Tour de France final: Steegmans takes Champs Elysées triumph

Carlos Sastre wins Tour de France

Belgian Gert Steegmans made up for his Quick Step team's mediocre Tour de France campaign by sprinting to victory on the 21st and final stage in Paris on Sunday.

Steegmans claimed his second career stage win on the race, but his first on the Champs Elysées, in timely fashion having failed to challenge the peloton's sprinters during three weeks of intense racing. In the absence of star teammate Tom Boonen, he was led out to the finish in commanding fashion before driving for the line on his own in the final 150 metres, where he beat Germany's Gerald Ciolek of the Columbia team.

Spaniard Oscar Freire, of Rabobank, came home in third to secure his first green jersey for the race's points classification.

Steegmans has recently announced that this year will be his last with the Belgian outfit, who raced at the Tour without Boonen following the news of a positive test for cocaine in May. Katoucha, a Russian-backed team which aims to make a big impression on the peloton next year, signed up Steegmans during the Tour.

But he said that neither the pressure on him to win, or the fact he was leaving, had given him motivation here on Sunday.

"I'm still with Quick Step until December 30 this year, and I hope that this won't be the last present I'll give them before I leave," he said.

Steegmans was one of several big name sprinters, including Robbie McEwen, Thor Hushovd, Freire and Erik Zabel to fail to provide a real challenge to Britain's Mark Cavendish. The 23-year-old Manxman claimed a stunning four stage wins from bunch sprints before leaving the race due to fatigue prior to the second mountains phase in the Alps.

Steegmans said some of the pressure would have been taken off his shoulders had Spanish teammate Carlos Barredo beaten Germany's Marcus Burghardt, of Columbia, in their two-man duel to the finish on stage 18. But he conceded that Cavendish was a formidable sprinter.

"The first obstacle for me to overcome was Cavendish," added Steegmans. "Then Barredo was a little bit too nervous when he was going to the finish with Burghardt."

Being thanked by Quick Step for his efforts prior to the final stage to Paris was welcome, but it didn't stop Steegmans from powering to victory ahead of Ciolek after being led out perfectly by Matteo Tosatto and Steven De Jongh.

"I knew the last bend, and that I had to be in first, second or third place if I was to have any chance of winning," added Steegmans. "Tosatto was so fast that I knew before I jumped out from behind his wheel that I was going to win.

"It's always great to win a stage. And it's a bit of a relief although at the team meeting last night we were all thanked for our efforts during the Tour."

The only one missing was Boonen, who was told by Tour organisers in June not to show up after his positive test for the recreational drug.

"Unfortunately he wasn't here this year, that left a lot of pressure on me and Stijn (Devolder) to get a stage win," added Steegmans. "The pressure lasted a long time, too long. But the team were always there for me. Finally I've got a stage, and what a stage to win. To top it off we beat Columbia, which we are very happy about."

Sastre takes his first grand tour

Spain's Carlos Sastre wrapped up his maiden Tour de France triumph in Paris on Sunday following the final stage of the race into Paris.

Sastre, a 33-year-old climbing specialist who rides for the CSC team, became the eighth Spaniard to win the race's yellow jersey and the third consecutively after Oscar Pereiro (2006) and Alberto Contador (2007).

"I've dreamt of this since I was a child," said an emotional Sastre, who was surrounded by his wife and two children, Claudia and Yeday. "I'm beyond words, to be here with my family is really special."

Silence-Lotto's Cadel Evans was runner-up for the second consecutive year, the Australian finishing 1min 05sec behind Sastre after failing to eradicate a 1min 34sec deficit to the Spaniard in the penultimate stage time trial.

A surprise third place went to Gerolsteiner's Bernhard Kohl of Austria, who stepped onto the podium in Paris wearing the polka dot jersey for the race's 'King of the Mountains'.

"To find myself both on the podium and with the polka dot jersey is incredible," said Kohl, who secured his jersey before the final climb of the race. "When I realised I had a chance of finishing on the Tour podium I gave it everything I could."

Sastre's CSC team had cause for further celebration, having topped the teams' classification and seen Andy Schleck win the white jersey for the best placed rider aged 25 and under. Considered a future yellow jersey contender, Schleck is keen to keep his feet on the ground.

"I still have plenty of work to do," said the 23-year-old, a runner-up at last year's Giro d'Italia. "The white jersey wasn't my objective this year, working for the team was. But next year I want to come back with better form."

Schleck's older brother Frank - the Luxembourg champion - finished in sixth place overall having worn the yellow jersey for two days in the Alps.

Rabobank sprinter Oscar Freire meanwhile made history by becoming the first Spaniard to win the race's green jersey for the points classification.

Freire, who also won the 14th stage, topped the points classification ahead of Germany's former six-time winner Erik Zabel. Freire made sure of keeping the jersey with a third place finish in the sprint behind Gerald Ciolek and final stage winner Gert Steegmans of Belgium.

The only French 'winner' of anything resembling a jersey was Cofidis all-rounder Sylvain Chavanel, who was awarded the largely symbolic title of the race's most aggressive rider. Chavanel, 29, claimed his maiden stage win on the race on Friday, bringing the hosts' victory tally to three following stage wins by his teammate Samuel Dumoulin and Cyril Dessel of AG2R.

France, however, is still waiting for an heir to five-time champion Bernard Hinault, the last Frenchman to win the yellow jersey, in 1985. Française des Jeux all-rounder Sandy Casar, who finished second in the stage won by Dessel, topped the standings for the home riders in 14th overall.

"Overall I'm happy with my race, although I'm without a stage win," said Casar, who picked up his maiden stage win last year. "Finishing as France's top rider doesn't mean much when you've not won."

Sastre's victory is his first in a major three-week race. Previously, his best results was his two runner-up places in the Vuelta d'Espana.

The unassuming Spaniard took possession of the yellow jersey when he launched a daring solo attack at the foot of the race's final mountain climb, coming over the Alpe d'Huez finish line 2:15 ahead of Evans. His subsequent 1:34 overall lead on Evans proved decisive.

Sastre began the race as an outsider, but his consistency - thanks to the textbook support work of his strong CSC team - proved key. On the penultimate stage time trial, he held his nerve - and produced the race of his life - to keep a faltering Evans in his wake.

Compatriot Alejandro Valverde, one of the big pre-race race favourites with Evans, dropped out of virtual contention on the 10th stage. On the second of three days in the Pyrenees, the pace of CSC proved too much for Valverde, who finished five minutes off the pace of stage winner Leonardo Piepoli.

"I expected to do better at this Tour and would have liked to have been on the podium," said Valverde, who finished sixth overall last year having crashed out injured in his two previous participations. "But I'll be going away with good memories of my stage win and the yellow jersey, and I'll be back next year.

"My worst moment came on the Tourmalet, but on a more positive note I've shown again that I can be consistent throughout the three weeks."

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© AFP 2008

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