Steegmans wins a long sprint in a short stage

Thor Hushovd comes 3rd and keeps the lead

As a winner of stage two of the 2007 Tour de France to Ghent, Gert Steegmans was known as a specialist for uphill bunch sprint finishes. He showed it once again by winning stage one of Paris-Nice in Nevers. The race was shortened in half to 93.5 kilometers due to severe weather, but was contested on a very high speed when Steegmans' team-mates from Quick Step decided to put the hammer down in the cross wind.

Under the rain, the Belgian squad looked as comfortable as if it was racing in its own backyard, unlike the diminutive Spaniards from Euskaltel who were daunted by the high winds. "Kevin Hulsmans and myself, we looked at them and we laughed, they were scared," Steegmans testified. But he understood the situation of climbers who aren't used to this kind of racing. "I have the same feeling when I look at the Mont Ventoux, I'm scared as well," the Belgian said.

"It was one of the hardest days I've ever had on a bike," Fränk Schleck explained after spending a large part of the race chasing after crashes and cross winds split the field. "There were only 93 kilometers but it looked like 200. It was really hard to fight for positioning and I got back on with only five kilometers to go." Milram's Andriy Grivko also found the day's racing to be spectacular, but he retained his lead in the young riders' classification. "I was in the third group and we had to catch the second group before the first one near the very end but it was a nice," said the smiling Ukrainian.

Cadel Evans wasn't among the happy cyclists at the end after he was involved in a crash with 43 kilometers to go. "I've had better days, 'mate. I went down pretty hard," he said after crossing the line two and half minutes behind Steegmans. Another big name of the start list, Damiano Cunego finished further back, some six and half minutes behind the winner. .

The first flat stage of Paris-Nice caused some damage, but it pleased Thor Hushovd who retained his lead. "In the cross wind, I always stayed well positioned in front of the group," he explained. "We tried to control and it was all fine until the sprint. I got stuck behind Philippe Gilbert, but Steegmans was too strong anyway. The way he sprinted was so impressive. There was no chance that I could have beaten him there. I'm pretty happy with this third place. I'm still there and I keep the yellow jersey."

A revelation of the race was 21-year-old Frenchman Mikaël Chérel. The Française des Jeux neo-pro had tried his luck by himself earlier on but he was still fresh for leading Gilbert out at the end. "I'm here to give everything I have," he said. "It's a pity that I have actually disturbed my leader when I wanted to give him space for sprinting."

Steegmans was the strongest anyway, and began the sprint from a relatively long way out. With 50 meters to go, he was fading, an fully expected Hushovd to pass him, but he looked back and realized the size of the gap between him and the others. "It was a nice feeling," he recalled. "There is no more pressure on my shoulders in Paris-Nice since Tom Boonen has decided to race Tirreno-Adriatico instead, but there's always a little bit of pressure at Quick Step because the team wants to win as many races as possible."

There is another hard day ahead for the participants of Paris-Nice with four hills scheduled prior to the finish in Belleville in the Beaujolais area.

How it unfolded

The race was delayed after driving rain and strong winds forced the organisers to relocate the start. Initially slated to begin in Sancerre, after the category three côte de Venoize which would have made the stage less than 80 kilometres, the organisers then decided to launch the day's stage from the feedzone town, La Chapelotte, shortening the day from 184.5 kilometres to just 93.5 kilometers. Therefore it was possible to allocate the king of the mountain price with only one climb situated after 15km of racing. Euskaltel's Dionisio Galparsoro came over the top first and took the polka dot jersey.

On the descent, Bernhard Eisel (High Road) accelerated and took Peter Velits and Niki Terpstra (Milram) with him. The trio got a maximum lead of 4'10. Française des Jeux and Quick Step became the most active teams in the chase. As the speed went higher, a few crashed occurred, one of them involved Cadel Evans with 43km to go.

At the same time, Quick Step decided to create some splits in the bunch by racing hard in the cross wind. The peloton was divided in four groups but race leader Thor Hushovd never missed the front. A few riders like Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Fränk Schleck (CSC), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and David Millar (Slipstream) who got trapped made it back on but Evans and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) never did.

The front group caught Eisel, Velits and Terpstra at km 78. Mikaël Chérel (Française des Jeux) attacked strongly with 7km to go. Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) also tried to anticipate the sprint but Gert Steegmans (Quick Step) stuck to his wheel. The Belgian got his men to pull everything back together before sprinting uphill in Nevers. With 350 meters to go Steegmans sprinted clear of everybody else.

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