GHENT, Belgium (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 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. "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.
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 1.2 miles left.