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Cav vs. Fab: The battle of the QuickStep sprinters

Which sprinter should QuickStep take to the Tour de France: the ‘Comeback King’ Mark Cavendish or the ‘Miracle Man’ Fabio Jakobsen?

Richard Moore
10 May 2022

When Fabio Jakobsen finished his opening time-trial at the start of last year’s Vuelta a España in Burgos, he came coughing and wheezing his way through the mixed zone, the area where journalists speak to riders beyond the finish line. This journalist called for an interview but Jakobsen appeared to ignore the request. This is not unusual. Plus, it seemed that the 7.1km up-and-down effort through the city had taken it out of him: he was in some distress.

Yet once he had sufficiently recovered, with the coughing fits coming only every 30 seconds or so, he turned around and, riding against the flow of riders finishing their own efforts, made his way back to the journalists.

This is unusual, and perhaps it says quite a lot about Jakobsen. At the time, he was one of the supporting actors as the Vuelta got underway, his story one of the sub-plots to the third Grand Tour of 2021. But it was a fascinating one, given that it was his first three-week race since a horrific crash at the Tour of Poland in 2020 that almost ended his career. That almost ended his life.

Back from the brink

Photo: Chris Auld

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the medical team at the hospital in Poland put him in an induced coma. Jakobsen, who had been sent flying into the barriers after clashing with Dylan Groenewegen in the finishing straight, had suffered a brain contusion, skull fracture, broken nose and torn palate, and lost ten teeth as well as parts of his upper and lower jaw.

For months there was little news and there were no pictures of Jakobsen. His recovery, if indeed he was recovering at all, took place behind a respectful veil of privacy, although inevitably the secrecy fuelled speculation about his state of health and even the possibility of permanent disfigurement.

Over the winter he attended a QuickStep training camp in southern Spain. He was back on his bike and training, we were told. But it was made clear that he was taking baby steps and that any return to racing might be some months away.

It wasn’t clear whether that was realistic. Never mind the physical side of sprinting, what about the mental part? How on earth could Jakobsen ever again get involved in the jostling and barging of a bunch sprint, when in Poland he had been sent sprawling into barriers face-first at almost 80kmh?

Photo: QuickStep Alpha Vinyl

Also at the camp in Calpe in southern Spain that winter was Mark Cavendish, who had re-joined the Belgian team and was attempting his own resurrection; his less dramatic, perhaps, but in some respects just as unlikely. While one sprinter was attempting to overcome debilitating injuries and trauma, the other was – on the face of it – trying to turn back time.

Neither man was the team’s top sprinter, or even close to it. The undisputed number one fast man at QuickStep was Sam Bennett, winner of two stages and the green jersey at the previous year’s Tour de France.

Few, then, would have bet on Cavendish and Jakobsen usurping the Irish sprinter; fewer still would have dared imagine that the pair would win seven Grand Tour stages and the points jerseys in the Tour de France and Vuelta between them, while Bennett, at least as far as QuickStep were concerned, slipped into oblivion.

With the benefit of hindsight we can debate whether Cavendish or Jakobsen seemed a more likely comeback king 12 months ago. The truth is that few – not even team boss Patrick Lefevere in his wildest dreams – could have foreseen what would take place in France and Spain over the summer of 2021.

Year of miracles

This is something that’s worth remembering when we look ahead to this year’s Tour and speculate about whether, as seems likely, Jakobsen will line up as QuickStep’s sprinter at the expense of Cavendish, who would thus be denied the opportunity to add to his 34 stage wins and beat the record he currently shares with Eddy Merckx.

Lefevere called Jakobsen’s return to racing at last April’s Tour of Turkey ‘a miracle’. Almost as miraculous was the fact that Cavendish won four stages, his first victories since February 2018.

In Turkey Jakobsen simply did what he could to help his team, though, as Cavendish explained, ‘We’re here only with six riders and Fabio is not able to go deep into the finales so we only have five guys.’

