Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com
I was torn on what to lead with today. Initially I started to write about Fabio Jakobsen’s truly remarkable comeback from life-threatening injury to prolific winner at the ongoing Vuelta a Espana. But there was another email I received overnight that trumped even that.
But there was one other thing delivered to my email inbox overnight that trumped even that. The CPA press release I The CPA press release I woke up to on Wednesday didn’t pertain to current events at the Vuelta (I’ll come back to that), nor the upcoming Tour of Britain or UCI Road World Championships. It was something much bigger, albeit comparatively understated on sports pages: the arrival of a “small group” of female Afghan cyclists in Rome via an Italian Air Force plane on August 27.
The press release is accompanied by a photo of six women whose faces have been covered – for safety reasons – with pink heart emojis. The athletes were in danger, the statement expressed in bold font, “because they were recognisable and famous due to the national and international media coverage of their efforts for the promotion of women’s cycling”, as the Taliban’s takeover of their country continues. The statement also stressed that female cyclists who remain in Afghanistan still are in danger.
I am by no means a political expert, and I do not for one second pretend to be. In the current global climate especially I’ve been lambasted for defying that adage of ‘don’t talk about politics or religion at the table’ (or in lockdown on social media). Now more than ever people need an escape from a bleak real-world landscape and sport gives them that. And cycling especially so, as it is often described as or associated with the feeling of freedom.
But in this instance, the adage must be defied for more real-world and sports-related reasons that I, especially as a woman, can detail here. “We are delighted to share the following Road to Equality press release from the Association of the Italian Professional Cyclists, ACCPI,” the CPA statement read. “Six athletes are currently observing the required quarantine, alongside a male athlete and several family members. Joy, but also concern about those who are haven’t yet been able to leave Afghanistan.”
ACCPI vice-president Alessandra Cappellotto was careful not to laud the Afghan contingent’s arrival too much, given the ongoing political turmoil in Afghanistan. But nevertheless, it should be duly recognised especially as the sport globally continues to make ground on gender parity.
“We are happy for the women athletes we were able to rescue, but we are still extremely worried about those who are still there,” Cappellotto said. “The nightmare began for me and Anita Zanatta, vice-president of #RoadToEquality, in the first half of August. Anita did an outstanding job with the sole goal of bringing the cyclists to safety. This has been a first step, but we really hope that all the athletes will be brought to safety through the international channels. We are yet to cross the finish line; it’s not yet time to celebrate. But this little drop of hope in the ocean of pain and suffering still means a lot.”
A similar sentiment of hope, in an entirely different context, has been spurring on Jakobsen, who is on the verge of cementing one of the greatest cycling comebacks in recent memory as the Vuelta moves into its final week. The 25-year-old, who won his third stage of this year’s edition on Tuesday, is in a prime position to claim the points classification, after returning to competition from grave injury.
Only 12 months ago Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) was fighting for his life following a well-documented, high-speed crash at the Tour of Poland that involved and also deeply affected Dylan Groenewegen, who was consequently suspended from racing for nine months. The incident as well as the consequences divided the cycling community and fingers were pointed at multiple parties.
Race organisers were criticised about the safety of the downhill sprint finish. Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) was lambasted for his involvement and appeared a broken man. In one TV interview in the aftermath, he openly wept on camera. Jakobsen’s teammate Remco Evenepoel, while understandably upset and defensive, was tactless when he slammed Groenewegen in March this year saying, “we can’t forgive him for that” and “I don’t think anyone from our team will speak to him”.
Groenewegen had his own demons to conquer in the aftermath during which time his family were reportedly receiving threats in the mail. It’s understandable that Jumbo-Visma boss Richard Plugge advised Evenepoel to pull his head in at the time. “Evenepoel is part of the problem with his response,” Plugge told Het Laatste Nieuws. “It’s better to think carefully before making a statement in the media. He should know that.”
There were no winners from that crash. It was the type of crash that threatened to destroy the life and the career of more than one rider. It was the type of crash that some people simply do not ever physically or mentally come back from. To see Jakobsen back on his bike so soon after his plight was a huge relief for all involved in the sport. To see him back on the bike winning at a Grand Tour no less is nothing short of incredible.
Similar could be said of Groenewegen, who has won two stages at the Tour de Wallonie and one stage plus a stint in the leader’s jersey at the Tour of Denmark, following his return from suspension at the Giro d’Italia in May. Jakobsen’s haul at the Vuelta follows two stage triumphs at the Tour de Wallonie, too.
That both riders have been able to return to top form, especially Jakobsen, after such an incident is testament to not just their own fortitude but the support around them. Jakobsen acknowledged everyone from his teammates to doctors following his birthday victory on Tuesday in what has been a defining campaign in Spain.
“Last year I went back and forth to hospital, and I had no idea if I could become a bike rider again. These wins are better performances than when I won here two years ago,” he told reporters at the Vuelta. Two radically different stories then, different continents, different contexts, but with similar messages: sport can be a brutal business, which sometimes seems to have little room for sentiment amidst the money and the headlines around victory and defeat, but it still contains ample space for hope, compassion and fighting through adversity.