When Canadian Hugo Houle crossed the finish line well ahead of the competition in Stage 16 of the Tour de France on Tuesday, some of the loudest cheers were undoubtedly coming from Ste-Perpetue, Que.
The quiet village of less than 1,000 people, composed of a few streets surrounded by dairy farms and cornfields, seems an unlikely place to form a cycling superstar.
But hours after Houle became the first Canadian since 1988 to win a stage of one of the world’s most prestigious cycling races, nobody in his hometown, halfway between Quebec City and Montreal, appeared the least bit surprised.
In the lobby of a seniors home, someone called out, “Congratulations, grandma!” to 88-year-old Gisele Proulx, whose eyes filled with happy tears every time she was asked about her 31-year-old grandson.
“His dream came true,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion. “It’s been a long time he’s been aiming for these things.”
Proulx said she remembers Houle racing around on a tricycle from the time he was little, adding that she recalls he even used to cycle in the winter. His parents, Yvon Houle and Diane Allard, are avid cyclists, and Proulx used to bike as well, although she said she prefers a motorized scooter these days.
She said that while her grandson never loved school and was even once told by a teacher he would “never do anything good” she never doubted him.
“He worked hard enough and told himself, ‘I’m capable, I’m capable,”’ she said. “I think he’s really happy.”
On a main street lined with quaint cottages, customers who stopped by an ice cream stand remembered Houle as a determined, goal-driven kid from a family that loved sports. A former neighbour, Carole Neault, remembered Houle as being fun and a little cheeky in a good way, she quickly added. But when it came to sports, “he never took it lightly,” she said.
“It’s a great pride to have Hugo representing us,” she said. “A Quebecer who performs at the Tour de France, wow.”
Joanie Cote, who attended school with Houle, said his perseverance is what sets him apart. She said she also believes he was motivated to even greater heights after his younger brother, Pierrik, died in December 2012 after being hit by an impaired driver while out jogging. He was 19.
Cote and Neault said Pierrik’s death deeply affected the tight-knit community and prompted marches against drunk driving.
“He had a desire to surpass himself because his brother couldn’t,” Cote said.
As he crossed the finish line in France on Tuesday, Houle pointed at the sky, before dedicating his historic win to his younger brother.
“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.
Ste-Perpetue Mayor Guy Dupuis said the entire village is bursting with pride over Houle’s accomplishment, which makes the cyclist the first Quebecer to win a Tour de France stage.
Dupuis said the village best known for its annual pig festival is 95 per cent agricultural. While many people cycle its roads, it’s not exactly a hotbed of international athlete development.
“He has a force of character that is unique to him,” Dupuis said of Houle.
Dupuis said that as he watched the video of the race, his thoughts were with Houle’s parents, who “sacrificed a lot” to see their son succeed and due to Pierrik’s death.
“I’m sure Pierrik helped Hugo in this (Tour de France) stage,” he said.
While Houle is based in Europe and his parents recently moved to nearby Drummondville, Que., Dupuis said Houle has remained a proud ambassador of his hometown and still returns to visit.
The mayor said the town is considering holding an event to welcome him home and may even name something after him.