Nevertheless, Turkey started Jakobsen’s comeback and jump-started Cavendish’s career. The British sprinter went on to take an impressive stage win at the Baloise Tour of Belgium and, as Bennett struggled with injury, forced his way into the QuickStep team for the Tour de France.

Jakobsen, meanwhile, continued his gradual return. He went to the Tour of the Algarve in May, the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, and in late July, at the Tour de Wallonie, he tasted victory once again, winning Stages 2 and 5. He was back, and he was off to the Vuelta, where, in 2019, he won his only Grand Tour stages – although that was before the crash with Groenewegen.

In Burgos, after the opening stage time-trial, he cut an uncertain figure.

Photo: Charly Lopez/ASO

‘We don’t do it often – ten minutes all out,’ he said, apologising for having ignored the request for an interview and explaining that it had taken more out of him than he had anticipated. ‘It’s a good feeling to be back here, up on the ramp and starting a Grand Tour, even if afterwards it was a little bit painful,’ he added. ‘I’m happy to be here.’

How competitive did he imagine he could be, in a field that included some decent sprinters?

‘I’m a little bit below my old level,’ said Jakobsen. ‘I haven’t had the same build-up as other guys. I would say I’m getting close but I’m not quite there yet. It’s something I’d like to achieve by the end of this year or next year.’

And how did he feel about getting involved in bunch sprints at Grand Tour level, and the possibility of crashing?

‘I’m quite OK with it,’ he said. ‘Cycling is a dangerous sport and there’s always the possibility you can crash. I’m not scared to crash. I’m scared to end up in barriers or crash like I did, but I’m paying more attention to other riders now, to what they’re doing.’

Finally, he said, he was inspired by his teammate, Cavendish, whose four stage wins and green jersey at the Tour de France had been hailed as the comeback of the century: ‘It’s a beautiful comeback. I admire him. It’s a fairytale. Green jersey, four stages. I aim to do something similar, hopefully.’

Back to the big dog

It was interesting to watch Jakobsen over the course of the Vuelta. There were the stage wins, on Stages 4, 8 and 16, but there was also an evident change in his demeanour and his confidence.

Most striking of all was Jakobsen’s reaction at the end of Stage 13, won by his teammate, Florian Sénéchal. In the final kilometres, with the peloton strung out, Jakobsen lost his leadout train, but the team pressed on regardless and his usual leadout man, Sénéchal, took victory in the sprint.

It should have been a triumphant moment for the team, but Jakobsen didn’t look too happy. When he met Sénéchal behind the podium his displeasure was evident in his dark demeanour: ‘Congrats, but if you don’t look behind, you are not a leadout man,’ he reprimanded Sénéchal, who looked suitably deflated in what should have been his finest hour.

This was Jakobsen, no longer the underdog clawing his way back but the alpha sprinter, leader of the Wolfpack, as QuickStep like to be known.

Photo: Charly Lopez/ASO

In Santiago de Compostela, at the end of the Vuelta and after another time-trial, Jakobsen stopped once again in the mixed zone. In some respects he seemed like a different person to the tentative, apprehensive rider who had spoken in Burgos three weeks earlier.

‘It’s quite symbolic to start in Burgos in front of the cathedral and make it all the way to Santiago like a pilgrim,’ he said. ‘I felt like that a bit, I guess.

‘I suffered a lot along the way, especially in the heat and on the climbs, but to be here with three stage wins and the green jersey, it’s the best feeling in the world.

‘Everyone is talking about a comeback and of course I’m happy that I am back, but as an athlete you want to get back to your best level,’ he added. ‘As a cyclist you need a Grand Tour in your legs. That’s why I wanted to come here, to look ahead to the next years and the next Grand Tour.’

And for Jakobsen, that currently looks almost certain to be the 2022 Tour de France.

First among equals

Photo: Stuart Franklin via Getty

With Bennett having left, moving ‘back home’ to Bora-Hansgrohe, Jakobsen and Cavendish are now firmly established as their team’s top two sprinters. Indeed, in the first couple of months of the 2022 season there was a strong case to be made for them being the best two sprinters in the world.

