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Belgians take second stage in Tour

    GHENT, Belgium — Gert Steegmans won the second stage of the Tour de France on Monday with an inspirational victory in his home country, avoiding a late crash that slowed many riders and left them with scrapes and bruises.
    Steegmans led a 1-2 Belgian finish in winning a Tour stage for the first time. 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.
    ‘‘What an explosion of emotion it was after the finish,’’ Steegmans said. ‘‘It was really important for the team. You could feel this enormous pressure, because we’re a Belgian team.’’
    QuickStep teammate Tom Boonen of Belgium was second, followed by Filippo Pozzato of Italy after a sprint among a group of breakaway riders.
    ‘‘I think it was a perfect picture, the two of us next to each other,’’ Steegmans said.
    He added the victory could 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 was sent reeling last year because of doping. Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour champion, tested positive for synthetic testosterone and is awaiting an arbitration panel’s decision about whether to uphold the positive test.
    Cancellara kept the overall lead for a third straight day, despite falling in the crash and injuring his hand with a little more than a mile to go.
    Andreas Kloeden of Germany is second, 13 seconds behind Cancellara, and British time trial specialist David Millar is third, 23 seconds back.
    Under course rules, because the crash occurred within 1.8 miles of the finish, all riders in the main pack were awarded the same time as the stage winner.
    Tomas Vaitkus of Discovery Channel was taken to the hospital for an injured right thumb, team spokesman P.J. Rabice said.
    The three-week race returns to France nearly for good Tuesday, leaving the Belgian town of Waregem for a 147-mile ride to Compiegne, northeast of Paris.
    The main contenders typically don’t seek stage victories in the flat early stages that are prone to crashes, preferring to wait for tougher mountain stages to make their move.
    Kloeden, Alexandre Vinokourov, Levi Leipheimer, Cadel Evans and Alejandro Valverde are all within 40 seconds of Cancellara, who isn’t expected to keep up in the Alps and Pyrenees.
    And Boonen, a former world champion with four Tour stage victories, said there were no hard feelings toward Steegmans, who’s supposed to help Boonen but not beat him.
    ‘‘It’s a situation that exists only once or twice per career, and Gert has already done a lot for me,’’ said Boonen, who took the green jersey as top sprinter from Monday’s stage winner Robbie McEwen. ‘‘When you have the chance to do that, it’s great.’’

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