In August 2020, Fabio Jakobsen was fighting for his life in a Polish hospital. In August 2021, he won a stage of the Vuelta a España, his third win of the year since his return to racing in May.
Riders like Jakobsen make sprinting look easy. They surf the wheels and navigate the bunch with such finesse that we often don’t catch a glimpse of them until around 150 metres before the end of the stage. Then, they produce a few strong, powerful pedal strokes, hitting the finish line with just enough time to spare for a perfectly rehearsed victory salute. They thank their teammates and staff afterwards, celebrating with such energy you wouldn’t have guessed they’d just spent three or four hours racing at the highest level in the world.
Images of those joyous moments are then captured by opportunistic photographers before getting plastered on social media and gracing the sports pages of newspapers. The riders then do it all over again a few days later. These are the images we like to see. They tell a happy story, one of triumph and elation. They show us athletes performing superhuman feats that we can only gawp at and admire from the comfort of our homes. These are the images that go up on living room walls and are shown to grandchildren generations later.
Jakobsen winning Stage 4 of the 2021 Vuelta a España (Image: Getty)
But, when riders produce such impressive sprints, like Fabio Jakobsen did today in the Vuelta, although we love to talk about the win, it’s important to remember what it has taken to reach such a moment. The images that came some months before those of today’s victory, for Jakobsen especially, were not quite so auspicious. In fact, they painted a far bleaker picture.
When the Dutch rider had that fateful crash in Poland, on the 5th August 2020, those closest to him questioned if he would ever recover from the induced coma he was put in due to the extent of his injuries. A brain contusion, skull fracture, broken nose, torn palate, the loss of 10 teeth, and loss of parts of his upper and lower jaw were just some of the wounds he suffered. It’s hard to look back on such a horrific accident, but, to truly appreciate the breathtaking strength the 24-year-old has shown during his recovery, the seriousness of his crash must be understood.
Jakobsen had facial reconstruction surgery and multiple other treatments during his 9 month recovery period. “The surgery involves placing bone, taken from my pelvic crest, in my upper and lower jaw, because a lot of bone is missing there. This bone will have to heal for several months. After that, another surgery will take place to put implants in my jaw so that I can get new teeth, as I lost them during my crash,” he wrote on his Instagram in an update to many concerned fans.
Crash in the Tour of Poland 2020 (Image: Biondi/LB/RB/CorVos/SWpix.com)
For Jakobsen even to recover fully to return to normality would have been a huge achievement in itself. His body went through trauma that is unfathomable, but perhaps equally as tough are the mental effects of such an ordeal. We were all happy to see him return home from Poland and indescribable relief washed over the cycling community when it was announced that he had woken up from his coma. Afterwards, if Jakobsen never wished to return to racing, it would have been an understandable and well-supported decision.
But, here he is, taking a victory in a Grand Tour stage just over one year after that disastrous day. He’s winning with confidence and skill and getting better and better by the race. His positioning in today’s stage was supreme, his timing exceptional. His talent is raw and his potential is exciting. As he crossed the line hands aloft in Molina de Aragón after producing a dominating sprint, it was hard to imagine there was ever the question of whether this rider would race again.
There are more opportunities to come in the weeks ahead for Jakobsen, with sprint stages aplenty in this year’s Vuelta. As for the rest of his career, who knows how far this young man with fast legs could go. But, even as we look ahead to the future and enjoy Jakobsen’s victories, we should never forget what he has had to overcome to return to this point. It’s a story of such strength, bravery and determination, and one that deserves its place in the history books of our sport.