On Sunday the first Rwandan rider to start Paris-Roubaix crossed the line in 6 hours, 38 minutes and 2 seconds. Except, if you review the result on the race’s website, or Pro Cycling Stats, he didn’t. You won’t find that number anywhere public. Officially Joseph Areruya, along with Delko Marseille Provence team-mate Przemysław Kasperkiewicz (who, incidentally, has the longest two-word name of any rider to start a WorldTour race this year) finished hors délai – outside the time limit.
As far as the record books are concerned there’s barely any difference between them and the 60-odd DNFs. They might as well have jumped into the team car before Orchies.
In a stage race, enforcing a time cut makes sense. It sets a minimum standard of exertion, obliging all athletes to actually ride. They don’t have to go as hard as the leaders and can still save their legs for the following stage, but there are limits as to how soft they can pedal, how much energy they can save.
In a one-day race, when there is no tomorrow to think of, what purpose does the time cut serve? It could be removed tomorrow because it’s up to the races themselves, rather than being a UCI regulation. It’s not there to allow them to re-open the roads, as some believe. All it does is deprive the rider who battled through hell the prestige of registering any kind of result in the hardest Classic on the calendar.
And if you don’t think it’s hell, you’ve either never ridden the cobbles yourself or witnessed the race at close quarters. Even on a dry day like last Sunday it’s violence, pure and simple. There’s no shame in abandoning the moment your work is done. If you hopped off at the Arenberg, then fair enough. The season is long; the risk of injury on the pavé is high.
But Joseph Areruya rode on. We got a glimpse of him riding through that famous forest. Solo, self-evidently struggling, but soldiering on. He wasn’t the last to pass us but there were still 18 sectors to go. Silently we urged him forwards but it didn’t seem likely he’d make it to Roubaix.
At the velodrome, amid the melee, we chanced upon a Delko soigneur and directeur sportif. Expecting to be informed that Joseph had packed, we asked if he was at the team bus. Instead, to our surprise, we were told he was on his way in.
We waited with them while the clock ticked upwards, the crowds departed and the podium was dismantled. “All riders finishing within a time limit exceeding 8% of the winner’s time will not be included in the classification,” reads Article 8 of the Paris-Roubaix race regulations. That point had long passed.
Eventually – a full 40 minutes after Philippe Gilbert – Joseph arrived in the velodrome, rolled around the last lap-and-a-half and peeled off onto the grass of the infield. He was immediately surrounded by those members of the media who hadn’t left for the winner’s press conference. The team soigneur wiped cobble dust from his face while photographers urged him not to.
Joseph looked broken but he had not been beaten. He had, understandably, few words for our hovering microphones. “I’m tired,” he said. “It was a long day. It was hard, but I finished.”
There’s some debate about whether he was the first black African to start Paris-Roubaix, but Joseph Areruya was certainly the first Rwandan to finish. He rode every kilometre. He honoured the race. The race should honour him in return.