Cavendish won stages at the Tour of Oman and UAE Tour and then in mid-March sprinted impressively to Milano-Torino, becoming the first-ever British winner of the world’s oldest one-day Classic. Jakobsen, meanwhile, won in Valencia, in Algarve, at Paris-Nice, and he also won a Classic, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, with an improvised and audacious sprint as the breakaway looked set to stay clear.

Jakobsen was more prolific than Cavendish; his wins were also more emphatic. Which merely seemed to confirm the decision made over the winter – to send Jakobsen to the Tour and Cavendish to the Giro.

Yet as Cavendish began winning, and winning in style, and with the possibility of him beating Merckx’s record, a potential plot twist began to prove irresistible. It was one that pitted the comeback kings against each other, locked in battle for the spot that every sprinter desires – as QuickStep’s protected rider at the Tour de France.

On the surface it might look like a civilised affair. Jakobsen is polite and diplomatic and Cavendish is all about the team, especially a team that he has repeatedly described in such warm, loving terms. But if anyone imagines that Cavendish is fine with the prospect of missing the Tour, or that Jakobsen is relaxed about the speculation around Cavendish going, they should think again. Cavendish is said to be burning with frustration at the situation, even if there isn’t an obvious solution.

Photo: Chris Auld

His biggest problem, although he cannot say it, is the form of Jakobsen, whose growth – in confidence, in stature, in status and reputation – has continued. If Jakobsen was uncertain and diffident at the start of last year’s Vuelta then assured by the end, at the conclusion to Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in late February he exuded self-belief.

But not arrogance. There was none of that as the Dutchman – who even looks broader, taller and more muscular these days – strode into the press room for a post-race conference.

How did it feel to be the fastest man in the world at the moment, he was asked. ‘It feels good,’ he smiled. It was a question designed to trip him up but he responded with good humour and without a moment’s hesitation.

There was no doubt in Jakobsen’s mind, either about this or the fact that he should go to the Tour at the expense of the rider who so inspired him last July.

‘Do I feel guilty towards Mark?’ Jakobsen had said in January, speaking at the team’s training camp in Calpe. ‘Yes, although guilty isn’t the right word. Because I think I deserve it too. And if I’m not good enough, I don’t go.

‘Cavendish knows that the Tour is my goal and that he will ride the Giro himself. But he is ready as a reserve. He can do that like no other and I think he’s happy with that role.’

In reality no sprinter would be happy in that role, although there is little the Briton can do about his circumstances. Not when Jakobsen appears to be the sport’s pre-eminent sprinter.

Nothing is set in stone, least of all team selections. Things can change, as both Cavendish and Jakobsen know. But for the moment it looks like the Tour will be deprived of one compelling story – Cavendish’s quest to overhaul Merckx.

It is, however, set to be blessed with another: the extraordinary and astonishing resurgence of a rider who, less than 24 months earlier, lay in a coma in a hospital in Poland, lucky just to be alive.

Main image: Stuart Franklin via Getty

RIP Richard Moore, 1973-2022

Richard died on 28th March 2022, a few days after submitting this article for publication in Cyclist magazine.

We have been lucky enough to know Richard and feature his words in these pages every issue for the past four years, and it is still hard to believe that this will be his last article for Cyclist.

His knowledge of the sport of cycling was unrivalled, and his was one of the most respected and admired voices in cycling journalism. 

A talented cyclist in his own right, Richard competed for Scotland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. Later he took up his pen to write about the sport for newspapers including The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Scotsman, as well as a host of cycling magazines. 

A prolific author, he wrote numerous books on the topic, including Slaying The Badger and the award-winning In Search Of Robert Millar.

Richard was also a founder and presenter of The Cycling Podcast, which set the standard for all sports podcasts that followed. Most of all, he was a pleasure to work with – charming, funny, professional and with a deep love of cycling.

Richard Moore was one of the good guys. He will be sorely missed by everyone at Cyclist, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.

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