GHENT, Belgium -- The Tour de France veered into Belgium on
Monday, and Gert Steegmans responded with a victory before his home
fans in a country passionate about its cycling.
"What an explosion of emotion it was after the finish," he
said. "It was really important for the team. You could feel this
enormous pressure because we're a Belgian team."
Steegmans avoided a late crash that slowed many riders and left
them with scrapes and bruises. He led a 1-2 Belgian finish with Tom
Boonen in winning a Tour stage for the first time as fans thronged
the team bus.
"I think it was a perfect picture, the two of us next to each
other," Steegmans said.
He covered the 105-mile course on rain-drenched roads from
Dunkirk, France, to Ghent in 3 hours, 48 minutes, 22 seconds.
Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara kept the leader's yellow jersey.
Steegmans hoped his victory would help rebuild spirits at
QuickStep, a team under pressure amid speculation about doping.
"There was a big attack from one newspaper on our team,"
Steegmans said. "It was a hard time for us -- especially when you
take a train, people see you as a gang member and not as a team
It was a hard time for us -- especially when you take a train, people see you as a gang member and not as a team rider.
Gert Steegmans, on the speculation about doping his team faces
Cycling's credibility clearly is on the line amid doping
scandals and investigations. Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour champion,
could be stripped of his victory.
Belgian police temporarily detained 13 people for questioning
last month after seizing banned substances in raids on homes of
cyclists and their associates, including a Quick Step team staffer.
The team denies any wrongdoing.
Steegmans, Boonen and third-place finisher Filippo Pozzato of
Italy were among about 20 cyclists who were ahead of a crash that
delayed all other riders in the main pack with about 1.2 miles
American George Hincapie was cut and bruised, and Discovery
Channel teammate Tomas Vaitkus of Lithuania dropped out of his
debut Tour after breaking his right thumb in five places.
Cancellara, who injured his left wrist in the group spill, is
the leader for a third straight day. Germany's Andreas Kloeden is
in second place, 13 seconds behind. Britain's David Millar is in
third, 23 seconds back.
Because the crash occurred within 1.8 miles left, all riders
were credited with the same time as Steegman's.
Boonen, a four-time Tour stage winner and one of Belgium's
biggest cycling stars, is looking for his first stage victory in
The three-week race returns to France nearly for good Tuesday,
leaving the Belgian town of Waregem for a 147-mile ride to
Compiegne, northeast of Paris.
The main contenders typically don't seek stage victories in the
flat early stages that are prone to crashes. They choose to wait
for later time trials and punishing mountain stages to make their
The favorites -- including Kloeden, Alexandre Vinokourov of
Kazakhstan, Levi Leipheimer of the U.S., Cadel Evans of Australia
and Alejandro Valverde of Spain -- are all within 45 seconds of
Cancellara. The Swiss rider is not expected to keep up in the Alps
Boonen felt no hard feelings about the victory by Steegmans,
whose typical role is to help Boonen win stages.
"It's a situation that exists only once or twice per career,
and Gert has already done a lot for me," said Boonen, who took the
green jersey as top sprinter from Monday's stage winner Robbie
McEwen. "When you have the chance to do that, it's great."
This year's race is taking place without Landis, who tested
positive for synthetic testosterone. He has denied accusations of
cheating and is awaiting an arbitration panel's decision about
whether to uphold the positive test.
Before this year's race, all riders signed an International
Cycling Union pledge promising they are not involved in doping.
They are to submit DNA samples to Spanish authorities for the
Operation Puerto blood-doping investigation. The names of dozens of
riders have turned up in the case, but most remain unidentified.
UCI president Pat McQuaid said Monday the sport's governing body
has added team managers and staff to the list of people he wants to
sign the anti-doping charter.