The following interview was conducted by Thijs Zonneveld for the Dutch title AD. The full interview below, provided by the author and Fabio Jakobsen, is the full English version of the detailed and moving story of the rider's life-threatening crash at the 2020 Tour de Pologne and his continued comeback.
He wakes up in a hospital bed. Hardly able to move, unable to speak. There’s a tube in his throat. He doesn’t know where he is or what has happened. Three doctors are standing by his bed. They say he’s had surgery and ask if he can move his arms and legs. He can, with some effort. They tell him that he has won the race and ask if he wants to know what he looked like when he was taken in. He nods. One of the doctors shows him a photograph.
“All I saw was blood. It looked like roadkill. I thought: ‘Huh? That’s not at all how I look.’”
Two days earlier, on the 5th of August, Fabio Jakobsen gets on his bike for the first stage of the Tour de Pologne. It’s likely to end in a bunch sprint. A fast and chaotic one.
“For most riders it was the first race after the corona break. I was familiar with the track, I had raced it the year before. Left, right, then straight through Katowice. The finish line was where it always was: on a descending slope. I remember I was in good spirits during the race. I can see myself waving at my mate Julius [van den Berg], who was riding in the leading group. And that I raced towards the last kilometre right behind my teammates Davide Ballerini and Florian Sénéchal. That is the last thing I remember. Everything after that is a blank.”
A thousand kilometres away his girlfriend Delore (22) and her parents are watching TV in the kitchen.
“The last ten kilometres always make me nervous, when the jostling begins. I always go and do something else. I keep listening to the race, but I need some kind of distraction. That day it was the same. I was doing something else until the moment my dad shouted from the kitchen that Fabio was in front and winning. So I hurried back to watch. I saw him sprinting, swerving, and before I knew it he was in the roadside barriers. It all happened so quickly. In the replay I saw him crash into a man and into the finish barrier, his helmet flying from his head. I knew: this is bad. I rang team doctor Yvan Vanmol but he couldn’t tell me anything, except that Fabio was unconscious. On Twitter I only read horror stories. I couldn’t do anything but sit by the TV, praying that he wouldn’t die. After half an hour I packed a suitcase for Poland. Later that same night my phone rang. The team doctor. I let it ring for a while, afraid to answer. I was so afraid that the news was going to be bad, that Fabio was gone.”
Fabio: “It was close.”
TZ: Was your life been in danger?
“My teammate Florian put his bike against a fence and rushed to my aid. He saw me lying on the tarmac, surrounded by collapsed barriers. There was blood everywhere. The bystanders did nothing – they were too shocked by the sight of me. Florian noticed I was choking in my own blood. I was unable to move, he saw the panic in my eyes. In a reflex he lifted my head a little, so that the blood could pour from my mouth and throat. After that I calmed down, he said later. That’s all he can remember, his memory stops there. TV footage shows him crying, just moments later. In the days after the crash he was full of doubt. Was it okay to move my head knowing there was a risk of a spinal cord lesion? It was like choosing between pest and cholera; he chose the lesser of two evils. I was also very lucky that UAE team doctor Dirk Tenner jumped out of his car to help. He used to be an E.R. doctor. He took control of the situation until the rescue helicopter arrived.”
TZ: So these people have saved your life.
“Yes, and so has the UCI official I crashed into. He stood filming behind a barrier, and he basically acted as a human shock absorber. If he hadn’t been there, I would have hit the finish barrier hard and probably wouldn’t have been here today to tell the tale.”
TZ: How is that man doing?
“A bunch of broken ribs, but on the whole he’s okay.”
TZ: On the way to hospital, you were put into a medically induced coma. Have you been dreaming? Hallucinating?
“Nothing. I’ve lost two days. That first night they did surgery on me for five hours and I was put on a ventilator. My first memory after the crash is those three doctors standing by my bed. Everything was hazy at that moment. The next day Delore and my dad came to visit, wearing protective suits and facemasks because of corona. They were flown to Poland by the team, together with my mother, my sister and team Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s psychologist. Them standing before me in those suits, that’s the moment I became fully aware of the situation. I tapped my wrist because I wanted to know the time. They said: it’s Saturday four o’clock. Only then did I realise that it was three days after the crash. And that I was lying in intensive care in a Polish hospital. They don’t put you there for breaking a leg. Delore had brought her cell phone. I typed: Tell me what happened. They explained that I had crashed into the barriers during the sprint.”
