Canada And Astana’s Hugo Houle Gets PEZ’d!
Rider Interview: The Astana team have been training in Calpe – like most WorldTour teams – and so our man in Spain, Al Hamilton, made the short journey to catch-up with the Kazakhstan team’s Canadian rider Hugo Houle. How to become a WorldTour professional and his plans for the future.
Training hard in Spain
27 year-old Hugo Houle is from Québec and turned pro for the SpiderTech team in 2011, going on to win the Tour of Québec he then moved to the WorldTour to race with the French AG2R-La Mondiale team in 2013. A Vuelta a España and two Giro d’Italia rides later, the French speaking Canadian signed for the Astana team for the 2018 season. We had to hear his story.
PEZ: There are not so many Canadian pros around:
Hugo Houle: Yes, there are less now: There is me, Antoine Duchesne with FDJ, he’s in Calpe now, Mike Woods (EF Education-Drapac) and there is Svein Tuft (Mitchelton-Scott). Svein must be about 41 now, but still going strong and motivated, so that’s good.
New bike and kit for 2018
PEZ: How do you feel about moving to Astana:
So far, so good. Everybody has been really nice to me and have given me a warm welcome. It’s going to be a new start, a fresh start, after five years with AG2R, I think I was ready for a change and see new training and new people. They are at the same level and kind of the same pattern, but it’s just different people and a different mentality. Astana is more international and that gives a different feeling, for me it’s cool as sometimes in a French team I was feeling all alone after a race as everyone went home to their family. Here it’s different as there are guys from Colombia and they are also alone, so that’s a different feeling in the team. So I was really happy to have the chance to change for the 2018 season, we’ll see how it goes, but so far it has been good for me and I feel pretty comfortable in the team already.
PEZ: Have you noticed any other differences, apart from the language?
It’s about the same, it has the same infrastructure and support. AG2R have progressed a lot in the past, the first year I rode for them it wasn’t like here. Here they have a cook and AG2R didn’t have, a small detail, but… Here (at Astana) they have four people working with the media, promoting the team, AG2R had one and in the beginning, zero guys. To use that phrase, ‘it’s the mentality’. But the biggest change for me, what I feel, is the atmosphere in the team. The mentality of the French, it’s just a different culture, a way of thinking, of managing. The internationalness of the team changes the vibe.
Dwars door Vlaanderen’16 with AG2R
PEZ: When Pozzovivo came to AG2R did that not make a difference?
They used to have more Italians in the team, when I joined they had five Italians, but they all spoke French. The training camp changed a bit, but after that I was mostly with French staff. They always had five or six riders from other countries, but they all had to speak French. The main language is French, we speak French and you have to learn French and that’s it. It wasn’t a problem for me, but you could feel it.
PEZ: Which races would you prefer to ride this season?
Well, what I do know is that I will do the Belgian Classics, all the cobble stone races. I want to start in a good way and show what I can do for the team and then by the end of April we can make a sketch for the rest of the season. The main goal will be to start pretty well in Belgium. I have more experience now, I know where I’m going now and I know what I need to do and I think we are going to have a good group with the Danish guys and Laurens De Vreese. So, we will see how we can play that, but Michael Valgren will be the leader, I think. It’s an interesting young group, motivated and the atmosphere is good and we will see what we can do there.
Climbing in De Ronde’16
PEZ: Considering the cobble stage in this years Tour, might you ride the French Grand Tour?
The Tour is a good course for a guy like me; because of the team time trial and the cobble stones, obviously, but it will all depend on the Classics and how I integrate into the team. That’s why I think it’s really important to focus on being strong at the beginning and show what I can do and then see what they have in mind for me.
PEZ: Will you be given some freedom?
The season is long and you always have the chance if you have the form, but I think for most of the time I’m there for the team leader and to help the team, but it doesn’t mean that one day you have the good legs you can’t take your chance. Classics are good for this, it’s timing and momentum on the cobble sectors, sometimes you find a good group and break away, it’s going to happen, for sure. First is to do a good job for the team and keep it in mind if I have an opportunity and make sure I seize it.
2017 World’s time trial in Bergen
PEZ: Do you go back to Canada?
Yes, yes. But the beginning of the season with the winter is a bit dodgy, specially with the Belgian Classics coming up, better to stay focused and stay over here. I spent Christmas in France where I live. We don’t get much free time going from one race to another. I was in Canada for December, I left there to come to the team presentation. I was in Canada for nearly two months, from the Worlds to December. I take time to go back.
PEZ: Giro or Vuelta, which did you prefer?
This year the Vuelta was hard for me with the crash and a broken radius, so I would say I enjoyed the Giro more than the Vuelta. I’m not a big fan of high temperatures and given the choice I prefer the atmosphere in Italy. I prefer the Giro to the Vuelta, but then maybe that’s because I had a rough time this year. I prefer the atmosphere and the culture in Italy.
Bad luck in the ENECO Tour 2015
PEZ: Does cycling get much media coverage in Canada?
Yeah, they are doing good coverage for us in Québec. The sport is growing, even if they don’t show much cycling on TV, two years ago they were showing the Giro, Tour, Vuelta, Suisse, all the Classics, but last year was less. The people have started to ride their bikes more and It’s like the new golf thing. The people have got interested in the sport and they realize how hard it is and they can understand the sport a little bit better.
PEZ: Québec has two big races, well Québec and Montréal.
