Louis Garneau, a retired competitive cyclist who founded Louis Garneau Sports in 1983, was watching the Tour de France on Tuesday morning when he saw a familiar face in the lead.
That face belonged to Hugo Houle, from Sainte-Perpétue, Que. He ended up winning Stage 16 of the race more than a minute ahead of France’s Valentin Madouas and Israel-Premier Tech teammate Michael Woods of Ottawa.
“It’s a historic moment,” said Garneau. “I want to have a glass of champagne with Hugo Sunday night.”
And Garneau plans to do just that — flying to Paris to celebrate with Houle after what so far has been a stellar performance during the world famous 21-stage race over the Pyrenees and Alps mountain chains.
Garneau first met the 31-year-old Houle when he was about 15 years old. The young racer trained in Garneau’s club alongside the retired racer’s son. Garneau served as Houle’s coach, mentor and sponsor, ensuring Houle flourished as a professional cyclist.
“He’s a great, great, great champion,” said Garneau.
Then just a few days before Christmas in 2012, Houle’s brother was out for a jog when he was killed by a drunk driver at age 19. Garneau said he gave Houle a small cross to wear around his neck a couple of days after the accident.
“I said, ‘take the cross for your brother,'” said Garneau, telling Houle he was going to be a good racer someday.
Then last week, he contacted Houle and asked him if he still wears that cross when he races and “he told me, ‘yes, Louis, yes.’ And he sent me a picture of the cross.”
Garneau watched on Tuesday as Houle took the cross from his shirt and looked to the sky near the finish line. Garneau, calling it an emotional moment, knew what was going through Houle’s mind.
“I had one dream: win the stage for my brother who died when I turned professional. Today that one is for him,” Houle said after the race.
“I worked for 10, 12 years and today I got my win for him.”
Victory resonates with fans
Garneau was emotional as he talked about the victory, calling it a “great moment for Quebec and Canada.”
“It’s important for kids,” he added. “They are looking up to Hugo. He’s a very clean racer. He’s honest. He never gives up. He’s one of the best, motivated racers I’ve seen in my life.”
The victory resonated with cycling fans throughout Quebec on Tuesday as Houle took the first stage win by a Canadian at the Tour in 34 years.
Steve Bauer, now sporting director at Israel-Premier Tech, captured the opening stage of the Tour in 1988.
It’s also the second podium finish for Houle at this year’s Tour. He finished third in Stage 13 on Friday.
Madouas was second on Tuesday and Woods finished third for his second career Tour podium finish. He was third in Stage 8 of last year’s race.
Léon Derwael has been enthusiastically tuning into the race while at work in downtown Montreal at the Allo Vélo bike shop and café.
“We are happy one is from Quebec and another is also from Canada,” said Derwael. “I think it’s a great day. It was really fun to watch and follow the race.”
Derwael has been following Houle’s success closely, and Tuesday’s mountain climb was particularly difficult, he said. His success is inspirational to young cyclists in Quebec who dream of one day competing in the Tour, he said.
Race gets more exciting every year
Not every Canadian, even those who are cyclists, follows the race, he said, but having two Canadians in the mix may attract more national support and attention.
“I think it’s amazing. More and more, every year, it’s getting more exciting,” said Derwael, who appreciates the developments in technology and team strategies.
Jean-François Rheault, head of the cycling organization Vélo Québec, said this is the first time a Quebecer has won a stage of the Tour.
“It will inspire a generation of young cyclists and also existing cyclists,” he said.
“When athletes succeed like this, they become role models and will therefore inspire people to cycle more.”
As for Houle, he was struggling to believe the victory himself on Tuesday.
“I had never won a race before today. And today, I win,” he said.
“It’s completely crazy! But we did it and I’m sure my brother helped me. I think I’ll realize it later, but it’s done. A whole day, amazing!”
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