Gert Steegmans worked with team captain Tom Boonen to deliver his Quickstep team a one-two finish in front of an estimated 75 to 100 thousand spectators in Gent, Belgium. Steven De Jongh led the Belgians to the line and it was 26 year-old Steegmans who was allowed to take his first Tour de France win by Boonen.
A crashed marred the final two kilometres, holding up many sprinters and Maillot Jaune Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC). The Swiss still holds the race lead but will need to be checked for possible injuries. Andreas Klöden (Astana) is in second and David Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir) in third overall.
"There was no one coming and when there is a chance like that he should be able take it," said 26 year-old Tom Boonen of Steegmans after the finish. "He has done a lot for me in the past."
It is an appropriate reward for the fifth-year professional, who did lead-outs for Robbie McEwen in 2006 before making the switch to rival-Belgian team Quickstep this last winter. Steegmans is a winner of three stages this year (one in Volta Algarve, one in Three Days of De Panne and one in 4 Jours de Dunkerque) but usually does his work for 'Tommeke' Boonen in races like Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.
"It was sometimes dangerous for us in the finale," a smiling Steegmans noted. "The team told me to wait a long time and then do the lead-out. Steven [De Jongh] pulled so hard it was very hard to follow. I went from long." It was a nice surprise win for Steegmans, and he has paid his dues. "Last year it was me it was a lot of hard work for McEwen."
The Belgian win was extremely important for Quickstep, and the team could have not done any better with Sébastien Rosseler and then De Jongh leading the charge into East Flandrian capital Gent, about eighty kilometres from the hometown of Steegmans. Following in Quickstep's wake were Erik Zabel (Milram), Robert Hunter (Barloworld), Philippe Gilbert and Sébastien Chavanel (both Française Des Jeux), Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas).
Zabel could not hold on to the charge of Quickstep and when he faded, a gap opened, making an obvious chance for Boonen to gift the win. As Zabel lost the wheel of Boonen it was Italian 'Pippo' Pozzato appeared who charged hard on the German's right while South African Hunter bolted up the left side. The duo took third and fourth, respectively. It was a great result for Hunter, who finished third in a stage in 2001 with Lampre, but 2004 stage 7 winner Pozzato will be wanting more.
"I am not going to risk my life to win a sprint," said 'Pippo' Pozzato after his third place.
Romain Feillu (Agritubel) and stage 1 winner Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) took fifth and sixth. "I was second last to avoid the crash, after that I lost some energy getting across," said Feillu. "I missed that [energy] from my sprint. But I feel I can get a good placing again. Twice fifth at the Tour de France and that means my Tour is a success already."
"The crash yesterday had a part to play," noted McEwen, who crashed before yesterday's win. "Both my knees are hurting. I feel like I am sitting a little sideways on the bike. I didn't feel real good, but I tried anyway. I am still in the race, so I will keep trying."
The crash in the final two kilometres held up an estimated thirty riders and most were left watching the sprint on the big monitor mounted just behind. Reviewing the crash, it was in fact Zabel who touched his front wheel with Boonen's rear wheel. Both riders stayed up right but a chain-reaction followed when a Liquigas rider fell to his right, taking down a T-Mobile rider and two Lampres.
In addition race leader Cancellara, there was Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital), Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile), Americans Fred Rodriguez (Predictor-Lotto) and George Hincapie (Discovery Channel).
"I was behind it, with three kilometres to go I started backing off," said Chris Horner after the finish. "Everybody went down. Thor [Hushovd] went down, Cancellara went down, [Francisco José] Ventoso went down, two guys from my team too – Leif [Hoste] and Freddy Rodriguez both crashed. Luckily I was pretty far back so I wasn't involved."
With the second place finish, Boonen took the sprinter's Maillot Vert from Australian sixth place finisher Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto). "I would like to have the green jersey in Paris," noted Boonen.
With no mountains, Millar kept the Maillot Blanc à Pois Rouges and Russian Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel) keeps the Maillot Blanc of best young rider.