Yes, for sure they help to promote cycling and help to show what we are doing in Europe, but not many people understand what it is to be a professional cyclist here in Europe, it’s a big difference, its another mentality. You have so many good athletes in Europe, if you compare to the US circuit, you can have 400 riders as strong as each other in Europe, you don’t find a field like that in North America. Also the configuration of the roads; here there are small roads, a climb, a small downhill, in Canada and the US the roads are big and straight, thats a big difference too. You need to make an adjustment to the way you race.
But yes, more people are doing biking, it’s getting better, there is progress.
Hugo has his fans
PEZ: Did you have a hero when you were young?
Honestly I didn’t really have a big hero. I was watching the Tour de France on TV, but I wasn’t a fan of anyone in particular. When I was young I was more impressed by David Veilleux, he rode for Europcar and wore the leaders jersey in the Dauphiné a few years ago (2013), he stopped pretty young. He was the one who showed it was possible to be a pro cyclist from Québec. He was one guy that I had respect for and inspired me to show what is possible, and now I’ve made it. I was just watching the Tour de France on TV every summer with my brother – I never imagined I would race on a team like AG2R and Astana – but it was just cool, beautiful to be enjoying watching the Tour in the afternoon and that was it. It wasn’t my goal to be a pro cyclist until I was maybe 18 years old. I was just enjoying the sport and progressing, doing the Nationals and whatever. It came naturally, but some people would say; “me, I want to be a pro or I want to do this and be that” but I was not the person to say I wanted to that, but I followed my path and I got here.
Making the most of the Spanish weather
PEZ: Being Canadian make it more difficult?
It’s not impossible, for sure it’s harder than if you are based in Europe, the big point is, how are you going to get a chance to show yourself in Europe, we don’t have much structure so that you can do that and provide that chance in the sport to do that. It’s a problem and that is what we are missing right now; who is going to bring the kids and train them in Europe in a good environment and show them how to race and so they can be seen by good teams and then go to a pro team and learn from it. That’s what is missing, but some people are working on it and maybe we will see another SpiderTech one day. That’s what really helped me to get over here to Europe and learning and progress and end up at AG2R. We need that structure to help us.
Yeah, for sure it’s harder as a Canadian to be far from his family for year after year. I always say when the bike goes well, it’s easy, but if you have a rough time on the bike and you get your ass kicked and you go home and you are looking at the white walls, you are thinking; “what am I doing here? Why do I do this to myself?” Obviously I like it and nothing is easy in life, there are good things and bad things and that’s one challenge we have as a Canadian. Maybe if you are European you will have it easier, but I can see a positive in it, that when we are in Europe we can be really focused and there is nobody to disturb us and we can really train and there is not much to do except training and stay focused. When you are at home people want to see you and you have to go out and different stuff.
Canadian champion in Qatar
PEZ: Would you say it’s better for a Canadian to come to Europe than ride for US team?
I Think it’s just different, you’re not doing the same. In America you don’t do as many races, your more at home, for sure, but you don’t have a big, big program like 85 days of racing, maybe you do 40 or 45. The racing style is different, it’s completely different I think, from what I experienced with SpiderTech when we were in America. When you are on the WorldTour in Europe you cannot do anything else than cycling, in the US it’s quite different; you have more time at home, travel less, it’s not the same, very different. If you want to reach the top you have to race in Europe.
PEZ: It must have been easier for you, being a French speaker?
To a French team for sure, or I would have to have learnt French fast, which would have been a bit complicated.
PEZ: But at Astana many speak Italian.
Yeah they have a good Italian culture, I’m happy about that and I want to learn Italian. If I can do that in the two years I’m here, that would be good.
PEZ: You are 27 now, so these should be your best years?
Yeah, we are coming to the sweet-spot now. I need to keep progressing, I’ve had a steady progression, but I’ll try to speed it up a little bit and get some better results. I must try to take my opportunities. The first thing is to do my work, do really good work for my leader, but when I feel good I want to try and take my first win as a professional. If I can do that this season it would be a good feeling of accomplishment. This is a fresh start and I’m really motivated and looking forward to the season and see if I can step up again.
Astana TT style
PEZ: What about the National time trial title again?
We will have to see what my program is like. If it is not the plan for me to ride the Tour de France, for sure I will go full gas for the Nationals. I would like to be National champ again, I think I have the ability to do it. I don’t know where the Nationals are this year, I think they go back to BC. If it fits into my schedule, I’ll give it the best I can and in the road race, also. We will see what the course is like, last year in Ottawa was really bad for me, I didn’t show up last year, because I was in a training camp and so I made the choice not to go back.
PEZ: Do you have a plan for when you finish as a pro?
After cycling I don’t know what. I have a few options; I studied to be a police officer. I did that at school, so that’s one option. The option of staying in the bike industry would be interesting also, but I don’t know exactly where I will end up. Hopefully I have a few years left on the bike.
PEZ: You could race into your 40s, like Sven?
Maybe not that long, but a few more years yet. It all depends on how long I can keep racing and what opportunities come up when I stop. I can always be a police officer. I don’t know exactly, but I ask myself “what would I be most happy doing?”
PEZ: And you would go back to Canada?
Yes, that’s the plan. I like to be in Québec, I like the atmosphere, I like the place, we have space, it’s a nice environment. It’s good. If you had told me five years ago that I would be sitting in this room today, I wouldn’t have believed you, so who knows what will happen in the next five years. I do my best everyday and we will see where I end up.
# A big thanks to Hugo for his time and to Vitalii Abrimov at Astana for making it happen. #
The Astana line up for 2018