GHENT, Belgium -- The Tour de France veered into Belgium yesterday, 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 105-mile 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.
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 1.2 miles 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.