Veteran Quebec rider Hugo Houle, a member of the Astana-Premier Tech team, has long carried Canadian colours on the world cycling stage.
But he has also fought for the sport back home.
The 30-year-old from Sainte-Perpetue, Que., blasted Cycling Canada after the UCU Road World Championships in Imola, Italy, last September for lack of support for road cyclists.
“I think Hugo really lit a fire in Cycling Canada,” said Ottawa’s Michael Woods, who rides for the Israel Start-Up Nation team. “It’s opened some eyes and it’s got people more excited to be involved in road (cycling). It’s had the right people asking the right questions now.
“Since then, I’ve had a lot of correspondence with Cycling Canada and I feel like we’ve got a good shot at having a real complete team going into the Olympics.”
Houle says he was not complaining for himself or his teammates, noting they have been helped by private sources like Montreal-born Sylvan Adam and Paulo Saldanha, the co-owner and performance manager, respectively, of Israel Start-Up Nation.
His concern is more about what can be done to provide under-23 and junior riders the kind of support they need to improve. He says his protest was prompted by a Cycling Canada release that all but ignored road cycling.
“My point is just I want the road race to be considered as much as the track. I understand there’s a financial issue behind it, the way the sport is financed and promoted. But still it costs nothing to give respect to the road cyclists and there’s a lot of road cyclists in Canada.”
Houle says he can speak out because he already has his Olympic berth “so they cannot touch that.”
“And I’m completely independent because I race in the WorldTour,” he added.
Houle is now the road athlete representative on the athletes committee for Cycling Canada and hopes to help make improvements.
“I spoke to a lot of people there,” he said of Cycling Canada. “I think they understood my message. They were not especially happy that I spoke out, but I want things to move.”
Woods says Houle has already made a difference.
“Hugo is hugely influential in the Canadian cycling scene,” he said. “He’s one of the key player behind Astana becoming a partially Canadian team. He’s certainly one of the reasons why a guy like Ben Perry, another Canadian (with Astana) is in the WorldTour now.
“ I think he’s slowly establishing the same kind of reputation that a guy like (former Canadian rider) Svein Tuft had in the WorldTour _ underrated, incredibly strong and a guy every team would want to have on their team,” he added.
Houle’s Astana Pro Team became Astana Premier Tech in 2021 with Canada’s Premier Tech taking a title sponsorship role. Former Canadian star rider Steve Bauer is now Astana’s sporting director.
Houle has raced on the UCI WorldTour since 2013, with AG2R La Mondiale (2013-17) before joining Astana in 2018. Prior to that, he was part of Canada’s SpiderTech team led by Bauer.
“It’s really nice to have Steve back with me,” said Houle, who also welcomes Premier Tech’s increased involvement in the team.
Bauer is also happy to be back with Houle
“Hugo’s a solid team man,” said Bauer. “He will have his chance to win. He has the ability, for sure, to win something big. It’s always about timing and it’s about the opportunity and the right moment.”
Houle, who lives in Monaco with his girlfriend, has raced in the Tour de France (twice), Giro d’Italia (twice) and Spanish Vuelta (once) and won individual time trial gold at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
He turned heads at the Tour last year, finishing seventh in Stage 12.
“I think I managed the season pretty well from that break in March ? I think it was good for me just to refresh after a lot of years of travelling around the world and putting a lot of hours on the bike,” he said. “When the season started again, I was feeling pretty good and pretty strong.
“And in the Tour de France, I think I really showed that I stepped up my level in a different ways. That gave me the motivation for the season coming up to do better and try to reach my ultimate goal _ to win a stage in the Tour de France for my brother. That’s a big goal but I think I’m getting closer and closer every year. And I think with the support of all the people I have here at Astana-Premier Tech, I think I’m in a good position to achieve that goal before I stop cycling.”
Houle’s younger brother Pierrik died in December 2012 when he was hit by a car while jogging. He was 19.
“Of course I miss him and life is different without him,” said Houle. “But at the end of the day I have to go forward ? He was my biggest fan, for sure.”
Much of what Houle does on the bike does not win headlines. At last year’s Tour de France, for example, he helped bring teammate Miguel Angel Lopez back to the leaders after the Colombian fell behind during a stage.
Houle finished 21st in the time trial at the 2016 Rio Olympics and was one of many not to finish the road race there.