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Hugo Houle at the Tour de France | One step closer to his “big dream”

As he rolled through Saint-Étienne, Hugo Houle saw the finish line in the distance. The crowd was screaming as they banged on the panels. First wheel of the leading trio, he led the Dane Mads Pedersen and the Briton Fred Wright.

Posted at 11:38 a.m.
Updated at 5:10 p.m.

Simon Drouin

Simon Drouin
The Press

Ten kilometers earlier, the Quebecer had “thrown a little [ses] maps” near the top of the Ultimate Hill. He hadn’t managed to get rid of the former world champion and the promising classics specialist, his last two breakaway companions.

His chances in the sprint were slim, but he relished the last kilometer. For the first time in his career, the cyclist from Sainte-Perpétue had the opportunity to compete for victory in a stage of the Tour de France.

At 300 meters, Pedersen threw first, leaving no leeway to his two rivals. With a lead of two or three bike lengths, the Trek Dane had time to turn around before raising his arms for the very first time on the Great Loop.

Behind Wright (Bahrain), Houle followed in third place, shaking his head slightly in quickly erased regret.

“It’s quite a feeling, confided the rider from Israel-Premier Tech an hour later on the phone. “I’ve been talking about this big dream for so long. Today, I am in the conditions to be there for the victory. It encourages me for the future. I have nothing to envy anyone. I can do it, I have the level. I am happy with my day and I have no regrets. »

This third place at the 13e stage, Friday afternoon, is the best result in history for a Quebecer at the Tour de France. In 2020, Houle finished seventh in Sarran, but came 52 seconds behind the winner.

After two trying days in the Alps, where the Dane Jonas Vingegaard stole the yellow jersey from the Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, the peloton attacked a 192.6 km transition stage between Le Bourg d’Oisans and Saint-Étienne. The question was to know if a breakaway would make it to the end or if the teams of sprinters, not spoiled since the start in Denmark, would manage to control to set the stage for a grouped final.

Already, the formation of the breakaway was a constant fight until the crossing of Grenoble, with 150 kilometers to go. The Swiss Stefan Küng (Groupama) and the Italian Filippo Ganna (Ineos), two of the best riders in the world, first isolated themselves with the American Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar).

After a futile pursuit attempt in a group of about twenty runners, Houle returned to the charge almost immediately. He went against behind Pedersen who was accompanied by his young American teammate Quinn Simmons. Wright joined the Canadian to join the two Treks. Together, they were able to catch up with the leading trio who were traveling at more than 50 km/h.

Houle gave a brief review of the troops: a world champion on the road (Pedersen), a double world gold medalist in the time trial (Ganna), the 3e from the last Paris-Roubaix and double medalist at the Worlds (Küng)…

We were seven strong. I said to myself: we are going to have a great day. I knew we had a good chance, at least we would have a little fun…

Hugo Houle

Aware of the danger, the armadas of sprinters did not leave them much room, maintaining their lead between 1 minute and a half and two minutes and a half. Philippe Gilbert was particularly incisive for Caleb Ewan’s Lotto Soudal. Jasper Philipsen’s Alpecin have also been very active. The fugitives took advantage of two climbs to regain ballast, while the chasing formations had to slow down so as not to condemn their finishers on the slopes.

With 72 km to go, a fall in a corner by the eternally unlucky Australian Ewan ruined the Lotto operation. With a little help from Quick-Step, Alpecin continued the effort, with little success.

Simmons sacrificed himself for Pedersen on the final climb. The gap had increased to 3 min 30 when the BikeExchange of Dylan Groenewegen, winner of the third stage, decided to take control.

After taking all the risks in a descent, brushing the fall twice, they gave up with 13 km to go.

“We were riding against four teams and we managed to make them fold,” said Houle. It was a big war, but I was with experienced guys who didn’t panic. To be able to ride with such strong riders in a breakaway is still an experience. It was going so fast. It was very very pleasant. »

Intimidating ? “Of course it’s impressive, but I’m at that level. I’m here to race, I’m no different from them. I think I proved that I was capable of riding with these guys and that I didn’t have to be ashamed in front of them. »

Pedersen didn’t take long to accelerate before the last climb 12 km from the finish. Wright and Houle made a gigantic effort to come back to the man with the rainbow stripes.

“It surprised me a bit, but I was quick to react. With [Wright], I was able to close the gap directly. Fortunately because the power of his attack was exceptional. »

Küng, Jorgenson and Ganna, the three initial escapees, also missed the train, finishing at 30 seconds.

On the advice of his sporting director Steve Bauer, the only Canadian stage winner in the Tour de France, Houle gave a shot just before the summit, but Pedersen and Wright did not waver.

“I was a little late in my case. I tried, but Mads was very solid. Today, you couldn’t get it out of your wheel anyhow. »

At 1.5 km, Houle was “a little trapped” when Pedersen refused to take a last stint. He kept riding ahead to make sure the three pursuers didn’t come back.

“At 69 kg, I knew it would be very complicated in the sprint, unless someone cramps up or gets stuck a bit. Anyway, there was no photo: Mads was much too fast. »

As soon as he crossed the line, Houle thought of his brother Pierrik, who tragically passed away on December 21, 2012. At 19, he was mowed down by a drunk driver while jogging. His older brother, who was returning that day from his first camp in Europe, found the body in the heart of the village of Sainte-Perpétue.

Since then, Hugo has dreamed of being able to dedicate a victory to him on the Tour. “It’s one more step towards the end goal,” he said, a crack in his voice. There is a podium. There weren’t many missing, but that encourages me for the future. »

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