By Brecht Decaluwé in Auray
French sports newspaper L'Equipe revealed on Sunday that Gert Steegmans, currently riding for Quick Step at the Tour de France, has signed a two-year contract with professional continental team Tinkoff Credit Systems. Steegmans has been at Quick Step for two seasons, after moving from their Belgian rivals Lotto where he worked for Robbie McEwen in the bunch sprints.
The Russian backed team has been trying to strengthen its ranks recently, attempting to sign Filippo Pozzato and Denis Menchov. The latter recently extended his contract at Rabobank, but now team owner Oleg Tinkov has managed to pulled off his first big transfer of the year. Steegmans was clearly surprised that the news had leaked during the Tour, and took his time before stepping out of the team bus on Sunday morning.
"Well, in L'Equipe there was an article which I'd rather not have seen in the Tour," he told the assembled media. "In it was mentioned that I was probably changing teams." Asked if it were true that he would join Tinkoff, the Belgian responded: "Their official name is still unknown, but normally it will be Tinkoff. The contract is normally two years."
L'Equipe claimed that Steegmans will be earning two and half times the salary on offer from Quick Step, but the dark haired Belgian denied this. "I've already sent a message to my manager to ask him where the rest of the money is, if that story is true," Steegmans laughed. "Sadly enough it is not true."
Despite the rider's claims, however, there can be little doubt that money was the deciding factor in moving from a Belgian ProTour team to a lower level Russian professional continental outfit. "I talked with Patrick [Lefevre] before the national championships and the conclusion from that meeting was that Quick Step wasn't planning to take part [in the negotiations] at that amount," Steegmans explained. "Then we shook hands and parted as friends. We also agreed that I would perform as well as possible for the team. It wasn't a heated discussion."
Steegmans maintained that he didn't know any further details about the deal, nor about his future program. For now, Tinkoff has never ridden the Tour de France. "Not yet, but I do think they'll ride it next year," he said. "I think I'll be able to continue riding the Spring Classics and the Tour."
Asked if he would be allowed to take a rider from Quick Step along with him, Steegmans said: "I don't know, it's way too early for that."
Lefevere: Just like in football, the Russians have more money than we have
Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevre was clearly disappointed to lose one of his biggest stars in the team, next to Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder. Nevertheless, Lefevre didn't want to blame Steegmans. "They told me his price last week. I talked with his manager [Paul De Geyter] about it and yesterday De Geyter told me that Steegmans had chosen Tinkoff. I regret his decision, but we have our budget... and clearly Tinkoff have much more money than we have," Lefevre said.
"It's just like in football: the Russians have more money than we have. We've got to live with that," the Belgian manager smiled.
"Companies who want to start a sponsorship agreement or those who are already in this business will have to live with that. It might sound pretentious, but I think that I've done a lot of miracles with my current budget," Lefevre continued. "But I can't keep going on pilgrimage to Lourdes, or use my magic stick."
Team-mate Sébastien Rosseler is a good friend of Steegmans and could possibly join him at Tinkoff. "He can go if the price is right," Lefevre said. Asked how much this price might be, Lefevre replied: "Only Rosseler and I know that. Everything's for sale in this world."