(Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain) At 10 euros each, the yellow Tour de France ponchos easily found buyers on the sidelines of the official presentation of the riders, Thursday evening in Bilbao.

The lucky ones received free red polka dot ponchos distributed by the sponsor of the best climber’s jersey. With their orange hats, the Basque supporters had quite the look to applaud the cyclists wearing the traditional large black beret, which the locals call the txapela.

That of Guillaume Boivin dripped on leaving the large stage installed in front of the famous curves of the Guggenheim museum. The rain began to fall heavily a little before the passage of the Israel-Premier Tech team.

Not enough (too much) to cool the ardor of the few thousand Euskaldun massed along the fences bordering the parade of some two kilometers.

” They are courageous ! “, noted the Quebecer, who immortalized the moment by pedaling with a selfie stick.

Two hours earlier, the 176 riders and their sports directors had been treated to a technical preparatory meeting with the management of the Tour de France.

The meeting was marked by a poignant minute of silence in memory of Gino Mäder, a young Swiss rider who died less than two weeks ago after falling into a ravine during the Tour de Suisse. In his honour, none of his Bahrain-Victorious team members will wear number 61.

“It’s the only competition to hold this briefing,” said Hugo Houle. I remember my first [in 2019]. I was super impressed to hear the safety instructions and rules of procedure. »

Four years later, the cyclist from Sainte-Perpétue was part of the video summarizing the Tour of 2022, where he won the 16th stage in the Pyrenees and paid tribute to his late brother.

“It’s a beautiful moment that means a lot to me,” he wrote to us from the coach after spinning through the drops in the mixed zone. Otherwise, the summary video puts us back in the mood and makes us relive the emotions of the Tour. Seeing the stage winners and being part of this video makes me realize the privilege of winning at the TDF. Especially looking at the number of champions in the room. »

Whether he likes it or not, Houle now belongs to this caste, a status for which he is grateful, but which does not change his approach for what will be his fifth consecutive Grande Boucle.

“Whether it’s from the runners or the crowd in France, it’s clear that I am more recognized. They know who Hugo Houle is. They believe in me more. But you have to prove yourself all the time. We are quickly forgotten. I have to respond again this year. »

In this regard, no one has any concerns. His friend Antoine Duchesne, with whom he crossed the Champs-Élysées finish line neck and neck last summer, is convinced that Houle will be able to give himself the chance to shine again.

“My buddy looks good and he’s got confidence,” the new retiree reported from France last week. “Usually when he tells me, ‘Don’t worry, Tony, you’ll be fine’, he knows it. He has experience. He managed his things well, did a decent Tour of Switzerland, which is a good sign because you feel that he has a step to climb. »

Mäder’s tragic death shook the runners, but Houle managed to maintain his composure, even though he passed by the scene minutes after the crash.

“Hugo does his business and he’s hard to shake,” Duchesne said. It affected him, but not as much as others. He stays on his way and keeps a cool head. »

In any case, this victory, his only professional one, did not satisfy the main interested party.

“It’s a dream and I didn’t know if I was going to achieve it,” Houle recalled in the afternoon after returning from a training trip in the mountains near Vitoria-Gasteiz, where Israel is staying. -Premier Tech for this big start.

“Of course the emotion will always be different. The first was for my brother. I will never match that. It’s impossible. The fact remains that I have the same motivation, the same drive to show that I am capable of being in front, and that is what we have been making sacrifices for and preparing for for a month and a half. »

The next three weeks will be “a bit of a test to see if it worked out well.”

“I see it more as a challenge with myself and [a desire] to show that the level of last year, it was still not a fluke. »

At 68.5 kg – 4 less than in January – Houle is obviously sharp, like all his colleagues. “You have to stay healthy and have a little luck, but I’m confident in my form and my physical condition. I am certainly in the same position as last year, if not better. »

After competing for the first time in the Tour of the Basque Country, where he finished fourth in a stage last year, the 32-year-old Quebecer knows a little about what to expect during the first three stages.

True to form, he will still make a precise analysis of each of them during the bus trip to the start from Saturday. Like many of his colleagues, he consults the VeloViewer application, a sort of Google Street View for cyclists to which the teams subscribe as a package.

“With experience, you can see the type of roads, especially when you know France: national roads, departmental roads, it gives an idea of ​​their width, their topology. You get to get a good idea of ​​what the stage will look like. I identify the key points to be well placed because I know that has an impact [on the course]. »

Nothing is therefore left to chance for this 110th Tour de France, especially since Houle does not know how many he has left. He is certainly aiming for that of 2024, which will end exceptionally near his home in Nice and which will constitute an ideal preparation for the Olympic Games in Paris.

But in 2025 and 2026, the year he ends his career with the World Championships in Montreal, he wants to do the Giro again, ten years after his first participation.

But Hugo Houle was not there to talk about Italy. After half an hour of conversation, he took leave of the two Quebec journalists, to go to the massage table.

“Enjoy your vacation, guys!” “, he launched with a wink before rushing into the elevator. It must have been Basque humour.