a colony of the Kingdom of Italy. Eritreans fell in love with bike racing too. They have since won independence, and, though life in Eritrea is often hard, their love for cycling is stronger than ever.
On weekend afternoons, young Eritreans race laps around Asmara, the capital. They start out on cheap mountain bikes, racing for points in the third division. By the time the best racers have moved up to the first class, they can live almost like professionals. Backed by the government and some of the nation’s biggest companies, the top Eritrean teams provide their riders with good equipment and coaching, apartments and pocket money, as well as support at the races. They compete in a national series, which brings the sport to the Eritrean mountains. The best of them can race Africa’s great tours with the national team. Most dream of professional careers in Europe. Few ever get the chance.
“The main problem is that you need a visa to come to Europe,” Merhawi says. “You cannot come by yourself for one tour or a couple of races. To get a visa, you need a good team to support you to invite you to Europe.”
Merhawi was fortunate. He has now raced all three grand tours and proven himself time and time again during his ten-year career, but he might never have had the chance without help from the UCI. As a youngster, he won many of Eritrea’s biggest races and was selected to join the World Cycling Centre in South Africa, which was set up by the international federation to provide opportunities to talented racers from underdeveloped countries. Riding in UCI colours, he won a stage and wore the yellow jersey at the Tour of Rwanda when he was still a junior. Thanks to that performance, he was invited to the World Cycling Centre’s European base in Aigle, Switzerland.
“I spent a whole season in Aigle with the UCI and that’s where I learned to be a professional,” Merhawi says. “I learned everything—bike-handling skills, training, how to race in Europe with 200 riders in the bunch.”
Merhawi won great races from the start. He was hungry to be a pro and adjusted to life in Europe quickly. He earned a contract for the next season.
He sure did miss home though.
“Here, I sometimes feel lonely,” he says. “I miss my family and my friends. In Eritrea, we live together with our neighbours. It is not like in Europe. At my apartment in Andorra, I don’t know my neighbour. I just say good morning and nothing else, but in Eritrea, we eat dinner and lunch together with our neighbours and friends. We share everything. We help each other.”
Merhawi is now trying to help his little brother.
“He is a strong rider, so I teach him to have self-confidence and to believe in himself,” he says. “And I try to pass down my knowledge about what he might be expected to know in the future about training and nutrition and sleep. I tell him to learn English, to read some books. Sometimes, I bring him with me in training and I show him what hard is on the bike. He is learning very fast. He is not yet 18, but he races with elite guys and wins a lot of races. He makes me proud.”
Merhawi’s family is proud of him too. Sadly, they have never had the chance to watch him race in the world’s biggest cycling events. They can’t get visas. That’s why the national championships are so important to Merhawi.
This year’s races will be difficult. Over the past few years, several Eritreans have made it to Europe and proven themselves in the World Tour. The local riders are very strong too. They are all good friends until the red flag drops. The road race will be held on a flat circuit that doesn’t suit Merhawi, but he is going to race as hard as he can.
“Everyone in my family will come see the race,” Merhawi says. “The people will be really crazy. They are really amazing. There will be a lot of fans out there, a lot of people who support me, so there will be pressure.”
If anyone beats Merhawi, he hopes it will be Milkias. Maybe, in a couple of years, he will get a visa and a shot in the World Tour too.
That would be special—racing in Europe with his brother. Only then could Merhawi show him what it means to be a pro.