La Vuelta a Espana 2021: Deceuninck-QuickStep’s emotional rollercoaster continues with Fabio Jakobsen’s win
After Mark Cavendish’s sensational Tour de France comeback in July the tears of joy kept flowing for Deceuninck-QuickStep as Fabio Jakobsen took a stirring Stage 4 win in La Vuelta one year after almost losing his life in the Tour de Pologne. Felix Lowe looks back on what was an emotional fourth stage.
Vuelta a España : Stage 4 highlights as Jakobsen sprints to victory to take green jersey
Back in April, Fabio Jakobsen was part of the Deceuninck-QuickStep team that helped Mark Cavendish get back to winning ways in the Tour of Turkey. Without a win in over three years, the Manx Missile won three stages on the bounce, then added a fourth on the last day to pull the curtain down on a dark period of his career blotted by bouts of depression as he fought the debilitating Epstein Barr virus.
As the seeds of Cavendish’s remarkable return to the Tour de France were sown in Turkey, Jakobsen’s highest finish in his own first race for eight months was 39th place. Not that it mattered. The race offered the 24-year-old Dutchman the opportunity to gradually reintegrate himself into the peloton as part of a winning team and the chance to draw a line under a far bleaker place: a medically induced coma following a high-speed crash that saw Jakobsen fighting for his life.
His injuries after being controversially shown the door by compatriot Dylan Groenewegen on the downhill sprint at Katowice in the Tour de Pologne last August included a brain contusion, skull fracture, broken nose, torn palate, the loss of 10 teeth, and loss of parts of his upper and lower jaw. It was a miracle that he survived, let alone returned to cycling the following season.
Given the physical and psychological obstacles he had to overcome this year, it was hardly surprising that Jakobsen rode the Volta ao Algarve and Criterium du Dauphine to little acclaim following his return at Turkey. His best result of 86th place meant that when Deceuninck-QuickStep’s top sprinter, the Irishman Sam Bennett, was ruled out of the Tour, it was to Cavendish – a rider who hadn’t won in five years at the world's biggest bike race – and not to the Dutchman that Patrick Lefevere turned.
WATCH - Every single one of Mark Cavendish's 34 Tour de France stage wins
Lefevere’s decision was vindicated when Cavendish wrote one of the stories of the summer by drawing level with Eddy Merckx’s Tour stage record with a staggering four wins in France. There was not a dry eye in the house as Cav ended his drought and struck for the first time at Fougeres, doubling up two days later at Chateauroux – the city where his first Tour win had come 13 years previously.
Although the 36-year-old was unable to complete the fairytale by going one better than Merckx with a 35th win while securing the green jersey in Paris, what Cavendish has already achieved over the course of those three weeks looked like they would be unrivalled in the sentimental stakes this season.
But just three days after the Tour ended, Jakobsen picked up his first win since that God-awful crash in Stage 2 of the Tour de Wallonie. Over a field that symbolically also included his compatriot Groenewegen, Jakobsen added a second on the last day of the race. If this was proof that Jakobsen still had what it took to sprint at the top level, he still needed to prove it on the biggest platform at a Grand Tour.
That brace of wins secured Jakobsen’s ticket to Spain, where his story – a year after coming out of that coma – came full circle: from fighting for his life to fighting for Vuelta stage wins. It was Stage 4 of the Vuelta in 2019 where Jakobsen had notched the first Grand Tour stage win of his career. And it was Stage 4 two years later where he capped a comeback in stunning fashion with a win that even put a smile on the face of the man he beat, Arnaud Demare.
'In the melee he got through it all' - Jakobsen takes Stage 4 win after thrilling sprint finish
He’d come close on the opening sprint of the race, losing out to Belgium’s Jasper Philipsen at Burgos in Stage 2. But at Molina de Aragon, in the shadow of the splendid 12th century fortress, Jakobsen pulled off a win that was even more popular than any of Cavendish’s four in France. It was a victory which had both rivals and teammates alike queuing up to congratulate a man who’d been to hell and back.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Jakobsen in a stirring post-race interview before taking the time to graciously thank all those people who contributed to his continued existence on this planet and his restored place in the peloton.
“After the crash it was a long way back but I’m happy I’m here. A lot of time and effort has gone into this by a lot of other people and I think this is also their victory. I’m talking about all the doctors and surgeons and medical staff in Poland, my second family here at the team, and everybody in between. This is also their victory, and also my family’s victory, for they are the reason I’m here.”
If Jakobsen wasn’t shedding the tears that we saw streaming down Cavendish’s face, then we, the fans, were.
'It's a dream come true' - Fabio Jakobsen reflects on Stage 4 Vuelta win
Of course, being the gentleman that he is, Jakobsen was quick to praise his opponent Demare – “the guy to beat today” – and also thanked his Deceuninck-QuickStep team, who “had faith in me from the beginning … I’m just happy I can repay them because this is also their victory.”
For some of his teammates, like the Frenchman Florian Senechal, whose quick actions in Poland stopped Jakobsen choking on his own blood, it was also a moment to cherish. “A year ago I helped Fabio to stay alive,” Senechal tweeted. “Today I helped him win. I feel proud and send my respects to him and his family.”
To add the icing to the cake, Jakobsen secured the green jersey, which he was able to don while taking a call from his grandfather.
The win was also celebrated from afar by QuickStep manager Lefevere who, for all his faults with the handling of Bennett’s departure and the crass comments he made regarding the Irishman’s forthcoming return to Bora-Hansgrohe, has now presided over two of the genuine feel-good stories of the season.
And it was not just the bubble of the peloton and the Wolfpack where the emotion hit home, but with the journalists covering the sport and still scarred by what they saw on that fateful day in Poland.
That Fabio Jakobsen is still with us is a miracle in itself; that he will be favourite to win back-to-back stage wins on the Vuelta on Wednesday’s fifth stage to Albacete, while in the green jersey, is something the whole world can celebrate with open arms. That he is doing this so soon after Mark Cavendish made us dream at the Tour de France is something even the most schmaltzy of scriptwriters would have struggled to come up with.
It now seems inconceivable that there were ever doubts surrounding the likelihood of Jakobsen racing again. That’s no reflection on his talent or ability or bravery, but the stark reality of just how bad his injuries were. And it underlines how far Jakobsen has come on a journey that was not of his own making, but one which has not left him broken. Both he and his team – not just Deceuninck-QuickStep but all those around him and involved in his return – deserve a huge amount of credit for that. And the brilliant thing? This may well just be the beginning.