Le Grand Objectif
Hugo Houle’s native language is French. He lives in France during the cycling season. He’s one of the talented young riders on the French AG2R LA MONDIALE team.
But Houle is not French. He’s French Canadian. Big difference. Houle, 24, grew up in rural Quebec, thousands of kilometers away from France. The tradition-filled world of European pro racing was, culturally speaking, perhaps even further. Houle’s journey to cycling’s top ranks was fueled by his quiet confidence, natural competitiveness and perpetual goal setting. Houle was not among AG2R LA MONDIALE’s Tour de France roster this year… But he believes within the next couple of years he will be, and he’s working hard to achieve his cycling goals.
Hugo Houle's strength in the time trial makes him valuable in Grand Tours, such as this year's Giro d'Italia. This and top main image ©TDWSport.com
For those watching this month’s Tour de France and wondering what it takes – especially for North Americans – to get to the la Grande Boucle, Houle’s story provides perspective… and a greater appreciation for those who already are racing in the Tour.
Houle grew up in Sainte Perpétue, a farming town roughly halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. It has fewer than 1,000 people – except during its famous Festival du Cochon (Pig Festival), when the population swells to more than 40,000. The region’s most famous dish is one Spring Classics fans would crave: poutine – French fries and cheese curds smothered in gravy. The Houles have deep roots in Sainte Perpétue’s. Francois Houle was a local pioneer in the 1800s.
“I’m still living there. I was born there. It’s really quiet and it’s good for cycling. You really don’t have so many hills, so in the Giro I think I climbed more than in my whole life,” Houle said with a laugh. “It’s a big land…. It’s really different from racing in Europe. Everything is so big. You have so much space…. It’s my home roads, and I can do motorpacing and I don’t see any cars.”
Houle took up cycling around 9 years old. “I was full of energy at school, and my mother wanted to find a way to make me move so she got me into triathlon,” he said. “I’m a kind of competitive guy, so from the beginning it was step up, step up and train more and try to be better.” At age 15, Houle found he was best at cycling and switched to bike racing. He’d go on to become a multi-time U23 Canadian champion and in 2011 would join the Canadian pro SpiderTech team.
“When I was with SpiderTech we started to go to Europe and learn how it was there,” Houle said. “It takes hard work and discipline, but it came naturally.”
Hugo Houle at this year's Giro, his first Grand Tour. Photo ©BrakeThroughMedia
He joined AG2R LA MONDIALE in 2013. Houle’s strength is the time trial. Last month he won the Elite Men’s Canadian Time Trial Championship, his first elite national title. He’s gearing up for this month’s Pan Am Games in Toronto as well as September’s World Championships in Richmond, Va.
Houle said his AG2R LA MONDIALE teammates, most of them French, have been welcoming, though they do occasionally rib him for Quebec accent. When he sported a beard this spring, they nicknamed him “Canadian Lumberjack.”
“The guys are really nice. For sure, they make fun of my accent sometimes. But it’s more funny; it’s not to be hard with me,” Hugo said. Now I’m really comfortable with the team.… Speaking French it’s easier to get in. For sure, some words they don’t understand but we can chat pretty quick.”
On the bike, Houle is progressing. In 2014, he finished Paris-Roubaix. This year, he finished his first Grand Tour – the Giro d’Italia. Houle’s role was to help overall favorite Domenico Pozzovivo on the flats and to position him for climbs. Yet all of that changed when Pozzovivo was injured in a high-speed crash on Stage 3. Houle’s role evolved to trying to get into breakaways – something he tried but was unable to do despite riding nearly 50kms per hour for 2 hours in his attempts.
Yet Houle learned much. When to rest, or move up. He got more used to high-speed descents. “You have those three weeks in the bank,” he said.
Houle watches his diet and his watts. He has a specific goal for his ideal watts per kilogram. That means limiting intake of his favorite food and drink, pizza and French wine. His cycling inspirations are fellow Canadians Svein Tuft, because of his toughness, and David Veilleux, a Quebec native who race the Tour de France for a French team before retiring.
The Tour de France. That is le grand objectif.
“In Quebec, and I think it’s the same in the U.S., they ask you, ‘Are you a pro cyclist? Are you racing in the Tour de France?’ Now I say no, but I want to say yes,” Houle said.
“But I don’t think it’s a dream. It’s what’s going to happen. It’s a matter of time…. I’m a hard worker. I’m where I am now because I really focus. Year-by-year I train hard, step-by-step going up.”
So, what is his dream? “The dream is to win a stage for my brother who died in 2012,” Houle said. His brother, Pierrick Houle, was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident while jogging. The driver was later convicted.
Houle also hopes to serve as an inspiration to young people, especially in Quebec. “You just need a dream… I’m a kid from a small village in Quebec and now I’m racing in Europe. Everything is possible,” Houle said. Then he added, “You need to know where you want to go, make plans.”
That seems to be Houle’s recipe for success: ever-advancing achievable goals, and le grand objectif.