Whether Gert Steegmans proves to be a successful signing for the Classics remains to be seen but the Belgian’s controversial move from QuickStep to Trek Factory Racing could be one of the most interesting sub-plots of this year’s campaign.
Steegmans fell out with QuickStep during last year’s national championships when his trade team decided to chase down a late move he was involved with in order to set up a sprint for Tom Boonen. The tactic spectacularly back-fired as Boonen missed out and Steegmans angrily lamented his team’s decision afterwards.
The Belgian press have been pursuing Steegmans ever since, hoping he would lift the lid on what happened on that day, but tensions were already simmering before nationals given that the 34-year-old had been dropped for the Spring Classics in April and also missed out on the Tour de France.
“I had some good moments and I’ll keep those good moments and memories,” was Steegmans’s offering at the Tour of Qatar on Thursday when Cyclingnews asked him to sum up his time at Patrick Lefevere’s team. The Belgian, incidentally, was a non-starter on the final day in Qatar on Friday.
Steegmans isn’t the other rider looking to stay clear of the topic. Fabian Cancellara, who will benefit from the signing, waxed lyrical over his new teammate’s talent at a small gathering at the press in Qatar, but sidestepped the back story on why Steegmans was shut out and allowed to leave.
“That’s another story that I don’t want to go into, especially the Belgian press will love to hear more,” Cancellara said, half-jokingly.
However the Classics star added that: “From the outside I felt pity in a few races where he didn’t get his chances towards the end or when he did win he didn’t get what he deserved. I think there were some conflicts – not conflicts – issues between some people, and that’s what I saw from the outside. It’s business though and in the end he could join our team and he’s motivated.”
Dirk Demol is certainly a strong supporter of Steegmans’ talents. The Trek Factory Racing team director saw a bargain when he realised the rider was out in the cold midway through last year but it was not until November when the contract could be finalised. Trek were looking to reduce headcount from 28 to 26 riders in order to meet the UCI’s future reforms. The loss of Andy Schleck to retirement created a small but possible gap but it wasn’t until the team management sat down and planned the season with their roster that Demol reinforced his wish to sign the rider.
“I was trying to find someone to replace Danilo Hondo who retired,” the former Paris-Roubaix winner told Cyclingnews.
“We needed to have someone else and I worked with Geert in 2008 at Quickstep and he was a great domestique. Then we took him here [RadioShack] in 2010 as a sprinter and a leader and maybe he isn’t suited to that pressure so his best role is to help a leader like Fabian.
“I knew that he couldn’t stay with QuickStep in around the middle of the season. I don’t know why, it’s internal, so you’d have to ask them, but he can do the Classics and the sprints and I told the management to take him.
“When we sat down in November with the team directors we saw that the programme for the WorldTour and other races was really tight, especially at the start of the season and kept pushing for us to sign Geert. As soon as I heard that he was free I was ready to sign him.”
Cyclingnews spoke to Steegmans at the start of the penultimate stage of Qatar and just a few vehicles away stood the man who issued the order to chase the rider down in nationals, Wilfried Peeters.
“Well we had some problems with selection last year with him not riding Flanders and Roubaix but he wasn’t on the level of two years ago though and in the end we didn’t give him a contract. What can I say?” was the Belgian’s first response when asked why Steegmans has been ushered out of the team.
However the former Mapei rider hit back at Steegmans’ claims that his national title chances were sabotaged, instead stating his belief that the decision was taken out of the team’s hands by Steegmans’ actions on the day.
“At the nationals he made a big mistake. He didn’t want to talk with the team director in the race. When the car came up on the left he turned to the right to speak. I’d make the same decision now. We had one goal, to win the race, and if he said to Tom Steels [who was driving the team car behind the break] that he wanted to win, then no problem but he said nothing.
“It was only after the race he said he could win. If he’s said with 40k to go that he could win, then no problem but he said nothing. He should have shown a little bit of respect for my team colleague.”
Were the nationals the only reason for Steegmans’ departure from the team? “It’s not only that but I don’t want to make a comment.”
Back at the Trek team car, Steegmans tightened his shoes and prepared for the day’s race.
“That’s history and it won’t change, talking now won’t change the history. That’s finished.”
And when asked if the nationals were the main reasons he left the team, the rider responded with: “Maybe, maybe. I don’t know. I’m not saying and it’s pretty clear. I don’t want to talk about last year.”