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Groenewegen returns to sprint fray at Giro d'Italia after nine-month ban

Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) finishes fourth in stage 2 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia in Novara
Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) finishes fourth in stage 2 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia in Novara (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere is playing a flying visit to the Giro d'Italia in the opening days of the race, and he made his presence felt as he passed through the mixed zone outside the ostentatious Savoy hunting lodge in Stupinigi ahead of stage 2.

In the space of 15 minutes, toggling between Flemish, French, Italian and English, Lefevere casually confirmed that both Sam Bennett and João Almeida would leave his team at the end of the season, before turning his attention to Dylan Groenewegen's return to the peloton nine months on from the crash that left Deceuninck-QuickStep's Fabio Jakobsen with life-threatening injuries.

"He's here and I hope for him it's OK, but no more or no less," said Lefevere. He echoed Jakobsen's disappointment that Groenewegen had failed to apologise during a recent meeting between the two Dutchmen, which was also attended by Jumbo-Visma manager Richard Plugge, the team's press officer and two lawyers.

"They didn't even say sorry. And I understand if you say the word 'sorry' in the press, it costs you money [in legal proceedings]. But in that meeting, he could have said sorry, but he didn't. Almost the opposite: 'It was something that happens in cycling.'"

In days gone by, the Giro's media corps would have been camped outside the Jumbo-Visma bus before the stage. In this age of coronavirus protocols, Groenewegen could easily have sidestepped his media duties, but he made a short visit to the mixed zone after he signed on – and, of course, after Lefevere had exited stage left.

"I'm really looking forward to it after all these months. David Dekker is a good sprinter too but normally he'll do the lead-out and I'll do the sprint," Groenewegen said. His smile was obvious even beneath his mask, but so too was his anxiety. His last, fateful sprint in Katowice had changed careers and lives irrevocably.

Remarkably, considering the severity of his injuries, Jakobsen returned to the peloton at the Tour of Turkey last month, but his physical rehabilitation continues. Groenewegen recovered quickly from the broken collarbone he sustained in Poland, but the psychological toll was considerable, exacerbated by the deplorable death threats that were made against him and his newborn son.

Instincts

Stage 2 to Novara was always certain to finish in a bunch sprint and thus the first step in Groenewegen's attempt to resume some semblance of his past life among the peloton's leading fast men. Thanks to the help of Dekker and Edoardo Affini, he found himself parked in third position as the sprint began, but he was unable to summon up the pace to come past Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos) and stage winner Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix).

Perhaps more tellingly, Groenewegen glanced over his shoulder as he moved slightly from his line in the closing metres, allowing Elia Viviani to come by for third. Perhaps it was still too soon – and Katowice still too raw – for him to trust his own instincts. The Amsterdam native had to settle for fourth place, but there was no frustration as he warmed down outside the Jumbo-Visma, only quiet relief.

"I was really nervous before the race and also in the race," Groenewegen confessed to the reporters who had assembled on the other side of the barriers. "Going into the final, it was a little bit strange, but it was also really nice. It was a nice moment that I could sprint again with the best sprinters. And a fourth place is not so bad.

"It was a long time since I made a sprint. The boys were really strong today and I was in a good position, but Merlier was really strong today. I made some mistakes, but maybe the next sprints will be better and better."

A fretful sort of a day ended with some familiar rituals, like trotting out the obligatory praise for teammates and signing an autograph for the child who had squeezed his way through the huddle of reporters at the barriers. Psychologically, the very act of sprinting itself ought to be less daunting by the time the next opportunity comes around, perhaps in Cattolica on Wednesday.

"I don't know if will be easier, we have to see, but this was the first small step to be in a hectic final and do a sprint," Groenewegen said. "That happened and that's good. But I'm a winner and of course, I'm a little bit disappointed."

Jumbo-Visma had initially planned to give Groenewegen an off-Broadway return at the Tours of Hungary and Norway, before opting to grasp the nettle firmly by sending him to the Giro. Directeur sportif Addy Engels told Cyclingnews that he felt an instinctive pang of disappointment when he saw his rider fall short of victory before quickly remembering the context.

"For us, this was the most important thing, that he was able to be to up there and in the sprint, able to stay in position at top speed," said Engels, who acknowledged how Groenewegen's life had changed in the nine months since the horrific crash at the Tour de Pologne.

"I don't want to speak for him, but from the moment of the crash, a lot of things happened with him, including the birth of his son. These are big things in life and that always does something to people, whether you're young or a little older. It doesn't matter, it always forms you. And I think in that way, he maybe seems a bit more mature. But he was already mature before, too. He's a leader."