The 106th edition of Scheldeprijs added a new name to its list of winners on Wednesday: Fabio Jakobsen, the 21-year-old cub in Patrick Lefevere's 'wolfpack', extending Quick-Step Floors' winning streak to 24 so far this season - a record even directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters called "extreme".
In a race battered by crosswinds, broken into echelons, and hit by a mass disqualification when a group passed through a level crossing as the gates began to close, there were only 40 riders left to contest the sprint. Not among them: Dylan Groenewegen and Arnaud Démare, who were among the disqualified, and defending champion Marcel Kittel, who punctured in the final kilometres.
It did not matter to Jakobsen that he lacked a few foes in the finish: "Being able to put my name on the list of winners is super cool. This is the most beautiful win of my career," Jakobsen said.
"All the boys from the wolfpack rode so hard. I had to finish it off. We're in the winning mood and that makes it easier." Jakobsen's loyal friends will be delighted with his win. "I think some friends placed a bet for a win from me. They do it for the fun of it but I'll surely hear more about it pretty soon."
Before the Scheldeprijs, Jakobsen stated that it wasn't decided for which sprinter the team would work on Wednesday. He was slated to work for Elia Viviani, but the Italian skipped the race to add some extra rest after adding last week's Belgian races to his calendar. After Alvaro Hodeg worked for him in Nokere Koerse, which Jakobsen won in March, Jakobsen returned the favour, delivering Hodeg to victory in the Handzame Classic. The team planned to repeat with Hodeg as a lead-out on Wednesday, but the duties fell to Zdenek Stybar and Michael Mørkøv after the Colombian punctured.
"The tactic was to go for one rider. Alvaro was supposed to do the lead-out for me today," Jakobsen explained. "It's too bad that he punctured late in the race, just like Kittel. In our team, we always decide before the race who we're riding for. In Handzame I was pulling for him and now it was the other way around, so that we both get our chances."
A sprinter with guts
The 21-year-old rider hails from the Zeeland province in the Netherlands, and was named after Fabio Casartelli by his cycling-enthusiast parents. "He died the year before I was born. Obviously, he was a good rider."
Jakobsen joined Quick-Step after riding for the SEG Racing Academy for three years, and was honoured to join the legendary Belgian team for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
"When Patrick makes you an offer, then it's like the Godfather: it's an offer you can't refuse," he said back then.
Lefevere told Wielerflits he signed Jakobsen after being approached by his former team. "I've got good contacts with SEG [Racing Academy]. They do a lot for young riders, just like us. Sometimes, you're being offered a rider and you say no. Sometimes, you're being offered someone and you say, maybe yes. We followed and checked him. He's got guts. As a sprinter, I think he's got capabilities for the Flemish races too," Lefevere said.
After the Scheldeprijs, Wilfried Peeters described Jakobsen as ambitious. "He wants to win. He quickly adapted to the team tactics. We said we would race for him in Nokere. Deal. Then we said we would race for Hodeg in Handzame. Deal. Then we said it was for him in the Scheldeprijs. Beating Kittel would be difficult but we aimed for a sprint and a top-three. It's a pity for Kittel," Peeters told Cyclingnews after the Scheldeprijs near the team bus in Schoten.
When asked about the winning streak of the team, Peeters recalled a year where he was in a winning mood as a rider. "With MG we won Harelbeke, Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem and Ronde. But that was a long time ago. This is extreme," Peeters said.
Jakobsen is realistic about his goals for the near-term, knowing that he's low down in the pecking order even with two fine victories this season.
He's shown that he is able to cope well with the typical Flemish obstacles, battling the wind, rain, narrow roads or pavé.
Although Groenewegen was disqualified from the race, Jakobsen admires him as a role model and hopes to follow in his compatriot's footsteps.
"I've got fast legs but I need to become stronger like him. Sometimes I'm suffering a lot. That'll come with the years. I hope that in a few years time, I'll be as good as he is right now. My dream is to win a stage in the Tour de France. For a sprint, that's the highest level where you can win. I hope I can continue to progress as a rider. I like cycling a lot. I love it and obviously you want to keep getting better," Jakobsen said.
Regarding the disqualification, Groenewegen claimed the front group, led by Quick-Step, also passed the level crossing as the lights came on, something Jakobsen denied. "We were crossing the rails but in the first group nothing was going on. Then, I heard through the race radio that the riders rode through. That's not smart.
"Could it happen to you? Sure, we behave like a herd in those moments. If one goes, everybody else is thinking about keeping up. Safety is the priority of course because if a train comes, then it doesn't have a happy end," Jakobsen said. When asked if he really didn't cross too late, Jakobsen repeated. "We heard that it would be tight and they told us to keep an eye on the lights, but in our group that wasn't the case."