Hugo Houle, the Canadian rider for Israel-Premier Tech, pointed at the sky as he crossed the finishing line alone to win stage 16 of the 2022 Tour de France in Foix. The victory was a little bit of redemption and revenge after he’d gone to the line for the three-up sprint in Saint-Étienne but was outsprinted by Mads Pedersen. The story of his win in Foix is relatively straightforward: he was in the large group which went clear early in the stage, and he attacked on the final climb, the Mur de Peguère. It might have been aimed to set up his team-mate Michael Woods, on paper the better climber, but nobody chased hard enough and the gap that Houle got enabled him to stay away and win the stage.
But life has been less straightforward for the Canadian. “This one is for my brother,” Houle said after the line.
Hugo Houle was visiting his family at home in Québec, Canada, at Christmas at the end of 2012, having just signed his first professional contract with Ag2r. There had been big snowstorms in Québec that year. One evening, after spending some time chatting with his younger brother, 19-year-old Pierrik, while he played on his PlayStation, Houle ate his dinner while Pierrik went out into the snow for a run.
When Pierrik was still not back after an hour, Houle’s parents went out to look for him. But at 10:30, a family friend knocked at the door, with the terrible news that he’d found Pierrik just a few hundred metres from home, where he’d been hit by a car. Houle rushed to the scene, where paramedics were attempting to save Pierrik’s life, but it was too late. Pierrik died from his injuries.
A man, Guy Richard, was eventually arrested and received a two-year prison sentence for hit and run. Richard had appeared at the scene and started acting suspiciously, asking questions and being extremely evasive. Houle, who had undergone training to be in the police force, said that he could smell alcohol on Richard’s breath, though the judge couldn’t find evidence to prove driving under the effect of alcohol. He was released on parole after four months.
In an interview with Procycling magazine in 2021, Houle explained to the journalist Nick Busca how devastating the death of his brother was. “You’re just destroyed,” he said. “You don’t care about people or cycling any more.” He went through the motions of training and racing, but he recalls taking part in the 2013 Paris-Roubaix and wondering what he was even doing there. During one training session in the Alps, he stopped mid-interval, climbed off his bike and questioned what he was doing. It took a long time to be able to start to move forward with his life, thankfully with the support of Ag2r, who extended his contract and gave him the time and space to grieve.
Through choosing to use Pierrik’s memory as an inspiration for his career, and through volunteer work with Opération Nez Rouge (Operation Red Nose), a charity which offers free driving and escorts to people under the influence of alcohol who can’t drive home themselves, Houle managed to find perspective. The last thing he said to Busca in his Procycling interview was that he dreamed of winning a Tour stage for Pierrik. “Until that one is done, I’m ready to fight. That’s why I keep riding.”
Unimaginable grief was the background to Houle’s victory in Foix. It has accompanied him through 10 seasons as a professional cyclist, it followed him down the Mur de Peguère, it was with him as he rode down the finishing straight, over the line and beyond, and it will be with him tomorrow, the next day and the one after that, into retirement and beyond. The story that he told to journalists after the stage was a reminder that while we routinely describe Tour de France cyclists as superhumans, they experience exactly the same challenges, setbacks, difficulties and emotions as everybody else.
We think, as cyclists and cycling fans, that we have an intimate relationship with pain. But it is only as human beings that we really understand it. The physical pain of cycling is real and tangible, but we can turn it off at any moment, if we decide to do so. The choice of stopping and climbing off is always there. Grief, on the other hand, is permanent. It changes, evolves, grows and shrinks, and hits at surprising times.
The other thing about pain is that we can never experience somebody else’s. We can imagine, empathise or compare, but pain is personal, individual and private. However, in talking about Pierrik, his life and his death, Hugo Houle at least gives us the ability to understand and, hopefully, to help.