Day of triumph at Tour de France
10 July 2007
GHENT (AP) – The Tour de France veered into Belgium on Monday, and Gert Steegmans responded with a victory before his home fans in a country passionate about its cycling.
“What an explosion of emotion it was after the finish,” he said. “It was really important for the team. You could feel this enormous pressure because we’re a Belgian team.”
Steegmans avoided a late crash that slowed many riders and left them with scrapes and bruises. He led a 1-2 Belgian finish with Tom Boonen in winning a Tour stage for the first time as fans thronged the team bus.
“I think it was a perfect picture, the two of us next to each other,” Steegmans said.
He covered the 168.5-kilometer course on rain-drenched roads from Dunkirk, France, to Ghent in 3 hours, 48 minutes, 22 seconds. Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara kept the leader’s yellow jersey.
Steegmans hoped his victory would help rebuild spirits at QuickStep, a team under pressure amid speculation about doping.
“There was a big attack from one newspaper on our team,” Steegmans said. “It was a hard time for us – especially when you take a train, people see you as a gang member and not as a team rider.”
Cycling’s credibility clearly is on the line amid doping scandals and investigations. Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour champion, could be stripped of his victory.
Belgian police temporarily detained 13 people for questioning last month after seizing banned substances in raids on homes of cyclists and their associates, including a Quick Step team staffer. The team denies any wrongdoing.
Steegmans, Boonen and third-place finisher Filippo Pozzato of Italy were among about 20 cyclists who were ahead of a crash that delayed all other riders in the main pack with about 2 kilometres left.
American George Hincapie was cut and bruised, and Discovery Channel teammate Tomas Vaitkus of Lithuania dropped out of his debut Tour after breaking his right thumb in five places.
Cancellara, who injured his left wrist in the group spill, is the leader for a third straight day. Germany’s Andreas Kloeden is in second place, 13 seconds behind. Britain’s David Millar in third, 23 seconds back.
Because the crash occurred within three kilometres (1.8 miles) of the finish, all riders were credited with the same time as Steegman’s.
Boonen, a four-time Tour stage winner and one of Belgium’s biggest cycling stars, is looking for his first stage victory in two years.
The three-week race returns to France nearly for good Tuesday, leaving the Belgian town of Waregem for a 236.5-kilometre ride to Compiegne, northeast of Paris.
The main contenders typically don’t seek stage victories in the flat early stages that are prone to crashes. They choose to wait for later time trials and punishing mountain stages to make their move.
The favourites – including Kloeden, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, Levi Leipheimer of the U.S., Cadel Evans of Australia and Alejandro Valverde of Spain – are all within 45 seconds of Cancellara. The Swiss rider is not expected to keep up in the Alps and Pyrenees.
Boonen felt no hard feelings about the victory by Steegmans, whose typical role is to help Boonen win stages.
“It’s a situation that exists only once or twice per career, and Gert has already done a lot for me,” said Boonen, who took the green jersey as top sprinter from Monday’s stage winner Robbie McEwen. “When you have the chance to do that, it’s great.”
This year’s race is taking place without Landis, who tested positive for synthetic testosterone. He has denied accusations of cheating and is awaiting an arbitration panel’s decision about whether to uphold the positive test.
Before this year’s race, all riders signed an International Cycling Union pledge promising they are not involved in doping. They are to submit DNA samples to Spanish authorities for the Operation Puerto blood-doping investigation. The names of dozens of riders have turned up in the case, but most remain unidentified.
UCI president Pat McQuaid said Monday the sport’s governing body has added team managers and staff to the list of people he wants to sign the anti-doping charter.
[Copyright AP 2007]
Subject: Belgian news