Out of the Shadows

A number of cycling’s stars have served apprenticeships of sorts, riding in service of established champions, if only briefly, before coming into their own as race winners. With two World Championships, two Lombardia, a Milan-San Remo, two Liege-Bastogne-Liege, an Olympic gold medal, and three World Cup overall victories now under his belt, it’s easy to forget that a young Paolo Bettini once served as an errand boy for Michelle Bartoli in the days of the Mapei superteam. It’s easier to remember Greg Lemond’s tumultuous tutelage by Bernard Hinault at La Vie Claire, a time fraught with infighting and accusations but which, for better or worse, enhanced the legends of both men. No matter how memorable, cycling is riddled with such relationships – even its grand champion, Eddy Merckx, rode for Tom Simpson in his early days.

Recently, it seems another rider is emerging from the shadow of his leader, as Gert Steegmans, one of Tom Boonen’s key Quick-Step helpers, continues a string of good performances dating back to the 2007 season. At the 2007 Tour de France, Steegmans was dutifully leading Boonen out for the sprint at the rising finish in Gent, but when Boonen was unable to come around, Steegmans closed the deal himself, and riding into his best career result and the spotlight. He followed that up with two stages and the overall at the Circuit Franco-Belge. Over the past week, he has taken advantage of riding Paris-Nice for himself by netting two stage wins, one at Nevers and a second in terrible conditions at Belleville. His current freedom comes courtesy of Boonen riding the overlapping Tirrenno-Adriatico in Italy, which Boonen and almost everyone else views as better preparation for Milan-San Remo.

Despite Steegmans’ recent emergence as his own man, the relationship between Boonen and Steegmans isn’t quite as paternal as some of those cited above. In fact, the two are eerily similar in many respects. Both Belgians, the pair were born in 1980 only 15 days and 40 kilometers apart in Flanders – Boonen in slightly more northern Mol, Steegmans in neighboring Hasselt. According to their official stats, Boonen is a mere two centimeters taller than Steegmans, though the latter is heavier by two kilograms. Both riders’ physiques, somewhat towering by cycling standards, put them squarely in the classics mold. Both excel on the cobbles and bergs of their native Flanders, and in hard sprints at the end of heavy kilometers.

Though Steegmans is actually the elder of the two, he turned professional a year later, riding another year in the amateur ranks after riding as a stagiare with the Domo-Farm Frites squad of Peter Van Petegem in 2001. While Boonen surprisingly signed his first contract with U.S. Postal back in 2002 before jumping to Quick-Step in 2003, Steegmans went straight to a home team, signing for Lotto-Domo in 2003. During four seasons at Lotto, Steegmans forged himself a reputation as a hard man, and gravitated towards the role of shepherding Lotto sprinter Robbie McEwen towards the sprints. He was so successful in his domestique role that Boonen requested him for Quick-Step, where Steegmans signed on for 2007.

Their palmares reflect the roles each of them has played over their careers. Boonen, always the star since his breakout third-place performance in the muddy 2002 Paris-Roubaix, had notched some 84 wins by the end of 2007, including three as a neo-pro. By contrast, Steegmans counted only 17 wins prior to this season, and had to wait two years before first throwing his arms in the air at a stage of the 2005 Tour of Picardie.

Tom Boonen’s star is likely still on the rise, as much as it can be said to be “rising” after already capturing two Tours of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the World Championship. But there’s no doubt that Steegmans is only getting better, and, given their similarities as riders, Boonen may soon face competition from his lieutenant on the northern cobbles and in the stage race sprints. Steegmans and Boonen, at 27 years old, are only now entering their prime years as classics riders, if we’ve learned anything from the careers of Johan Museeuw and Van Petegem. It’s reasonable to think that, if his year continues its current trajectory, Steegmans may look to ride in different colors than Boonen and Bettini next year, just to see what he can do for himself.