At the age of 22, Joseph Areruya is already ranked by the International Cycling Union (UCI) as Africa’s top cyclist and he also admits he has been surprised by how quickly his star has risen.
Locally dubbed as ‘Kimasa’ which loosely translates to the beast, Areruya is down in history books as Rwanda’s most decorated cyclist, yet has been in the sport for not more than five years.
The former South Africa’s Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka rider began professional cycling in 2017 following his two impressive performances at the 2015 and 2016 Tour du Rwanda editions where he finished second and fourth – respectively – in general classification.
In January 2017, Areruya, along with compatriot Samuel Mugisha, then 18-year old, were signed by Dimension Data for Qhubeka’s continental team on a one-year deal.
With the Italy-based South African side, the former Les Amis Sportifs de Rwamagana rider rapidly rose to stardom, making history to become the first Rwandan to win a stage in a European UCI race where he claimed Stage 5 of the 40th Giro d’Italia Under-23 race in 2017, the same year that he won Tour du Rwanda in November.
Just when everyone thought he was at the peak of his career, Areruya had a different agenda on his mind. The sensational rider shocked the cycling world in February this year by becoming the first Rwandan to win the highly coveted La Tropicale Amissa Bongo race where he was crowned by the Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba in Libreville.
Less than two weeks later, he won the inaugural U-23 UCI Tour de l’Espoir in Yaoundé, Cameroon, which subsequently won the country a ticket to represent Africa at this year’s Tour de l’Avenir in France. The U23 race is regarded as the junior version of Tour du France.
Despite having just extended his contract with Dimension Data, the series of victories on the continent attracted attention of many European clubs, which prompted him to ditch the South African side for France’s UCI professional continental team Delko Marseille Provence KTM in April. Areruya signed a two-year contract with the French club.
Last month, the soft spoken rider was back in the country for the National Championship in which he won the Individual Time Trial (ITT) before finishing sixth in the road race category.
Saturday Sport caught up with him for an exclusive interview about his life in France, how his professional career is unfolding and his long-term goals.
Your switch to Delko Marseille Provence KTM happened quite quickly yet you had just extended your contract with Dimension Data, can you tell us why you opted for this team?
Well, you are right it happened very quickly. But of course for such a deal to get through a lot is done behind the curtains. As someone who is always hungry for challenges and opportunities to make me a better rider, the chance to join Delko Marseille was too good to turn down.
First of all, I was riding for a UCI continental team (Dimension Data for Qhubeka) yet Delko Marseille Provence KTM is a UCI Professional continental team, a higher category and that makes everything with it more professional in every context you would like to look at, so it was an easy decision for me and I immediately signed with them a contract of two years.
It was your first time in France, how was it like to adapt to the new environment and what challenged you most?
[Laughs] It was as tough as you can imagine, first of all the language barrier as you know France is a French speaking country, I didn’t know any French at all and my English wasn’t that perfect either. It was never easy.
But still using English was my only option, thankfully a few of my teammates understand the language. Where necessary, my friends translated for me.
But at the end of the day in such circumstances, being humble and polite is very key. Today I have a very close relationship with every team member be it my fellow riders or the staff. They like me because however much I may struggle to communicate with every person, I am always open and committed to learning. It’s just a matter of time before I fluently speak French.
How different is it to ride for a UCI Professional continental team relative to a UCI continental team?
Very much different, actually it was another hurdle I had to overcome. I was used to racing for a month and then rest for perhaps another month.
Contrary, it’s a whole different case here. I have races week in, week out and if there is a chance to rest, it can’t go beyond three days in a month. We are always in tours and one-day races.
It was very tough to adapt (at the beginning) to such a pace because I had to train harder than my teammates so I can quickly catch up. It is still work in progress but I am proud of where I am so far. I take every training session and every race as a platform to grow, do better and be better.
You joined this club following a series of inspiring performances in international races but since that time, you haven’t won any race. Do you feel hungry of winning again?
Well I won’t say I feel hungry because I said it has been a challenging start and I am still learning my ropes. Preparing for a win in such high profile races that attract elite riders from around the world takes time. But I must say that I am really working hard for it and in due time I will start vying for the podium spots.
How do you feel with the fact that you won’t be defending your Tour du Rwanda title this year?
I am really okay with this. I will also be having other races that I will be competing in. I would have loved to defend it because I well know the sweetness of Tour du Rwanda and what it takes to win it but since my club won’t be participating, I will have to live with that.
I am instead rooting for my fellow Rwandan riders to keep the title at home for a record fifth time running. I believe they have that stamina, I would be disappointed if it is won by a guest rider but I don’t think that will happen.
Your journey to professional cycling has been an inspirational one since making your Tour du Rwanda debut in 2015, what’s the secret behind the quick rise?
Well, I can’t exactly tell because we (human beings) are different but I don’t doubt that for any athlete, discipline is very key if you want to reach your goals. My biggest pillar to success has been to have a good conduct wherever I am and consistently working hard.
Discipline means a lot, it means listening and obeying your coaches’ advice, work hard and most importantly, praying and having a good relationship with God.
Finally, where do you see yourself in perhaps five years to come?
To be honest if you had asked me five years ago, I did not imagine I would be riding in France right now, the same may apply to where I might be in the next five years. But since I am already racing fully as a professional rider, my dream now is to race in UCI World Tour races such as Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. These are races that every cyclist lives for.