As he passed Saint-Étienne, Hugo Houle saw the finish line in the distance. The crowd shouted as they hit the panels. First wheel of the leading trio, directed by the Danish Mads Pedersen and the British Fred Wright.
Updated yesterday at 5:10 p.m.
Ten kilometers earlier, Quebec had “thrown a little [ses] maps ”near the summit of Ultimate Hill. He had failed to get rid of the former world champion and promising classicist specialist, his last two runaway teammates.
His chances in the sprint were slim, but he enjoyed the last mile. For the first time in his career, the Sainte-Perpétue cyclist had the opportunity to compete for victory in a stage of the Tour de France.
At 300 meters, Pedersen threw first, leaving no room for his two rivals. With an advantage of two or three bike lengths, the Trek Dane had time to turn around before raising his arms for the first time on the Great Loop.
Behind Wright (Bahrain), Houle followed in third place, shaking his head slightly with a moan that was quickly erased.
“It’s a sensation,” said the Israeli-Premier Tech pilot an hour later by telephone. I’ve been talking about this big dream for so long. Today I am in a position to be there for the victory. It encourages me for the future. I have nothing to envy anyone. I can do it, I have the level. I’m happy with my day and I don’t regret it. »
This third place at 13e The stage, on Friday afternoon, is the best result in history for a Quebecois in the Tour de France. In 2020, Houle finished seventh in Sarran, but reached 52 seconds behind the winner.
After two grueling days in the Alps, where Dane Jonas Vingegaard stole the yellow jersey from Slovenian Tadej Pogačar, the group faced a 192.6 km transition stage between Le Bourg d’Oisans and Saint-Étienne. The question was whether a breakaway would come to an end or whether the sprint teams, unharmed from the start in Denmark, would manage to control the race to prepare the stage for a grouped final.
Already, the formation of the getaway was a constant struggle until the junction of Grenoble, 150 kilometers to the end. Swiss Stefan Küng (Groupama) and Italian Filippo Ganna (Ineos), two of the best drivers in the world, were isolated first with American Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar).
After a futile chase attempt on a group of about twenty runners, Houle returned to the charge almost immediately. He marched against pursuit behind Pedersen, who was accompanied by his young American teammate Quinn Simmons. Wright joined the Canadian to join the two Treks. Together, they were able to catch up with the leading trio traveling at over 50 km / h.
Houle gave a brief review of the troops: a world champion on the road (Pedersen), a double world gold medalist in the time trial (Ganna), on 3e of the last Paris-Roubaix and double medalist in the World Cup (Küng) …
We were seven strong. I thought, “We’re going to have a great day.” I knew we had a good chance, at least we would have some fun …
Aware of the danger, the sprint armies did not leave much room for them, maintaining their leadership for a minute and a half and two and a half. Philippe Gilbert was especially incisive for Caleb Ewan’s Lotto Soudal. Jasper Philipsen’s Alpecs have also been very active. The fugitives took advantage of two climbs to retrieve the ballast, while the pursuing formations had to slow down so as not to condemn those arriving on the slopes.
With 72km to go, a fall in a bend from the eternally unfortunate Australian Ewan ruined Operation Lotto. With a little help from Quick-Step, Alpecin continued the effort, with little success.
Simmons sacrificed himself for Pedersen on the final climb. The difference had increased to 3 min 30 s when the BikeExchange of Dylan Groenewegen, winner of the third stage, decided to take control.
After taking all the risks on a descent, brushing the fall twice, they surrendered when 13km were left.
“We were up against four teams and we got them to retire,” Houle said. It was a big war, but I was with experienced guys who didn’t panic. Being able to ride with such strong riders on a getaway is still an experience. He was going so fast. It was very, very beautiful. »
The finish line
Intimidant ? « C’est sûr que c’est impressionnant, mais je suis rendu à ce niveau-là. Je suis là pour faire la course, je ne suis pas différent d’eux. Je pense que j’ai prouvé que j’étais capable de rouler avec ces gars-là et que je n’avais pas à rougir devant eux. »
Pedersen n’a pas mis de temps à accélérer avant la dernière côte à 12 km du fil. Wright et Houle ont fourni un effort gigantesque pour revenir sur l’homme aux liserés arc-en-ciel.
« Ça m’a surpris un peu, mais j’ai été vite à réagir. Avec [Wright], I was able to close the gap directly. Fortunately because the power of his attack was exceptional. »
Küng, Jorgenson and Ganna, the three initial fugitives, also missed the train, finishing in 30 seconds.
Following the advice of their sporting director Steve Bauer, the sole Canadian winner of a Tour de France stage, Houle gave a chance just before the summit, but Pedersen and Wright did not hesitate.
“I arrived a little late in my case. I tried, but Mads was very solid. Today, anyway, you couldn’t get him off the wheel.”
At 1.5km, Houle was “a little stuck” when Pedersen refused to take one last step. He continued to advance to make sure the three pursuers did not return.
“With 69 kg, I knew it would be very difficult to do a sprint, unless someone sank or got a little stuck. Anyway, there was no photo: Mads was too fast. »
As soon as he crossed the line, Houle thought of his brother Pierrik, who tragically died on December 21, 2012. At age 19, a drunk driver mowed him down while jogging. His older brother, who that day was returning from his first camp in Europe, found the body in the heart of the village of Sainte-Perpétue.
Since then, Hugo has dreamed of being able to dedicate a victory to the Tour. “It’s one more step towards the end goal,” he said with a crack in his voice. There is a podium. Not many were missing, but that encourages me for the future. »