Canadian rider Hugo Houle pointed at the sky as he crossed the finish line well ahead of the competition in Stage 16 of the Tour de France.
After finishing the hilly 178.5-kilometre stage through the Pyrenees from Carcassonne to Foix in four hours 23 minutes 47 seconds — 1:10 ahead of France’s Valentin Madouas and Israel-Premier Tech teammate Michael Woods of Ottawa — Houle dedicated his historic win to his younger brother.
Pierrik Houle died in December 2012 when he was hit by a car while jogging. He was 19.
“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, so it’s incredible. I don’t know what to say, just so happy.”
Houle, from Sainte-Perpétue, Que., realized that dream when he raced to his first Grand Tour stage win on Tuesday, and the first stage win by a Canadian at the Tour de France in 34 years.
Steve Bauer, now sporting director at Israel-Premier Tech, captured the opening stage of the Tour in 1988. Bauer guided Houle on Tuesday from the team’s car.
“I am so proud of Hugo, Mike, and the entire team,” said Canadian-Israeli entrepreneur Sylvan Adams, who co-owns Israel-Premier Tech. “What an outstanding victory for Hugo. He’s a hard worker for his teammates, but has shown what a special rider he truly is at this Tour.”
Houle talked about life without his brother in a 2021 interview.
“But at the end of the day I have to go forward,” he said at the time. “He was my biggest fan, for sure.”
The emotional impact of Houle’s win was evident as soon as he crossed the finish line.
“This one is for my brother,” Houle could be heard saying as he was embraced by his team.
“This means a lot to me,” he told reporters shortly afterward, with his voice breaking as he struggled to hold back the tears.
It’s 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 de France podium. He was third in Stage 8 of last year’s race.
Woods joining Houle on the podium made for an unprecedented day of success for Canada at the elite Grand Tour cycling race.
“What a day for Israel-Premier Tech taking 1st and 3rd,” four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome said on Twitter. “Especially happy for Hugo Houle, this win means so much to him, and so well deserved after years of sacrificing his own chances for others.”
Houle moved up seven spots to 26th in the overall classification. Woods moved up 11 spots to 36th.
Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard retained the yellow jersey as the race’s overall leader.
Houle attacked on the approach to the final climb, the top category Mur de Peguère, and held off the group of chasers from the remnants of the breakaway over the leg that featured four classified climbs — including two top-category ascents.
The 31-year-old had crested the final climb with a 25-second advantage and his task was made easier when American cyclist Matteo Jorgenson — who was second at the time and in hot pursuit — slipped out on a corner, leaving only Woods with a realistic chance of catching his compatriot and teammate.
“I was hanging on but I was suffering so much on the steep climb,” Houle said. “But I knew that if I got to the top with 30 or 40 seconds, maybe I could do it.
“It was tight, it was a long time at 30 seconds but I never gave up. I gained some more time in the technical section and when they told me the gap was one minute, I knew I was going to do it.”
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Houle, who lives in Monaco, is racing in his seventh Grand Tour event and fourth straight Tour de France. He has also competed at the Giro d’Italia twice and Spanish Vuelta once.
He has one other top-10 stage finish at the Tour de France with a seventh-place result in the 12th stage in 2020. He also won individual time trial gold at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
Two-time defending champion Tadej Pogačar tried to attack several times on the penultimate climb of the Port de Lers — twice on the ascent and again on the descent — but Vingegaard stayed on his wheel.
They crossed the line together and Vingegaard maintained his lead of 2:22 over Pogačar and 2:43 over Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion.
Antoine Duchesne of Saguenay, Que., riding for Groupama FDJ, was 62nd in the stage and 71st overall. Montreal’s Guillaume Boivin, also of Israel-Premier Tech, was 95th Tuesday and 131st overall.
Wednesday’s 17th stage is an even tougher day in the Pyrenees with three top classified climbs, as well as a second-category ascent, on the 129.7-kilometre route from Saint-Gaudens with a summit finish at the ski resort of Peyragudes.
“Tomorrow and the day after, I’m looking forward, it’s going to be more chances than today I hope, and we will see how the legs are,” Pogačarr said.
“I will continue to fight and I hope that I gain some time. I will always try– it’s going to be interesting tomorrow and the day after.”
The Tour ends on Sunday in Paris.
— With files from the Associated Press