Hugo Houle has not received confirmation, but he has already checked the flight schedule between Nice and Biarritz, where he will jump in a car to reach Bilbao, the Spanish city which will host the start of the Tour de France on July 1 .

Barring a turnaround, the 32-year-old Quebecer will therefore participate for the fifth consecutive time in the greatest cycling race in the world, which only one other Canadian has accomplished, his sports director at Israel-Premier Tech (IPT), Steve Bauer, at the height of his glory between 1987 and 1991.

Bauer, who has taken part in 11 Grandes Boucles in total, and Houle also share the honor of being the only Canadian stage winners.

Despite this distinction, acquired last year during the 16th stage to Foix, Houle never considered his presence at this 110th Tour assured, which will continue until July 23 and the traditional arrival in Paris.

“I still had to justify myself this year,” Houle said Monday. I had no guarantee before going to the Tour de Suisse. My performances there showed that I am in good shape, coming on and exactly and perfectly on my deadlines, like last year. It reassured everyone. »

After a spring complicated by illness, he probably dispelled his own questions, if he still had any, with his performance on Swiss soil. He finished in 21st place overall in a race overshadowed by the tragic death of Gino Mäder, a promising 26-year-old Swiss rider who did not survive his injuries sustained in a fall on the final descent of the fifth stage, Thursday.

That day, Houle was among the last taken back from a long royal escape. In the high-speed descent of the Albula, he was surprised to come across a few cars stopped at the edge of a ravine. Within seconds, he grasped the gravity of the situation. His presentiment was confirmed in the evening in the absence of information other than that Mäder had been revived on the spot before being airlifted.

The announcement of his death, an hour before the start the next morning, obviously sent shock waves through the peloton.

“It hit everyone and it took a lot of energy emotionally. We are aware of the risk, especially when descending a pass. We ride very fast, the bikes are more and more efficient, which allows you to go even faster and fall at greater speed.

“Personally, I’m not more worried than before,” he continued. I am aware that there is a risk, but there is also a risk when I cycle in downtown Montreal. It’s probably as big as when I descend in a closed circuit at 100 km/h. »

More prosaically, the one who had dedicated his stage victory at the Tour de France last year to his late brother could not speak on the sixth and seventh stages he had checked off. The first was reduced to a painful 20 kilometer procession in homage to Mäder, the second was neutralized until the last 25 kilometers.

Houle finished 37th in the final time trial on Sunday, dropping one place in the general classification, which cost him 10 UCI points. This loss would be anecdotal, had it not been for the uncomfortable position of its formation, relegated from the WorldTour for lack of sufficient harvest last year, and which owes its presence in the Tour de France to one of the two invitations from the organizers.

“I gave the maximum, but the results of the time trial did not meet my expectations,” said the gold medalist of the 2015 Pan American Games, far from being overly concerned. “We are working on improving our equipment. »

Beyond his achievements in Switzerland, Hugo Houle is encouraged by his achievements in training, he who spent three weeks at altitude in Andorra and Isola 2000, in the Alpes-Maritimes, with the other IPT candidates. to a selection for the Tour.

No preliminary list has been made public, “so as not to offend anyone”, but Houle expects to be among the eight members of the team who will start from the Basque Country on July 1.

“In theory, from what I’ve heard, I’m guaranteed to go to the Tour. The official selection will not be revealed until Thursday or Friday. There are like five, six runners [whose choice] is not too questionable. I should be part of it. Then there are two or three places where it should be a little tougher, as is the case every year for the Tour. »

The cyclist from Sainte-Perpétue agrees that his stage success militates in his favor, but he preferred “not to sit” on the “team guarantees”.

“I’m not the last comer, I’ve proven myself on the Tour. I’ve done it four times in a row. I’m pretty good every year. It certainly leaves a mark in the selection process. […] But the fact remains that you have to insure 10-15 days before departure. »

If his compatriot Michael Woods, crowned for the second time in the Route d’Occitanie on Sunday, wishes to try his luck in the general classification in this edition which has only one time trial, Houle expects the collective strategy is focused on “hunting for stages” as in 2022.

“It opens up a lot of opportunities for me to do what I did last year. I want to be part of breakaways in tough, slightly mountainous stages, which suit me well, in the second or third week. »

Does his performance from last year – he also made the podium on stage 14 and finished 23rd overall – add pressure?

“It’s a motivation”, answered the one who is delighted with the additional support given to him by the team this season.

Considering himself “at the same level, if not a little better” than at the same time last year, Houle expects to approach this fifth Tour “a little fresher and rested”. “It should help me because the start is very, very difficult this year in Bilbao compared to Denmark [in 2022]. »

“Will I manage to pull off a big hat trick?” It is not guaranteed. But I want to be there physically at the same level, in the same dispositions as last year, so that people can see me at the forefront on certain days and so that I am able to bring good emotions to the people who follow me at Quebec and Canada. »

Guillaume Boivin, the other Quebecer from Israel-Premier Tech, is also a candidate for a place in the Tour de France. The 34-year-old athlete accompanied his friend Michael Woods to victory at the Route d’Occitanie. He is aiming for a third consecutive Tour, he who was called up at the last minute last year after cases of COVID-19 in announced starters. Painfully, he made it to the 20th stage, when illness forced him to retire before arriving in Paris. “It may be less clear than for me, but he did a good job [in Occitania] and I think he has a good chance,” said Hugo Houle.