(Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

A brother, a breakaway, a breakthrough: Hugo Houle’s emotional win

Tragedy and triumph on the roads of the Pyrenees.

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Hugo Houle, 450 m from his first pro win, knew he had it, even if he probably didn’t believe it. The camera moto pulled alongside, and Houle pulled an amulet out of his collar. His jaw jutted out, overcome by the emotion of the moment. He leaned it right, right again, and then left, before the gantry revealed itself. A glance over his shoulder. The finish line, and a changed life, was right there in front of him. 

One more look over the shoulder, almost disbelieving. A point to the sky, to a lost loved one, and then it was done. 

Hugo Houle, in the space of one breakaway, had achieved a long-term dream and settled a score with the past. His brother, Pierrick, was killed in a hit and run while out jogging; Houle had found him on the road after going out looking for him, and Houle had been targeting a stage win at the Tour in his honour. Speaking to VeloNews last year prior to the Tour de France, he said that a stage win in his brother’s honour motivated him to keep going. “I would say at first [Pierrick’s death] destroyed me more than it helped, but today that’s how I see it drives me to keep pushing and train hard to achieve that,” he said. “I would really like to achieve [a Tour de France stage win] before I stop.”

Today, goal realised, Houle hugged his teammates, and tried to come to terms with what he’d achieved. “This is for my brother, who died when I turned professional. I worked 10 to 12 years to get the win for him,” Houle said after the finish. “I do not know what to say. I am just so happy.”

Stage winner Hugo Houle (R) and Michael Woods (L) celebrate his win. (Photo by Gonzalo Fuentes – Pool/Getty Images)

Houle’s victory was a personal milestone, but it was a historical one too. You have to go back to 1988 to find the last Tour de France stage won by a Canadian – Steve Bauer, a man that was today sitting in the Israel–Premier Tech team car as directeur sportif.

Israel-Premier Tech had a stunning day, placing two riders in the top three (Michael Woods, also Canadian, was the other). “It was our goal to put Woods in the break because of the final climbs,” an ecstatic Bauer explained afterwards. “Hugo was biding his time and he was amazingly strong. Unbelievably strong. Impressively strong.” A joyous chuckle. “I couldn’t believe how well he was going.”

While Houle carried a gap over the top of the closing climb, Woods and fellow North American Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) were 30 seconds behind. Houle held that advantage all the way down, and when Jorgenson crashed out, it briefly looked like a Canadian (and Israel-Premier Tech) one-two with a Canadian directing it. In the end, Valentin Madouas came back from an earlier group on the road, and Woods had to settle for third – not that anyone was disappointed with that. “Michael did a great job, on that first climb going away with [Michael] Storer (Groupama-FDJ),” Bauer told CyclingTips. “Hugo came back into the game and he just attacked at the right time. Michael played his part, to perfection. In the end, the win’s the most important thing.”

(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

At the Israel-Premier Tech bus, on the side of a hot, narrow backstreet of Foix, the director’s car was first to arrive, then Woods, then – some time later – Houle. The win had the feeling of a milestone – not just for Houle, but for Canadian cycling and for a team that has been fighting relegation. It’s also the latest peak in a rollercoaster Tour that has seen a stage win from Simon Clarke early in the race, Chris Froome’s resurgent third place finish on Alpe d’Huez, Clarke leaving the race with COVID, and now, an unlikely winner from the breakaway in the Pyrenees. 

As the older statesman of the team, Chris Froome, rolled up to celebrate the win, Steve Bauer was grabbing a colleague in a hearty embrace. Smiling, Froome explained the significance of the moment. “To be sitting with another stage win – I’m speechless right now. He’s an absolutely selfless team player, always up for anything.”

In the scrum, a Movistar team car clipped a cameraman on the narrow street, but everyone got on with their job. Behind me, Bauer yelled “Go Canada!” 

It was a frenzied few seconds in the middle of a frenetic Tour de France that painted a perfect picture – of a team battling to survive in the cut and thrust of WorldTour madness; of a gritty underdog win; a statement of Canada’s place in world cycling. Most of all, a win for someone that didn’t get to see it, but seemed to be looking down on his big brother in Foix today.

(Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

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