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.
This face belonged to Hugo Houle, of Sainte-Perpétue, Quebec. He ended up winning Stage 16 of the race more than a minute ahead of Frenchman Valentin Madouas and fellow Israeli-Premier Tech Michael Woods of Ottawa.
“It’s a historic moment,” Garneau said. “I want to have a glass of champagne with Hugo on Sunday evening.”
And Garneau plans to do just that – fly to Paris to celebrate with Houle after what has been an outstanding performance so far in the famous 21-stage race over the Pyrenees and Alps mountain ranges.
Garneau first met Houle, 31, when he was around 15. The young runner trained at the Garneau club alongside the retired runner’s son. Garneau was Houle’s coach, mentor and godfather, ensuring Houle’s flourishing as a professional cyclist.
“He’s a great, great, great champion,” Garneau said.
Then, a few days before Christmas in 2012, Houle’s brother was out jogging when he was killed by a drunk driver aged 19. Garneau said he gave Houle a small cross to wear around his neck a few days after the accident.
“I said, ‘take the cross for your brother,'” Garneau said, telling Houle he was going to be a good runner one day.
Then last week he contacted Houle and asked him if he still wore that cross when he ran and “he said to me, ‘yes, Louis, yes.’ And he sent me a picture of the cross.”
Garneau watched Houle remove the cross from his jersey on Tuesday and gaze skyward near the finish line. Garneau, calling it an emotional moment, knew what was going through Houle’s mind.
“I had a dream: to win the stage for my brother who died when I turned professional. Today 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 speaking of the win, calling it “a great moment for Quebec and Canada.”
“It’s important for children,” he added. “They look up to Hugo. He’s a very clean runner. He’s honest. He never gives up. He’s one of the best motivated runners I’ve seen in my life.”
The victory resonated with cycling fans across Quebec on Tuesday as Houle claimed the first Tour stage victory for a Canadian in 34 years.
Steve Bauer, now sporting director of Israel-Premier Tech, captured the opening stage of the Tour in 1988.
It is also the second podium for Houle in this year’s Tour. He finished third in stage 13 on Friday.
Madouas was second on Tuesday and Woods was third for his second career Tour podium. He finished third in Stage 8 of last year’s race.
Léon Derwael followed the race with enthusiasm while working in downtown Montreal at the Allo Vélo bicycle shop and café.
“We are happy that 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 ascent of the mountain was particularly difficult, he said. His success is a source of inspiration for young cyclists in Quebec who dream of one day participating in the Tour, he said.
The race gets more exciting every year
Not all Canadians, even those who are cyclists, follow the race, he said, but having two Canadians in the mix could attract more national support and attention.
“I think it’s amazing. More and more, every year it’s more and more exciting,” said Derwael, who appreciates developments in technology and team strategies.
Jean-François Rheault, head of cycling organization Vélo Québec, said it was the first time a Quebecer had won a Tour stage.
“It will inspire a generation of young cyclists and also existing cyclists,” he said.
“When athletes succeed like this, they become role models and therefore inspire people to ride more bikes.”
As for Houle, he himself found it hard to believe in Tuesday’s victory.
“I had never won a race before today. And today I won,” he said.
“It’s crazy! But we did it and I’m sure my brother helped me. I think I’ll figure it out later, but it’s done. A whole day, amazing!”