Belgian Gert Steegmans stunned a depleted bunch, and himself, to claim the second stage of the Tour de France ahead of Quick Step teammate Tom Boonen in Ghent on Tuesday.
Steegmans, known as the sprint lead-out man for his superstar compatriot, beat Boonen and around 25 other riders to the finish after a mass pile-up had caused havoc within the final two kilometres of the rain-plagued 168.5km stage.
Race leader Fabian Cancellara of the CSC team retained the leader's yellow jersey for the third day running but spent a wet day in the saddle as the peloton rode from Dunkirk over the southern Belgian coast towards Ghent. The Swiss rider and his CSC team were forced, however, into spending precious energy chasing a three-man breakaway which had, for a short time, left Spaniard Ruben Perez as the virtual race leader.
Cancellara was one of the numerous riders who came down after a rogue element from the Milram team brusquely moved to the right, causing a Liquigas rider behind him to tumble and forcing a major spill on both sides of the road. Cancellara is not a contender for overall victory and he lives to lead the Tour for another day.
"The pile-up gave me a fright. At the time I hurt myself, but now I feel better," said the Swiss, who retained his 13sec lead over Astana's Andreas Klöden.
The drama of the finale had allowed a much smaller bunch to race to the finish line, and ultimately for the under-fire Quick Step team to prevail after they took over the drive to the line from the T-Mobile outfit. There were suggestions Boonen had gifted the win to Steegmans, but it could also be argued that the former track rider had earned it in his own right.
"I don't know if Tom let me win. Maybe, but the most important thing is that we finished one and two today," said Steegmans, who until last year was one of the lead-out men for Robbie McEwen. "We missed out on yesterday's stage because of a tactical error, and today we wanted to wait as long as possible before really hitting the accelerator.
"It went to perfection."
McEwen, the Predictor-Lotto's star sprinter, had stunned Boonen in the final 150 metres of Monday's stage to Canterbury in England when he coasted over the line with room to spare. This time, the 35-year-old Aussie - racing in pain after Monday's crash which left him with wrist and knee injuries - managed to escape the mass spill, but was caught by a flying bike on the way through. That left him fighting to keep contact with Steegmans' bunch, and in the end he ran out of steam and finished sixth.
"I was just happy to avoid it (crash), although I caught a bike on my arm," said McEwen, who admitted his sore knee had left him riding "awkwardly" all day. "Somehow I got through on the left, but I was a long long way back and I couldn't move up anymore."
On Tuesday, the rain clouds that had been hovering all morning let loose shortly after the peloton had crossed the nearby border into Belgium. But it was after just 18km of racing that German Marcel Sieberg of Milram attacked, and he was soon joined by Spaniard Ruben Perez of Euskaltel and Frenchman Cedric Hervé, of Agritubel. They worked to increase their advantage, which grew to over four minutes, and Perez was comfortably in the virtual race lead.
CSC were forced to give chase to defend Cancellara's jersey, and had to wait until the closing kilometres for the sprinters' team to start contributing to the pursuit. Despite a futile bid by Perez to escape five kilometres from the finish line, the trio's fate was sealed 2000 metres further on when the entire peloton reeled them in. Moments later, the former stage leaders' progression was halted in more dramatic fashion by the mass pile-up.
Cancellara, who will be needed later in the race when asked to play a support role, added: "It was a difficult day, very tense and with a lot of spectators at the side of the road. "It was a great day, but it was also very dangerous. We really have to take care at every moment."
© AFP 2007
For Ellis Bacon and Dan Friebe's analysis of stage 2, download our podcast here.