a chapter closed
a celebration of fabio jakobsen, and la vuelta stage four
How many times could it all have been over?
Had he not smashed into that unfortunate UCI commissaire, he likely would have careened headfirst into the finish gantry, and the day’s events might have been even more horrifying and tragic.
As it was, he tumbled to a halt, landing in a mangled heap between the uprooted, inadequate barriers. He was helpless, lying there on the tarmac in Katowice, choking on his own blood as horrified bystanders stared, too traumatized to move.
His life hung in the balance for five hours as he lay on that operating table in an induced coma, breathing through a ventilator. After that, he suffered through the most miserable days of his life, floating in and out of consciousness in the ICU, unable to remember why any of this was happening or ask for an explanation.
Most of us have contemplated the end in the abstract. Fabio Jakobsen has done it in much more concrete terms.
How many times did giving up seem like the sane option?
His skull was fractured, his brain and lungs contused, his once boyish features rendered unrecognizable, his palate and jaw broken, and ten of his teeth missing.
He must have just about lost count of the surgeries.
He threw himself wholeheartedly into his rehabilitation, and recovered at a rate that, by all accounts, is a credit to his unique resolve. Once he was strong enough to get back on the bike, his reward was being confronted with the reality that he’d gone from seventy kilometer per hour finales against the best sprinters in the world, to barely being able to handle what he would previously have considered a recovery ride.
He wasn’t deterred.
By April, before he’d even had his new teeth implanted, he was back with his teammates, riding in support of a resurgent Mark Cavendish in the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey. He wasn’t strong enough to play a role in the closing kilometers, but he didn’t seem bothered — he was focused on a finish line further down the road.
How many times did he hear the same questions?
The cycling world is in his corner. We have cheered him along through each step of his recovery, and celebrated each moral victory. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find a figure with a higher approval rating in the entire sport.
And yet, he could be forgiven for feeling as though for all the support, we have perhaps lacked the belief to match.
“That last few percent that determines who wins and loses in a sprint… that’s the hardest to get back. Can he get there?” we wondered, reasonably. “When he’s in a final, and he sees the gap closing, will he still go for it, or will he brake?”
These patronizing if good-natured questions might have worn on him. You wouldn’t have known it. He has continually flashed his handsome, newly restored smile through it all. His face still bears some scarring, but he has begun to look like himself again. That face has betrayed no frustration with any repetitive line of questioning or inadvertent slight; only a quiet determination.
Then, suddenly, he was a winner again.
At the Tour de Wallonie, he took two stages at a canter, blowing away his competition. Not only was he now able to survive until the final, the finishing kick that had established him as the sport’s fastest-rising sprinter was back. Like Cavendish earlier in the year, he was authoring one of the great comeback stories in the history of the sport. Coming into La Vuelta, all that remained was to confirm it in a Grand Tour setting.
On stage two, he was more than strong enough, but the couple of pedal strokes he was forced to skip while making his way around Michael Matthews slowed him just enough to allow Jasper Philipsen to take the win. If he was disappointed, it hardly showed. He was the fastest man in the race, and he knew it.
On stage four, there would be no mistakes. He was so much faster than everyone else that it defies pretending as though there was any suspense. On the strength of Groupama FDJ’s sprint train for Arnaud Demare and an uncharacteristically shaky performance from his own lead-out, Jakobsen found himself isolated entering the final uphill drag with a few hundred kilometers remaining.
It didn’t matter in the slightest.
Any questions about how he would fare against elite competition, or whether he was still willing to get his elbows out in a tense final were answered in one go. When Demare went a touch too early with a hundred and fifty meters to go, Jakobsen closed the gap and claimed his wheel, fending off Magnus Cort Nielsen. Then, shooting through the gap between them, he came bursting free on the left side, leaving Demare in the lurch and winning by a bike length.
It was the sort of brave, dominant performance he produced with regularity before the crash — at long last, a return to normalcy — an idea that didn’t seem to be lost on him.
“We can all say this is the end of my comeback,” he said post-race. While the accident will always be part of my life, now I can put it behind me and go again for the sprint finishes, because that’s what I’m good at.”
In all these months, it’s the first he’s indicated his understandable eagerness to close this chapter of his life. That’s his prerogative, and I don’t think anyone can reasonably fault him for looking forward to the day when he’s done fielding questions about something that upended his entire existence; something he never chose.
Still, this is a moment, and one that deserves to be celebrated accordingly. This time last year, it was entirely reasonable to wonder if Fabio Jakobsen would ever lead a normal existence again, and his cycling prospects were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Now, he has not only claimed his second lease on life, but reasserted himself as one of the world’s best.
Chapeau, Fabio. It’s good to have you back.