But, for him, that victory was just another step in the right direction.
The South African, who hails from Centurion, Pretoria, and specialises in both track and road cycling, has been on a three-year journey to “make it big” in Europe.
This year Van Niekerk is riding elite for the first time while spending his first full season in Europe riding for the French-based Christian Magimel Sud-Ouest Cyclisme Formation.
“Every single year since 2015 I have been coming over to Europe, but because of visa issues among South Africans I could only ride here for small stints,” Van Niekerk told In the Bunch.
“It got better every year – in 2015 it was one month, 2016 two months and last year five months, three in France and two in Italy. This year will be the first full season I spend here.”
Van Niekerk, who previously rode for South African teams Abantu, Telkom, Leadout Aspire and Dimension Data, said he had adapted well to the French style of racing.
“It started coming on well last year at the end of my stint,” he said. “A lot of people told me to come back here because it is a good place to make a name for yourself.
“I took a big chance by coming here, starting the season early with my new team while skipping a lot of racing in South Africa such as the road nationals.”
Van Niekerk, who won the national road under-23 time-trial in 2015, said he finished on the podium a number of times at the start of the season and he was relieved to finally crack a win in the Grand Est race.
“I got that monkey off the back of coming second and third the whole time. It was great to have won.”
However, Van Niekerk said it was just the first step in his career and he aimed to achieve greater things.
“Making a WorldTour team is my dream,” he said. “I have been coming here since 2015 in order to get stronger. For every month you spend in Europe you get better.
“This year I made the big commitment of coming here for as long as possible. From here on, I just want to prosper.
“The win in Saint-Avold provided me with that extra bit of motivation that I needed.
“I had big goals for the summer season here, which is from May until August, and the victory came at just the right time. It gave me a hunger to win more races and it was a big confidence-booster.
“It taught me that here in Europe I should not race with desperation, but rather with confidence.”
The former Hoërskool Eldoraigne pupil, who currently stays in Limoges in France, said the difference between South African and French cycling was vast.
“In South Africa, all the riders talk about how long a race is when it is about 120km. In France when we do 120km, everyone talks about how short it is.
“We normally average racing for about three to four hours, at speeds of between 42 and 45km/h. There are also never just 10 or 20 riders taking it to the line, but normally a much bigger selection.
“In France we would line up with 150 to 200 riders and any one of them could win.”
He had learnt many lessons while racing in France, Van Niekerk added. “I have had to learn a lot on how to contain myself in races,” he said.
“I have learnt to never just go ballistic to get to the front. In South Africa, the mentality is to go flat-out straight from the gun in order to create a breakaway.
“Over here it will make you an aggressive rider, but it will not win you races in general. Racing here is a lot harder mentally, physically and tactically.”