Text : Foucauld Duchange | Photos : Damien Rigondeaud
You could consume all of the literature and theory the world has to offer on the topic of swimming – but nothing can replace jumping into the water. It’s the same with Paris-Roubaix. Even the fan with the greatest knowledge of the exploits of Roger De Vlaeminck or Tom Boonen cannot grasp the scale of what « l’Enfer du Nord » (The Hell of the North) entails if he has not hurtled down the Trouée d’Arenberg or passed the Carrefour de l’Arbre on a road bike. Having come straight from Rwanda, Joseph Areruya is not interested in the four-times winners of the test. On the contrary, he has just completed the Troisvilles section as if testing the water before jumping right in. The verdict? Indiffernt, yet the real baptism will take place on Sunday, and will be by no means insignificant in terms of its symbolism. In fact, Joseph Areruya will be the first black African cyclist to attempt to conquer the twenty-nine cobbled sections of the « Reine des Classiques », finally returning to the Roubaix Velodrome.
Does this distinction mean anything to him? It would appear that it is mainly other people who want to take on this mantel, with all that it represents given the timing of the commemorations to mark the twenty-five-year anniversary of the genocide. While Joseph is indeed Rwandan, he was born two years after the atrocities and when faced with questions to which the answers can only be silent or excruciating, he prefers to answer through the afrobeat of his compatriots, or by getting back in the race after a particularly punishing corner.
Costaud – Areruya does an excellent impression as two of his mates stand cringing. At the first stop, while Gautier the mechanic optimises the settings of the 785 Huez Disc based on the ride sensation reported by the riders, Joseph inspects a blister that has already come out on his knuckle. Was he gripping the handlebar too tightly? We haven’t even reached Saint-Python and Sunday yet, and there will be another twenty-five sections to come after that. To stay cool, the rider switches from Bruce Melody to Social Mula in his playlist and the car sets off after him along these hellish paths, which require the mechanics to reinforce the brake chassis with aluminium plates to withstand the minefield of potholes and cobbles.
Depending on the year, Paris-Roubaix can be like a cloud of dust or a puddle of mud, but there is one constant that you always seem to forget: the noise. There is a resounding din of carbon, the incessant hammering of the saddle, and perhaps even all of the bones that are clicking like castanets beneath the mistreated flesh. Is Joseph thinking back to what Przemyslaw Kasperkiewicz told him, trying to explain the effect on the cobbles in that pidgin English mixed with all of the accents that form the official language of the contemporary cycling team? « It’s like this : pou-pou-poum. Last two hours, it’s only the legs. You can’t feel the hands. Mental! ». Mental indeed…
Mental isn’t the only that came to ndy Flickinger’s mind with regard to Joseph. The sporting director of the Delko-Marseille-Provence team was initially impressed by his strength during the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, when the young Rwandan stood out alongside the three professional European teams and took the liberty of making Damien Gaudin saddle up.
Athletic and muscular in spite of the fact that he is still very much developing, Joseph is naturally equipped with the qualities of a climber, since Rwanda is known as the country of one thousand hills and Kigali, the capital, sits at an altitude of 1,500 metres. As a result, the Belgian races and the Paris-Roubaix are less suited to his physique that the exhausting challenges presented by the races with hilly stages such as the Tour de l’Ain or the Tour de Luxembourg, however, they do present the best opportunities to learn. In fact, the narrowness of the roads, the constant changes of direction, the need to position yourself and rub shoulders with the other riders, and of course the cobbles, make this an accelerated training ground for the challenges of high-level cycling. Everything that Joseph is still lacking, and that he longs to acquire. The first test will take place on Sunday, but he has already received the encouragement of the class council. Sincere congratulations.