By Laura Weislo, reported by Brecht Decaluwé in Gent, Belgium
After a rather ordinary trip from Dunkerque to Gent, the peloton presented the throngs of assembled Belgian spectators with an exciting finale in front of the Citadel Park, home to the legendary 'Kuipke' Velodrome. In the shadow of that historic building, a new Belgian star, who learned to race on those well travelled boards, was born in Gert Steegmans.
Steegmans was in the process of leading out his star team-mate Tom Boonen after the raging bunch sprint was disrupted by a crash. With a few more than twenty riders battling for glory, Steegmans powered up the final rise so quickly in his final lead-out that Boonen could not get past, so it was the shy Monegasque who will go into the history books as the last Belgian to win a stage in his own country since of Marc Wauters won in Antwerp back in 2001.
Former world champion Tom Boonen wasn't disappointed. "I looked back and noticed that nobody was in our wheels," he said. "We rode over the finish line next to each other, that's the best picture of the year. Of course I wanted to win myself but the plan was perfect. If you let Steegmans go there's nobody who can beat him, this was just perfect," Boonen explained.
Meanwhile the unexpected winner was still figuring out what he pulled off today. Steegmans explained what happened in the post-race press conference in Gent. "I did the lead-out after yesterday's mistake when Steven lost my wheel. Today we waited longer with the uphill finish in Gent. My job was go full gas as long as I could with 300m to go. Tom had asked me not to start too fast, so I used my 53x11," Steegmans explained about the team tactics.
In those tactics there probably wasn't an option to let him win instead of Boonen. "There was no discussion who would win, it came naturally," Steegmans said. The winner explained he wanted to yell to his leader, "don't pass me!" In the end that didn't happen as Steegmans had half a wheel length on a celebrating Boonen. "Boonen came next to me to be sure, when he was sure he let me go. That's what I think because I haven't talked with him [Boonen] yet," Steegmans said of the sprint.
After the finish there was an joyous display of emotion between the Belgian Quickstep riders. "This is unbelievable," Steegmans said. "There are so many people here, sometimes it was even dangerous." Talking about dangerous situations the winner was asked about the enormous crash with two kilometres to go. "I didn't notice anything about the crash. We were riding towards the left when it must've happened, but I didn't see or hear anything because of the crowd's noises," described Steegmans.
The Italo-Belgian Quickstep-Innergetic team has gone through a troubled season as they failed to win any ProTour event, adding that they suffered with doping allegations in a Belgian newspaper. "It has been a rough year since I joined the team from Davitamon-Lotto. The allegations from the newspaper came when we were in Qatar. We had a hard time as it is hard to deal with lies; people looked at us like if we were gangsters when we took the bus to the airport.
"A few weeks ago we had another thing like that, people started asking me questions and I didn't have a clue what they were talking about. It's hard because people don't realise that we're not only with the nine of us here in the Tour but also with riders in other races, not forgetting all the people working for the team," a clearly annoyed Steegmans said.
Last year the cycling world was introduced to the Belgian for the first time when he catapulted Robbie McEwen to several wins in the Tour, and this year Steegmans is sprinting to a Tour de France win himself. What will the future bring for the powerful 26 year-old? "My problem is that I'm not a leader like Tom. I've got a lot of power in my legs but handling the pressure is hard. Tom is a superstar and handles it very well. That's a big problem, isn't it? If anybody can help me..." a smiling Steegmans suggested to the assembled press.
Of course, for a Belgian to win in Belgium is something special, but for Steegmans there's also a link with the city of Gent. "There's a cycling track called the 'Kuipke' about 200 metres away from the finish line, you might know it from the six-day event that is held here every year. I learned to ride my bike on that track and set a record that's probably still standing," Steegmans smiled. His glory will be short-lived, as Steegmans' leader Boonen captured the green jersey with his finish on the stage, and as he's keen on defending that jersey. It's clear that today's winner Steegmans will be forced back into his lead-out position, but he won't mind - for now.