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Fabio Jakobsen: no ordinary comeback

In-depth
10 Sep 2021
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Jakobsen's astonishing return to the top of the sport following his horror crash in Poland isn't just a comeback, it's an inspiration

Words: Will Strickson Photography: Chris Auld

The story of Fabio Jakobsen's crash doesn't need much retelling. It's the scene before the opening credits, the tragedy that forges a hero. It's the year that followed that proved the Hurricane of Heukelum is more than a bike rider and his thrilling Vuelta a España performance was the glorious, triumphant return that he more than deserved.

To mark the completion of the rise of Deceuninck-QuickStep's phoenix, let's take a look at what happened between 5th August 2020 and 5th September 2021 and what Jakobsen fought his way through to get back to the very top.

 

The ugly

You can't really describe an incident of that magnitude as fortunate but the fact that Jakobsen's fall was cushioned by a UCI commissaire – who came away with several broken ribs himself – may have saved his life.

Even with that bit of shock absorption, his injuries consisted of: bruises on the brain, lung, shoulder and backside; a fractured skull; a broken nose; a broken and torn roof of the mouth; ten teeth lost; sections of both upper and lower jaws gone; cuts to the face; a large cut to the ear; a broken thumb; and damage to the nerve of the vocal cord.

As you can imagine, it took a lot of healing and several reconstructive surgeries to get him right again, including having bone tissue from his pelvis put in his jaw and getting impants to reconstruct his teeth – which was only completed in June.

You can see the progress of the injuries and scars on his Instagram page but it's not like he had a full off-season to recover and get back on the bike, there were plenty of well-warranted doubts that he'd never refind the legs that won him two Vuelta stages and the Dutch national championships in 2019.

The bad

Even if his body recovered, there's also the mental side to the situation Jakobsen found himself in. Thankfully he says he can't remember the crash itself, something that he admits means he didn't lose all his confidence on the bike.

 

However his experiences after be woken from the induced comas doctors were forced to put him in would be more than enough to destroy even the toughest of people. He regained consciousness in an intensive care unit during a global pandemic not knowing why he was there, what happened to him and the extent of the injuries only that he was in a lot of pain, couldn't speak and often – Jakobsen estimates somewhere between 50 and 100 times while he was there – he would lose feeling throughout his body and dose off. He later explained, 'Every time I thought: this is it, I'm dying.'

Once out of hospital, he had to slowly get himself back on the bike, not knowing whether he'd be able to get back to a winning standard or how long it would take him. There was also the looming fact that his contract ran out at the end of 2021, so if his return didn't go well he might have been out of a job and forced to push a lot harder for legal compensation.

And nobody can know what it was like to line up against Dylan Groenewegen for the first time at the Dutch national championships and Tour de Wallonie, which was where both riders took their first stage wins since the crash, taking two apiece. Although there may have been a pre-race discussion of sharing the spoils as they appeared to not compete when the other was going for the stage win.

 

The good

Somehow, it's been easy to forget that Jakobsen is one of a few riders on Deceuninck-QuickStep working on a big comeback this year, in rather different circumstances.

Remco Evenepoel had to carry the enormous weight of the expectation of his nation and his team while struggling his way back from a crash at last year's Il Lombardia that forced him to essentially learn how to walk again. Mark Cavendish just wanted to race after years fighting against the Epstein-Barr virus, poor form, mental struggles and team difficulties.

For them, being a part of Jakobsen's return to racing, and to form, must have had a huge impact on their own seasons, with Cavendish completing a fairtyle of his own at the Tour de France and Evenepoel showing glimpses of why he's been so hyped up, taking impressive solo wins and an arguably more impressive third place at the European championships time-trial behind Stefan Küng and Filippo Ganna.

 

Evenepoel was the overall winner of the Tour de Pologne last year – the race Jakobsen crashed out from – so saw first-hand the horror and emotion of the situation and he held Jakobsen's race number aloft as he soloed to victory on Stage 4.

Cav hasn't been shy of praising Jakobsen, using social media to hail the man who will probably take his spot as the main sprinter at next year's Tour de France as his 'inspiration'. And Jakobsen was one of the riders selected alongside Cavendish at the Tour of Turkey, where the Manx Missile won four stages and truly got his comeback going.

The Vuelta

Deceuninck-QuickStep went to the Vuelta to support Jakobsen, outside of the sprints they barely featured apart from a couple of appearances in the breakaway from Mauri Vansevenant and a brief stint in the white jersey from Andrea Bagioli.

 

And it didn't take him long to get up to speed, getting pipped by Japser Philipsen in the first bunch sprint and winning the second one, a really tough uphill drag during which he had to position himself. From that moment on, he was back.

Brimming with confidence and clearly better than everyone else in the race he took another two stage wins and left one on the road for his teammate Florian Sénéchal – who held Jakobsen's broken and bleeding head up on that day in Poland, allowing him to breathe – when a furious, roundabout-laden finish split the peloton.

It was almost fate that this was the year that Vuelta organisers switched up their green jersey competition to reward sprinters more favourably, previously it was constantly won by GC riders who had consistent finishes on the harder stages. That opened the door for Jakobsen to cement his return to the top by winning one of the top prizes on the circuit available for sprinters.

As he crossed the line of the final mountain stage alongside all eight of his teammates at the very back of the race it was a special moment, not only had he successfully returned to the sport a year after potentially being within inches of his losing his life, he has returned as one of the very best riders in the world. He showed no fear, just pure determination, immense confidence and a beaming, toothful smile.

The Hurricane of Heukelem is here to stay.