Delore: “His face was rectangular. I only recognised a small piece: his eyebrows and lashes. There were sutures and bruises everywhere. His head was shaved, there was a large bruise on it where his brain had thumped against the inside of his skull. There was a tube to drain the brain fluid. He was unable to open his mouth. Later, when I looked inside, there was nothing. Teeth gone, half of his palate gone, part of his jaw gone. I was looking at the inside of his nose.”
Fabio: “I had a lot of trouble breathing, I was afraid I might suffocate because of the cannula, a sort of tube in my throat, but also because of my contused lungs. I was given all kinds of medication that made me drowse off. My feet would get numb, then my pelvis, then my hands and shoulders and eventually I’d doze off. Every time I thought: this is it, I’m dying. I wasn’t, but it felt like I was. That happened fifty, perhaps a hundred times. It was a real fear of dying. It made me panic, fighting to survive, struggling to breathe. That only made things worse. I was given more medication to keep me quiet, which made me drift off even more often. Those were the longest days of my life. Never before have I suffered like that. I’d rather race three Vueltas back-to-back than spend another day in intensive care.”
TZ: Didn’t anybody explain to you what was going on?
“No. And I was unable to ask. Perhaps also because I was just lying there like a zombie. Like I was from another world. But in the meantime I could think about things. I heard and saw what was happening around me. In the room next to mine there was another patient. Suddenly an alarm sounded for quite some time. Then it got quiet and I heard an aluminium trolley being pushed through the corridor. One of those big, long ones that are used to take dead bodies to the freezer. I knew: this is serious. People die in here. You know, I was visited twice by a priest who came to pray for me.”
TZ: A priest?
“They asked me if he could sit by my bed. I just nodded. I am not a religious man but I thought: if it doesn't work then it doesn't harm. If they’d sent in an imam or a buddhist I’d have done the same. I was desperate, I just wanted to stay alive.”
TZ: What did the priest tell you?
“I honestly have no idea. He read from a book in Italian. He may have been praying for my survival, but for all I know he was arranging a spot in heaven for me.”
TZ: When did you realize: I am going to survive this?
“On Monday, my third day in the ICU. That’s when I thought: if I haven’t kicked the bucket by now, it’s probably not going to happen. It also helped that Yvan came to visit. He explained to me what had happened and how I was doing. He stood by the bed with tears in his eyes. I could tell from the look in his eyes how bad it was.”
TZ: Okay, let’s go through the complete list. How bad was it?
“Brain contusion. Skull fractured. Nose broken. Palate broken and torn. Ten teeth gone. Parts of my upper and lower jaws gone. Cuts in my face. A big cut in my auricle. Broken thumb. Shoulder contusion. Lung contusion. The nerve of my vocal cord took a blow. Heavily bruised buttocks. First impact was with my face, then I hit that man with my butt. Which was my luck: I have a rather big butt. That’s also the spot where I got big bedsores in the first week in hospital. I wasn’t able to sit for four weeks. In Poland I was unable to speak. That didn’t get better until I was moved to Leiden, where I got a different cannula.”
TZ: Your face has healed miraculously well.
“Yeah, it doesn’t look too bad. I still have sort of a harelip where I hit the billboard and my nose looks like I was just in a fight with Mike Tyson. Most of the damage is on the inside. Bone tissue has disappeared, inside it’s all scars. There’s eighty stitches in my palate alone. They have taken bone tissue from the pelvis and put it in my jaw. Next February I will undergo surgery again. I get implants in my jaws to reconstruct my teeth. That process will take a while. Next fall I’ll have my teeth again.”
TZ: You speak almost laconically about it all.
“I am a reasonably quiet man. Also, I am not very concerned about how it looks. Doctors could do some more work on my nose to make it more aesthetic, but that would lead to more scar tissue on the inside. I don’t want that because it would hinder my breathing.”
TZ: Are you on your bike again?
