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Vuelta a Espana

Vuelta a España: Fabio Jakobsen and his incredible journey back to the winner’s circle

One year ago, Fabio Jakobsen was fighting for his life in the ICU; on Tuesday, he won a stage at the Vuelta a España

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There were hugs, there were tears, and most of all, there were smiles.

Fabio Jakobsen is back in the winner’s circle in an emotional victory at the Vuelta a España little more than one year after a horrific crash in the 2020 Tour of Poland almost killed him.

Months of surgery, recovery, painful rehab, doubts and nerves culminated Tuesday when he kicked to his first WorldTour victory since that day he’d like to erase but will never forget.

“A year ago I was laying in a hospital bed with 10 broken teeth and wondering if I would live or die,” Jakobsen said. “To win again at this level is a dream come true.”

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The results sheet on August 5, 2020, in the opening stage at the Tour de Pologne sees him as the official winner, but he was anything but on that day when Dylan Groenewegen barged him into the barriers.

Jakobsen smashed through flimsy fencing, and collided with the finish-line archway at nearly full-speed, and almost died from the force of the impact. It left his body smashed and broken, but his fighting spirit was still intact.

First through hours of surgery to reshape his face and jaw, and then months of painful recovery. He never gave up on his ambition of returning to the WorldTour.

“It’s an important for me win to win again at this level,” Jakobsen said. “It’s been a long journey to get back to his level. Now it feels like it’s the end of one book, and the beginning of another. I hope to win many more now.”

‘Sometimes I doubted if I could come back’

MOLINA DE ARAGON, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: Fabio Jakobsen of Netherlands and Team Deceuninck - Quick-Step sprints to win ahead of Arnaud Demare of France and Team Groupama - FDJ and Magnus Cort Nielsen of Denmark and Team EF Education - Nippo during the 76th Tour of Spain 2021, Stage 4 a 163,9km stage from El Burgo de Osma to Molina de Aragón 1134m / @lavuelta / #LaVuelta21 / on August 17, 2021 in Molina de Aragón, Spain. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Jakobsen delivered an emotional and flawless victory Tuesday. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

When Jakobsen lay crumpled by the side of the road in Poland, many didn’t believe they’d ever see him race a bike again, let alone win a dangerous, high-speed sprint in a grand tour mass gallop.

On Tuesday, Jakobsen revealed his trademark power and speed to come around Groupama-FDJ’s Arnaud Démare. In doing so he notched a win that is so much more than his 21st career victory on his racing resumé.

“It was so difficult during those days, and sometimes I doubted if I could come back,” he recounted with emotion Tuesday. “Most people know I lost 10 teeth and a lot of bone in my face. There were a lot of surgeries just to be a normal person again. The road back to professional cycling started from zero, both physically and mentally.”

Also read: Jakobsen undergoes reconstructive surgery on jaw

Jakobsen was lucky. He escaped Poland with what could have been even worse injuries, and though he would spend months undergoing surgeries and rehabilitation, the overall integrity of his racing motor was still largely intact.

His innate racing skills and tremendous power that saw him emerge as one of the fastest and most successful Dutch sprinters in a generation were still there.

What was shattered was his self-confidence and his nerve. Sprinting is a dangerous game even in the best of times, but coming back from a horrific crash is hard for any professional. Some never recover the nerves of steel required to go elbow-to-elbow at 70kph at the end of a WorldTour bunch sprint.

With support of family, friends, doctors and his team, Jakobsen worked back slowly. First, he wanted to fully recovery physically, and only joined his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates on select training camps.

He surprised many by returning to racing at the Presidential Tour of Turkey in May. While his teammate Mark Cavendish kicked to four stage victories in what was a very different type of comeback, one that led the British star back to the Tour de France in late June, Jakobsen was content to slowly build up his confidence by remaining hidden in the bunch.

“Once I started on the training camps, I had to realize that it was going to be a long way back, not just a couple of weeks,” he said. “My team told me to go slow and take my time. In the first races I was a bit scared in the bunch sprints, because it’s hectic and the speeds are high and it’s always possible to crash again.”

No rush to truly mix it up in the sprints

The 24-year-old didn’t contest any sprints at the Volta ao Algarve or the Critérium du Dauphiné in May and June. It wasn’t at the Tour of Wallonie in late July that he could muster the confidence to really test himself in the dangerous high-speed sprints.

“When I had the physical level, I could test it mentally if I still had it,” he said “At Wallonie, that’s when I realized I can win physically and mentally.”

He won two stages there, results that confirmed he was ready for the Vuelta, the race where he’d  won two stages, including the finale in Madrid, in his grand tour debut in 2019.

Surrounded by key lead-out men Zdenek Stybar, Bert Van Lerberghe and Florian Sénéchel who were with him in Wallonie, Jakobsen returned to the Vuelta with his confidence and his speed back to his pre-race levels.

He’s a different kind of racer.

Sprinting is inherently dangerous, and now he’s trying to find the right balance between taking risks and measuring outcomes. He’ll no longer blindly dive into openings.

“It always changes when something like that happens,” he said. “I am more focused on the race. I don’t touch my brakes more, but I keep a little more distance than I did before, because I realized when you crash, you don’t improve. When you stay on the bike you can still win and you can improve.

“When you can crash, you cannot win,” he said. “As a sprinter you also realize if you brake too much you are in a position when you will never win any more. I am more focused and just a little bit more careful.”

What did change emphatically was his outlook on life. When you almost lose everything, every little thing means more.

His concept of pain is altered. At its essence, cycling is about pain, but Jakobsen endured a different kind of pain when he was fighting for his life in a Polish hospital bed.

“I don’t want to be whining about it but I spent a month in hospital in Poland,” he said. “It was almost my life, and the pain in cycling is nothing compared to what I went through.

“It changed me a little bit as a person, and my limit for pain is a bit higher. It still hurts to be on the bike, but the reward now is higher. This is what I like to do, I like to race, to win, to be with the team, and the pain in the last 500m is nothing compared to the surgery or the pain when I was intensive care.”

The pain is now in the rearview mirror. Jakobsen wants to feel the joy of racing and thrill of victory.