Two wins and a second placing in three days is the stuff of yellow jerseys and Steels' sixth Tour stage victory - and the 51st win of his career - puts him only 17 seconds away from the leader's colours presently sported by the previously unheralded Estonian, Jaan Kirsipuu.
After a day of drama on Monday, when a spectacular fall on an ocean causeway all but ruined the chances of some of the race favourites, yesterday unfolded in more classic style as the Tour moved into the beautiful Brittany countryside, with black and white Breton flags fluttering along the route.
As often happens in the Tour's early, flat stages, designed for sprinters, two riders broke away early on. Frederic Guesdon and Massimo Giunti maintained their lead yesterday for 121 kilometres (76 miles), but were caught by the pack late in the race.
The peloton maintained a swift pace - riding at an average of 43.3 kilometres (27 miles) per hour - and the final sprint came at a blistering 67km (42 miles) per hour.
"I was having trouble 40 kilometres out because the pace was so hard and I thought I wouldn't have the legs for the sprint," Steels said. "However, once I was in the town in the shade of the trees I felt a lot better and I am such a stubborn man that I refused to allow the pain to get to me.
"I don't think it was possible to have a better start on the Tour than this. I don't think I can make it a treble, but if there is a chance..."
Steels is mindful of the simmering ambitions of Zabel, who has seven Tour stage wins, and of Mario Cipollini, who is the top scorer in this year's field with eight Tour stage wins. The Italian, whose 141 victories are based solely on his fast finishing, has been foiled by the twisting run-ins to this year's finishes.
Yesterday his plans went awry again when a team-mate, Gian Matteo Fagnini, fell three kilometres from the finish. At that point Cipollini was lying a handy 10th, but in the confusion of the crash he slipped down to 50th. He then fought his wayback up the field to lie in wait at the back wheel of Kirsipuu, anticipating another scorching finish from the Estonian. Kirsipuu decided to take the day off as far as the finish was concerned, however, leaving Cipollini to come home in 10th place.
Of those fancied for overall victory, the American Lance Armstrong and Spain's Abraham Olano remain the highest placed riders, in fourth and fifth places respectively.
For some of the other favourites, however, the wound-licking has started early. Michael Boogerd, seen as the big Dutch hope, is nursing painful injuries to his shoulder and face after crashing twice on Monday's stage, as well as plunging morale. "I am nervous about the next few days," he said. "I am still hopeful, however, of making it to the final podium in Paris."
With more than 3,000km still to race it is a distant dream, but remaining positive in the face of adversity is a necessity for Tour riders. Alex Zulle, who rode in alongside Boogerd on Monday more than six minutes adrift of the winner after being held up by the crashes, is also putting a brave face on his misfortune.
Zulle, who fnished second in the 1995 Tour and was one of the pre-race favourites this year, said: "I will attack in the Alps. All is possible in this Tour. I have had bad luck, but when others have theirs I will be ready.
"In reality I have lost the Tour, but 1995 was a similar situation. I lost nearly four minutes in a time-trial but won a mountains stage at La Plagne, and finished second overall in Paris."
Zulle is a survivor in the school of hard knocks. Last year he and his Festina team-mates were thrown out because of the doping scandal. In 1997 he managed to complete four days with his collarbone fractured, while the previous year two crashes cost the Swiss rider his chance to take the race lead.
TOUR DE FRANCE RESULTS
THIRD STAGE (Nantes to Laval, 195km) Leading positions: 1 T Steels (Bel) Mapei 4hr 29min 27sec; 2 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 3 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole; 4 N Minali (It) Cantina Tollo; 5 G Hincapie (US) US Postal; 6 J Casper (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux; 7 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank; 8 S Martinello (It) Polti; 9 E Aggiano (It) Vitalicio Seguros; 10 M Cipollini (It) Saeco; 11 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole; 12 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat; 13 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 14 J Kirsipuu (Est) Casino; 15 D Etxebarria (Sp) ONCE; 16 R Brasi (It) Polti; 17 L Rodriguez (Sp) ONCE; 18 L Michaelsen (Den) La Francaise de Jeux; 19 P Wuyts (Bel) Lotto; 20 A Merckx (Bel) Mapei all same time. Selected: 27 A Olano (Sp) ONCE; 28 B Julich (US) Cofidis; 59 A Zulle (Swit) Banesto; 64 R Virenque (Fr) Polti; 69 P Tonkov (Rus) Mapei; 121 C Boardman (GB) Credit Agricole all s/t.
LEADING OVERALL STANDINGS: 1 Kirsipuu 13hr 18min 59sec; 2 Steels +17sec; 3 O'Grady +20; 4 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +20; 5 Olano +31; 6 Hincapie +34; 7 Moreau +35; 8 Zabel +40; 9 A Vinokurov (Kaz) Casino +41; 10 S Gonzalez (Sp) ONCE +41; 11 A Peron (It) ONCE +43; 12 C Vandevelde (US) US Postal +43; 13 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco +43; 14 A Casero (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +46; 15 Tonkov +48; 16 Simon +48; 17 Julich +48; 18 A Gonzalez Galdeano (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +49; 19 E Dekker (Neth) Rabobank +49; 20 P Savoldelli (It) Saeco +51. Selected: 54 Virenque +1min 11sec; 109 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +7:25; 126 C Boardman (GB) Credit Agricole 15:52.Reuse content