How it unfolded
The streets of Dunkerque were slightly damp after morning showers when the peloton rolled out at 13:25 local time, but the skies cleared and the riders were treated to unexpectedly pleasant conditions for the majority of the stage.
The only non-starter of the day was Agritubel's Eduardo Gonzalo Ramirez, who crashed through the rear window of the Caisse d'Epargne team car on stage one. All 188 riders departed from the coastal port town at a leisurely pace to face their fast, flat 168.5-kilometre spin to the East Flanders province capital of Gent.
Just as soon as the race left its brief visit to France and crossed into Belgium, the first attack of the day went clear. Milram's Marcel Sieberg was the first aggressor, and surprisingly was able to go clear. He was quickly joined by two riders: Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Cédric Hervé (Agritubel). The three would form the only break of the day.
With a gap of 1'35 to the field, Pérez, became the 'virtual' yellow jersey as the best placed rider in the overall classification in the breakaway at the 20 kilometre mark.
With nothing to break the level terrain except the occasional highway overpass, the trio built up their lead to just over two minutes at the first intermediate sprint of the day in Boezinge at kilometre 45. The three rolled through the line with Hervé ahead of Pérez and Sieberg.
Riders had been expecting the strong crosswinds that normally characterise the spring races in this part of the country, but they never quite materialized, and the peloton was safe from the dreaded echelons that can split the field to shreds. They gave the breakaway a long leash, and the maximum advantage of 5'55 was reached 65 kilometres into the stage.
When the breakaway approached the second sprint of the day in Westende, just before the midway point of the stage, Hervé attacked to take the points much to the dismay of Sieberg, who seemed to indicate that they should share the bonuses.
Heading inland from the coast, the peloton took advantage of the tailwinds to pick up the pace and close down the gap to the leaders, with the CSC team of GC leader Fabian Cancellara doing most of the pace making for the second day in a row.
Predictor-Lotto's tall Wim Vansevenant took advantage of the parade-like pace of the peloton to ride off the front of the bunch to wave hello to family and friends in his home town of Ichtegem before getting down to business to work for his stage one winning teammate Robbie McEwen.
The going started to get rough when the blue skies turned to grey and then black over the riders and then the rain began to fall as the race entered the final 40 kilometres. With the gap falling steadily thanks to the help of Predictor-Lotto, the leaders held just over two minutes at the final intermediate sprint of the day. Pérez took the sprint ahead of Hervé and Sieberg, and the German took the opportunity to attack immediately after the line, but his two companions weren't giving any ground and quickly caught up.
The hard work of the sprinters' teams brought the gap under two minutes as the field passed through the start town of Gent-Wevelgem, Deinze, and in pouring rain the leaders were desperate to maintain their advantage.
When Quickstep decided to put their weight behind the chase, and sent hard man Steven De Jongh to the front, the writing was on the wall for the escapees. In just ten kilometres, the gap went down a full minute, and as the peloton hit the long, flat, straight road into Gent and had the break in their sights, the time for glory was over for the three men in front. Pérez gave a last minute attempt to get clear just inside three kilometres to go, but Sieberg was straight on his wheel and they all knew it was over.
The peloton hurtled through the final turn and up the 'ring road' into the centre of Gent and breakneck speeds on the newly paved roads, but just a few hundred metres into their flight to the finish a touch of wheels at the very front of the peloton set off a horrendous crash, taking down many of the sprinters who were fighting for the wheel of Tom Boonen, and even bringing the yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara down as well.
Held up behind the crash, the majority of the peloton was left watching the finish on the big screen television, and they were able to witness Quickstep's Rosseler and then De Jongh drop Boonen and his last lead-out man Gert Steegmans off with well-oiled precision. But to everyone's surprise, Boonen was unable to come around the hard-charging Steegmans, but saluted as he crossed the line in joy for the team's win before his surprised teammate could even celebrate his first Tour stage victory.