“I am now, yes. But it took a while. I spent the first eight weeks in a darkened room. No phone, no TV. Delore had to wash me. Getting out of bed to have breakfast was so exhausting that I fell asleep on the couch immediately after. I only drank smoothies and some kind of high-calorie chocolate drink from the hospital. I remember ordering pizza at the end of my first week at home. I took me a whole ten minutes to swallow one little bite. Not an easy task with half your teeth missing. The process is as follows: first get better, then become a normal person again, then see if I can be a rider again. I am now at a stage where I ride for two hours every other day. At coffee ride speed, easy does it. I haven’t tried a sprint yet. But I do have a schedule and I joined the team on a training camp. A few weeks ago a few teammates came to visit and we went for a ride together. We didn’t go very fast, maybe thirty an hour, but I was euphoric. It felt like riding on the Champs-Elysées in the final stage of the Tour. It made me realise how much I love my job, how much I love to ride. The doctors and my coach won’t pin a date on my comeback. They tell me not to rush things, take it step by step. Personally, I hope to be ready for action when the season starts in March, but if I’m realistic it’s probably going to be August. Wouldn’t it be great if I can ride for the big prizes again, exactly one year after the crash?”
TZ: Do you ever doubt whether you can still do it? Will it be physically possible to perform at the highest level again?
“I think it will. So far nothing has been found that might restrict my performance. I had it in me, and hopefully I still do. But my body has suffered a huge blow and has been jumbled up pretty good. There is a possibility that I will not be able to give 100%, but I won’t know that until I try. The nerve in my vocal cord appears to heal well. That is important because the vocal cord must be able to move when I breathe. But what if it only heals for 98% and not 100%? That will hardly make a difference when you’re riding recreationally, but what if you’re engaged in a sprint in the WorldTour?”
TZ: How about psychologically? Do you think you can ever find the courage to sprint again?
“I think so, but I won’t know that for certain until the moment I’m in the middle of a bunch sprint. It is to my advantage that I don’t remember the crash itself. I don’t dream about it, I am not afraid to fall off my bike. I remind myself that really serious crashes like mine don’t occur very often, statistically speaking. You don’t win the lottery twice in a row, right? If I want my comeback to succeed, I will have to give it all. A sprinter who brakes too much will never win a race.”
TZ: I assume you have seen footage of the crash?
“Yes, I have. Very soon afterwards, in the ICU in Poland.”
TZ: How do you look upon Dylan Groenewegen’s action?
“It is very obvious. Dylan deviates from his line and closes the door when I pass him. I think everybody saw that. If he’d closed the door just a little sooner I would have been able to brake. If he’d done it just a little later, I would have been in front of him. In this case it went wrong. There was nowhere I could go. I think we did 84 an hour at that moment. At that speed there’s hardly any time to react.”
TZ: Do you blame him?
Yes, in a sense. I am not open-minded enough to say that he is not to blame. Most of all I feel sorry. Sorry for myself, for him, for our teams. We were the two best Dutch sprinters and among the best in the world. We had been trading places all year: one time he won, the next time it was me. We were both going to the Giro. We had started a duel that could have lasted a long time. Duels like that, that’s what it’s all about in our sport. We are entertainers and we are paid for it. I was very much looking forward to compete against him. And then something like this happens in, with all due respect, the Tour of Poland. It’s hard for me to understand why he did it. Didn’t he see me? Did he take too much risk? Did he want to win at all cost? He knew that it was a fast finish, he knew the risks. To me, sprinting is more than seeing the 200 metre sign and just go for it. It’s more than beating the pedals like a madman. He should have considered the consequences. We’re human beings, not animals. This is a sport, not a war with no holds barred.”
TZ: Are the two of you in contact?
“He sent me a message asking how I was. I replied. Quite recently he asked if we could meet. I can understand that this matter is weighing heavily on his soul and that he seeks closure. But I’m not ready for it. First, I want to learn more about how my healing process is progressing. The better I feel, the better it is for him. He didn’t want this. And he is taking a lot of crap from anonymous people behind their keyboards – which is ridiculous. I sincerely hope that he can soon do what he is good at – sprinting – and that we can leave all this behind us.”
TZ: He has been suspended for nine months by UCI. Do you agree with that penalty?
