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Fabio Jakobsen: From hospital bed to peloton

Charting Fabio Jakobsen's remarkable return to the peloton eight months after a horrific crash at the Tour of Poland.

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It felt like a minor miracle he was even there.

There was hardly a dry eye in the house when Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) made his highly anticipated return to the peloton at the Tour of Turkey last Sunday.

It was just eight months after his horrific crash at the Tour of Poland on August 5.

Anyone who witnessed Jakobsen when burst through the poorly constructed barriers at unfathomable speeds will be unlikely to forget it in a hurry.

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The incident left him with a shockingly long shopping list of injuries. A brain contusion, fractured skull, broken nose, a torn and broken palate, bits of both his upper and lower jaw knocked out, missing teeth, a broken thumb, a large cut to his auricle, a damaged vocal cord, and contusions to his lung and shoulder.

Even now, as he makes his return, the scars from that day are still visible. He’s still missing pretty much all his front teeth while he waits for his new implants, which won’t be coming for at least two months, and his nose and mouth have taken some knocks.

Fabio Jakobsen crashes during the Tour of Poland
Fabio Jakobsen crashes during the Tour of Poland Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

It’s no surprise that those who saw the Dutchman laying on the tarmac feared the worst.

That day has had wider ramifications for cycling and is likely to continue to do so. Since the crash, Dylan Groenewegen was given a nine-month suspension and the finish where it happened has been banned under new UCI safety measures, though the organizer has stood by its decision to host it there.

Meanwhile, Jakobsen has been on a journey of rehabilitation.

The aftermath

Riders and cycling fans become accustomed to seeing crashes on a regular basis and it can be easy to pass off the seriousness of an injury, but it was immediately clear this was no ordinary racing incident.

Jakobsen had gone through the barriers, which broke apart under the impact at an alarming rate, and collided with an official stood on the other side. Mercifully, he would ultimately be ok.

“[The official] stood filming behind a barrier, and he basically acted as a human shock absorber. If he hadn’t been there, I would have hit the finish barrier hard and probably wouldn’t have been here today to tell the tale,” Jakobsen would say in an interview with Dutch publication AD several months after the crash.

Also read: Fabio Jakobsen speaks of his Tour of Poland crash, recovery and future

Before anyone could consider Jakobsen getting back on a bike, let alone return to racing, life-saving intervention was required. The then-23-year-old had to be placed in an induced coma and underwent five hours of facial surgery during his first night in the hospital.

It was two days before he was brought out of his coma and a week before he could leave intensive care to return to his native Netherlands.

Amazingly, he had avoided any major injury to the lower part of his body, and he was able to walk to the plane, but he couldn’t talk due to his injuries.

“Everyone has seen what a heavy fall this was,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step doctor Yvan Vanmol told Belgian broadcaster Sporza at the time. “If you now see that Fabio is mobile again, that he can stand up again, that he has no fractures to his lower limbs, yes: then you can safely speak of a miracle.”

The recovery

Once Jakobsen was out of critical care, the next few months were about building him back up. He had a serious brain contusion to recover from, and his face and mouth would need further reconstructive surgery.

One of those procedures required bone to be taken from his pelvis and put in his upper and lower jaw to replace what had been lost in the crash. A second surgery to insert implants into his jaw, in which his new teeth would eventually be placed, would be done later.

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In a press conference ahead of the Tour of Turkey, Jakobsen said he lost about five to six kilos during his weeklong stay in a Polish hospital and the injuries to his jaw made it “hard to eat it all back”. During the first eight weeks of his recovery, Jakobsen had to rely heavily on his partner Delore Stougje to feed and wash him.

“My girlfriend has been the biggest helper in my recovery, without her I wouldn’t be here,” Jakobsen said.

By the end of November, just under four months after the crash, Jakobsen returned to training. It didn’t take long before the Dutchman started dreaming of getting back into the peloton.

Once a racer, always a racer.

The mind can often get ahead of the body and Jakobsen still had a long way to go before he could be “race ready”. The first outings were tentative “coffee rides” with no intensity, Jakobsen said. They were about getting his feeling for the bike again.

In early December, Jakobsen met up with his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates for the first time since his crash at a training camp in Calpe. When he saw them again at another camp just a month later, he was gaining momentum with his training. So much so that they too believed in his imminent return.

“I have been training with him recently and he looks really good,” Michael Mørkøv told Danish website in January. “I do not think it will be long before he is at the forefront of the races again.”

“It motivates me that they say things like that. I think everyone has a little doubt in themselves, but they convinced me to keep going and see what happens,” Jakobsen said of his teammates’ support.

There was still more surgery to come, to insert the implant, and Jakobsen would have to take a step back from training as his body recovered once again.

The return

A lot can be written about the physical recovery that Jakobsen has made over the last eight months but his mental recovery has been just as remarkable, too.

In the same way that we do with the physical injuries from a crash, we expect riders to be able to brush off mental injuries that can often come with these incidents. But riders aren’t robots.

A visible sign of perhaps just how much the crash has affected Jakobsen mentally was the picture of him checking in on Noah Granigan of Wildlife Generation Pro Cycling after the American was caught up in a horrible crash at the end of stage 4 of the Tour of Turkey.

Also read: US rider inspired by Fabio Jakobsen after harrowing Tour of Turkey crash

Though it did not have the velocity of Jakobsen’s incident in Poland, there were striking similarities as Granigan burst through barriers. In another time, Jakobsen may have rolled on through to the finish line, concerned but confident that the medical staff were doing their job.

After his experience in Poland, Jakobsen felt compelled to go over to Granigan to ensure he was ok.

It has also been clear to see that Jakobsen’s crash did not just have an impact on himself but on the riders around him. He was greeted like a long-lost friend during the opening stage in Turkey.

“Many riders – some of my generation, but also some older ones – came to me to exchange some words and it was a very touching moment when they told me how happy they were to see me back and how they all wished me well. It was special for me too, it feels good to be back,” Jakobsen said after the opening stage.

“After the stage, I checked my phone and I saw the messages I got from so many riders and fans, to whom I want to thank very much. It’s emotional to see all this outpouring of support on this special day.”

Jakobsen’s path to recovery is not over yet. He is still waiting for his new teeth and it’s not clear how his previously paralyzed vocal cord will behave when he takes part in a full-out sprint, something he has not done yet.

Then there is just how will he react when he is in the swirling melee of a bunch gallop and he finds himself close to the barriers.

There is every chance that we could see Jakobsen on the winner’s podium again this year, but we should not expect it nor impose it on him. He is young and there is plenty of time to heal.