By Martin Cleary
Israel-Premier Tech played a game of on-the-fly role reversal Tuesday at the Tour de France and it produced an unprecedented Canadian sports moment – a first- and a third-place result for a pair of veteran professional cyclists.
The domestique, the rider who supports the higher-ranking members on the team, became the leader of the pack. The top dog on the team reverted to the role of a domestique.
And in the end, it all worked out for both hard-working individuals as well as for the reputation of their young World Tour team.
A long-time domestique, Hugo Houle, who is from Sainte-Perpetue, PQ., but lives in Monaco, was given the opportunity to be the leader of the Israel-Premier Tech in a high-speed instant. He seized that moment proudly and roared to an emotional, first-ever Tour stage victory, which came on the heels of a third-place result on Friday.
Ottawa’s Michael Woods, who was pinpointed as the Israel-Premier Tech leader for his third career Tour but struggled after a bad crash in Stage 9, set up Houle’s powerful and painful escape, which produced the rare Canadian stage victory in professional cycling’s greatest Grand Tour event.
Woods also achieved one of his pre-Tour goals by finishing a strong third, which matched his best-ever finish in the event. He was third in Stage 8 at last year’s Tour.
The Tour stage victory by Houle, which finished with a commanding solo effort over the last 40 kilometres and included the steep Mur de Peguere climb, was the first by a Canadian since national cycling legend Steve Bauer in 1988. Bauer is now the Israel-Premier Tech sports director and was in the team car advising Houle and Woods.
An emotional Houle, who finished the 178.5-kilometre race from Carcassonne to Foix in four hours, 23 minutes, 47 seconds, thrust his right arm into the air several times and looked up to the heavens to celebrate his win, which he dedicated it to his brother and workout partner Pierrick, who was killed a decade ago by a hit-and-run car driver during a training run.
Valentin Madouas of Groupama-FDT and Woods finished second and third respectively 70 seconds behind Houle.
Houle and Woods had been a part of the lead pack most of the day and with 40 kilometres to go the Canadian pair rolled out a gutsy plan, Woods recounted in an interview with VelonCC.
“He (Houle) came back to us and up front with me,” said a proud Woods, who has benefited this year from the work of the 12-year domestique, a former racer with Astano-Premier Tech, AG2R LaMondiale and Spidertech Powered by C10.
“I just let him go. I gave him a bit of a gap and told him on the radio to: ‘Go, go, go.’ That was the last you saw of him.”
With 10 kilometres remaining, Houle and Woods were first and second in the stage, but well apart from each other. Woods, however, was caught at the finish by Madouas, who also broke up a potential first-ever North American podium stage sweep as American Matteo Jorgenson of Movistar placed fourth, after rebounding from a crash 14 kilometres from the finish.
“When I attacked, it was basically to set the table for Michael Woods, but they let me go and Mike made a gap. I went full gas. I hung on and hung and was suffering so much on the steep part of the climb.”
When Houle finished, despite a flare up of cramps because he couldn’t connect with his team car for food over the final 60 kilometres, he was overcome with joy, relief and pride.
“I had one dream: to win the stage for my brother, who died when I turned professional. I won this for him. I waited 12 years for this. It’s incredible.
“I’ve never won a race, so I guess it’s the right place to win my first race.”
Bauer knows what it’s like to win and succeed at the Tour. He was ecstatic to see Houle become the first Canadian in 34 years to reach the winner’s circle.
“It’s incredible to see,” Bauer told Cycling News. “What a tough pro Hugo has been. He’s like the top team man for his leaders, doing his job day in, day out.
“He’s a top professional. He studies the plan, he organizes himself well, and to have such a performance like that today is superb. He had a chance to go for the win and he was super strong. He rode smart, he rode strong and deserves it all.”
Four-time Tour champion Chris Froome, who now rides as a domestique for Israel-Premier Tech but was third in this year’s Stage 12, was thrilled for his team’s success.
“What a day for Israel-Premier Tech taking first and third,” Froome posted on Twitter. “Especially happy for Hugo Houle, this win means so much to him and so well deserved, after years of sacrificing his own chances for others.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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