“Nine months is very long. But when you leave out the off-season it’s only a month or two. Bear in mind, he risked someone’s life by sprinting as dangerously as he did. That is something that has to be looked into by the cycling industry. We have to end the kamikaze style sprinting with no consideration for other riders. Let this incident serve as a precedent: the next one who pulls off something like this will be suspended for at least half a year. Juries should keep a tighter grip. At present regulations are often enforced inconsistently. Dylan himself has been pushed into the barriers once without a penalty for the culprit, so he knows how it feels. And he himself closed the door on Oliver Naesen in the 2016 Eurometropole Tour. Also no penalty. If juries don’t act on these incidents, they are sending a signal that maybe doing stuff like that is not so bad. That’s the message that settles in riders’ heads. On the other hand, after the 2016 incident Dylan could have thought to himself: ‘Phew, that was close, I won’t let that happen again. Next time I’ll keep to my line.’ But let me be clear about this: my injuries were also caused by the high speed and the barriers. The barriers didn’t break my fall, they just folded up. An ongoing investigation will clarify whether they were assembled correctly. If you pay attention to it you’ll notice that many types of barriers have little legs sticking out and that rows of barriers often have gaps.”
TZ: Your crash seems to have triggered something. Among riders, among teams and even at UCI. Do you think that in a few years your crash will be seen as a turning point? As the moment the safety of riders finally started to matter?
“I hope so. UCI should be much more aware of this problem. Dangerous finishes like the one in Poland must be banned. Speaking for myself, from now on I will not join in a bunch sprint if the barriers are no good.”
TZ: You have seen the entire medical circuit inside and out, you’re out of business for a long time and the future of your career may be in danger. Who is going to pay for the damage?
“That is complicated. I am no lawyer but in my opinion several parties may be liable to some degree. Dylan, his employer Jumbo-Visma, the Tour de Pologne organisation and UCI. If I am able to return at the highest level things could turn out relatively well, but what if I won’t be able to race again? My current contract at Deceuninck-Quick Step runs until the end of 2021. If I haven’t performed by that time, it could all end there. Nobody wants a limping rider who’s afraid to sprint. They are not going to pay my salary just because they feel sorry for me. Yes, there is a scenario in which I am no longer a rider by the end of next year and I can start working shifts in some factory. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re talking different amounts of money and a different perspective. It’s my future, Delore’s future and maybe some day our children’s future. That is why I am not taking this liability case lightly. It is kind of my last resort in case things do not turn out well. It would be very unfair if I got stuck in a mess due to someone else’s actions and circumstances beyond my control.”
TZ: Liability cases like this one can drag on for years.
“Yes, especially with Poland and UCI involved. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. With Dylan and Jumbo-Visma it may be a little easier, because that’s the Netherlands. But I’m not litigating to get as much out of it as possible. It’s also about responsibility. There are other solutions. I don’t exactly know how or what. I feel very at home at Deceuninck-Quick Step and I have absolutely no intention to leave. But who knows, perhaps Jumbo-Visma will say: let’s offer him a contract, no matter if he returns or in what state. That is also a way of taking your responsibility. In that case, if Dylan and I end up in the same team, I’ll let him lead out the sprint for me, haha!”
TZ: Has the crash changed you in any way? A different outlook on life now that you have been so close to death?
“I have counted my blessings in the ICU. Whenever Delore and my parents had visited, tears would roll down my cheeks. I’d think about my loved ones, people I know. My parents, my girlfriend, my friends, my in-laws, people around me who have a sincere interest in what I do. But also the doctors, nurses, all the people who fix you up. When you go through something like this, these things become very special. A relationship that you normally take for granted, suddenly gets extraordinary. You realise that everything is finite, that things can end just like that. Delore and I had plans to move to Monaco. One of the first things I said when I got a cannula that enabled me to speak was: we’re not going to do that. I want to stay close to my parents, my sister, my in-laws, my friends, I want to be able to visit my grandmother and grandfather whenever I feel like it. My relationship with Delore has become even better since we went through this ordeal together. In a way, it has become unconditional.”
Delore: “I am so happy he is alive. And that he wakes up every morning.”
Fabio: “So am I, so am I.”
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