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An interview with Gert Steegmans, June 26, 2008

Steegmans stepping up a gear

With Tom Boonen almost certain to miss the Tour de France, Gert Steegmans has additional responsibility in the sprints. But that too gives him additional opportunity. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes looks at the Belgian's changed role.

Gert Steegmans, 27, has been on target this year
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On the second stage of last year's Tour de France Gert Steegmans showed that he had what it takes to win at the very top level of the sport. Normally a lead-out man for Tom Boonen, the then 26 year-old Belgian accelerated so powerfully in the final few hundred metres that his team leader could not get by.

To his credit, the 2005 World Champion appeared as happy with Steegmans' triumph in Gent as he would have been if he won himself. Boonen went on to win the green jersey in the race, taking two stage victories in total, while Steegmans settled back into his customary role.

However that success marked the beginning of a new period for the rider. He'd taken good victories before, with his 2006 haul including two stages of the Tour of Algarve plus stage victories in the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, the Tour of Picardie and the Tour of Belgium. In addition, his pre-Tour haul in 2007 was also a healthy one, with stage victories in the Tour of Algarve, the Driedaagse van De Panne and the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque.

"It is getting better every day."

- Steegmans on his pre-Tour de France form26/06/2008.

Yet something undoubtedly clicked in his mind on that day in Gent. After the Tour, Steegmans dominated the Circuit Franco-Belgie, winning two stages, placing second on another and landing the overall victory. This year, he took the Trofeo Calvia in Mallorca and then won stages one and two of Paris-Nice, with his victory on the first day in France being particularly impressive; he started his sprint 350 metres from the line in Nevers and opened up a two second gap over Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom), Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) and Karsten Kroon (Team CSC). Perhaps that was the moment where he showed that he had outgrown his lead-out man role.

Boonen's non-invite

Tom Boonen hits the head lines
Photo ©: Tim Van Wichelen
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The original plan was for Steegmans to remain in that duty in the 2008 Tour de France, helping Tom Boonen land more stage victories and take a second green jersey. However, the former world champion has been excluded from the race after testing positive for cocaine; Quick Step is doing what it can to reverse this decision, but it seems unlikely that Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) will back down.

After all, even though the substance is not considered performance enhancing when used out of competition, any stage win by Boonen would undoubtedly carry that negative footnote in worldwide media reports. And that's something that ASO is desperate to avoid this year.

Even so, Quick Step can head to the race with reasonable confidence in the sprints. Providing the pressure does not get to him, Steegmans clearly has the speed needed to win. He is ready to fill that role, he told Cyclingnews at the Tour de Suisse. "I will be ready for the sprints," he said, when asked if Boonen's absence made him team leader in that area. "Right now it is not really sure that Tom is not going... we will have to see in the next week or so. But if he doesn't go, we will have to make the best out of the sprints as we can."

His successes thus far this season suggest that he has what it takes to do just that. When asked what his highlights have been, he refers back to March and the two big victories which showed he could fill a team leader's role. "I think the two victories in Paris-Nice have been the biggest thing this year. I was really satisfied with that," he said. "Unfortunately, I crashed before the Classics and had a pain in my back. But afterwards I was doing okay."

Indeed he has; since then, he won the second stage of the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque and also scooped victories in the Profonde van Fryslan and Halle-Ingooigem. If winning is a habit, he's certainly getting used to it.

Preparing for the Tour

That day in Gent
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Steegmans began his pro career back in the autumn of 2001, riding as a stagiaire with Domo-Farm Frites. That led on to four years with the team, two as Lotto-Domo and a further two under the name of Davitamon-Lotto.

He was a valuable lead-out rider for Robbie McEwen in that time, helping the Australian take stages four and six in the 2006 Tour de France. Boonen finished fifth and third on those days, and Quick Step made note of the assistance the winner had got from Steegmans. That in turn resulted in a contract offer and his signing by the team.

This year, he's been focussing on doing a good Tour de France once again. Boonen's absence means that his role will be a different one than originally intended; one man's loss is indeed another man's gain.

His recent preparation has been the Tour de Suisse, a race he came away from without any big results but where he said that he was satisfied with how things went. "The race has been hard," he told Cyclingnews at the start of the final stage. "I am happy with my condition; we were here together to work to improve our form and it was okay. It is getting better every day.

"My only regret was that there were three bunch sprints in this Tour de Suisse, and I couldn't really impress. I felt good but I also had some bad luck, so let's hope it goes better for the Tour."

While Steegmans would have preferred the psychological boost of a victory in the Swiss race, it is better than any misfortune or mistakes were made there rather than in France. Having the team's focus there being on him rather than on Boonen will take a little getting used to, after all.

Gert Steegmans is becoming the focus
Photo ©: Tim Van Wichelen
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"The first time it was in the rain, I was a bit scared because I had problems with my brakes," he said, speaking about the stage finishes in Switzerland. "The second time I made a big mistake, it was my fault, and then the third time it was really, really, dangerous with the roundabout. Let's hope in the Tour it would be better."

Prior to his positive test, Boonen was in negotiations with Bouygues Telecom about moving to that team. The French squad has since cut off all talks and instead he will continue with Quick Step for the next three years; Steegmans is waiting to see where he will ride. If Quick Step is interested, he could stay longer there, but he might equally opt to strike out on his own and not look back on his lead-out role.

For now, he's unwilling to say if he wants to be a leader. "We are still in discussions with some teams," he said. "It all depends on the discussions, it is not really private but they are still going on and we will see what happens."

What's clear is that another stage win in the Tour de France would considerably increase his bargaining power. He's got an additional motivation to ride well there, and so we'll soon find out if he can rise to the occasion and reconfirm his ability in the sport's biggest event. If he does that, he'll have completed his transition from lead-out man to Belgium's next big sprinting champion.

For more read "You have to love it".


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Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net

Images by Tim Van Wichelen/www.organicwax.be

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