Almost ten years ago, during his first year as a professional cyclist, Hugo Houle suffered an enormous blow when his younger brother, Pierrik, was killed in a hit-and-run incident in their native Sainte-Perpétue, Québec.
This loss affected the young Canadian enormously, and his absence is still felt by the Israel-Premier Tech rider to this day. "When you are in trouble, there might be people who come and get you, and he was one of them, and now I don’t have him," Houle explained.
On Tuesday, almost a decade on from the tragedy, Houle won his first professional road race, stage 16 of the Tour de France, and dedicated it in memory of his deceased brother. He has said before that this was his only cycling aim, to win for Pierrik.
He did it in outstanding fashion, soloing to victory from 39km out, after attacking on the Mur de Péguère and keeping a gap open all the way to the finish; he ended up over a minute ahead of his closest challenger.
"I made it, and it means a lot to me," he said. "I had one dream, to win a Tour stage for my brother who died when I turned professional. That one is for him. Today this is for him. I worked for 10 to 12 years and today I got my win for him, so it's incedible, I don't know what to say, I'm so happy."
Last year, speaking to Procycling magazine, Houle said that his one goal in his career was to win a stage of the Tour in honour of Pierrik.
“If I can accomplish that, I can say job done. I can hang the bike up,” he said. “But while that one is still not done, I’m ready to fight. That motivates me to get one for him. That’s why I keep riding.”
“First, you don’t have any plan," after a bereavement like that, he explained, in that same interview. "You’re just destroyed. You don’t care about people or cycling any more. But then time goes, one month, and you’re like, well, I have to start again."
On Tuesday, the Canadian was still struggling to understand it an hour after his stage win. His previous best result was third on the stage to Saint-Étienne last week.
"With 1km to go I knew I had about a minute, and it was done," he said in his post-stage press conference. "I tried to enjoy it as much as possible. I’ve never won before, and to win today was a dream. My brother died ten years ago today, and I want to win in his honour. I had time to taste it, and I’m so happy. If I had to write down a dream way to win a stage it was like this. I’m still struggling to understand it."
As well as it being his first road victory, it was Canada's first Tour stage win since 1988, and its second ever, after Steve Bauer on the opening stage of that year's race.
"It’s quite crazy," Houle said. We have more Canadians on the WorldTour thanks to Premier Tech. I hope what I achieved today can be an inspiration. In one year I haven’t seen my parents, my family, because I have to be in Europe, I have to race. I’m really happy that I can win for Canada.
"I had Steve in the car supporting me, he was telling me to enjoy it. I hope there will be more Canadians that can win sooner than 34 years."
Behind him, his teammate and fellow Canadian Michael Woods finished third.
"An amazing day for Canada," Woods said. "I think this was Hugo's first pro win ever, so what a stage to do it on. We've been racing so well as a team this last three weeks, with Simon winning on the Roubaix stage, Froomey coming third, and also Hugo coming third earlier in the week. This is just icing on the cake, just awesome."
For Houle, the final climb was "a lot of pain".
"I was suffering, I was overheating, I had to pace myself well," he explained. "I was starting to be cold, which is how I knew I was on the edge. I needed to hold the gap. I wanted as hard as I could, I was on the limit. When I reached the top I was like phwah. It’s not every day you have the chance to win, so when it comes you have to take it."
The 31-year-old had his opportunity at a Tour de France stage win, the one that wanted so much in memory of Pierrik. Career and lifetime goal achieved.
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