Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by ilario Biondi/LB/RB/CorVos/SWpix.com
Robbie McEwen believes Dylan Groenewegen will return to racing in 2021 “raring to go” following a nine-month ban related to a crash at the Tour of Poland in which Fabio Jakobsen suffered life-threatening injuries.
The stage one crash in August, just days after the season resumed following an almost five-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, divided the industry and sparked debate around rider safety.
Groenewegen deviated from his line in the bunch sprint finish, effectively forcing Jakobsen into roadside barriers that many afterwards perceived to be inadequate. There was also conjecture as to the appropriateness of a downhill finish during a sprint stage where the best travel at speeds faster than your average first car.
It was one of the most harrowing moments of the coronavirus-affected 2020 season and neither Groenewegen, who broke his collarbone in the crash, nor Jakobsen, who suffered from severe facial injuries, have competed since.
“I’m hoping Groenewegen comes back and is raring to go, which I think he will be. The punishment was harsh, but I’d struggle to say that it’s too much,” McEwen said.
“They’ve [UCI Disciplinary Committee] said nine months, maybe if they say nine months or earlier if Jakobsen comes back to racing earlier, then the punishment would fit the crime, I guess you could say. But I do feel for Dylan as well because he didn’t try to do what the end result was.”
Jakobsen was placed into an induced coma in the immediate aftermath of the crash and is set to undergo another reconstructive surgery in January. In a social media post last month, the 24-year-old said he would “slowly start training again” in the interim.
The industry was further divided when the UCI announced Groenewegen’s retroactive ban in November, which as it stands will see the Dutchman able to return to the WorldTour peloton in May.
Groenewegen, at least for native English-speaking press, can be a difficult man to interview in that he doesn’t show much emotion, or give much away. He provides diplomatic and concise soundbites, at odds with his colourful Instagram page and more outspoken rivals.
So, to see the 27-year-old weep about the incident on camera during a later interview, in which he appeared a somewhat broken man, was indicative of the gravitas but hopefully not insurmountable consequences for the pair – mentally and physically.
“There’s so many factors and he’s not completely to blame when you look at the whole barrier set-up and everything like that,” McEwen continued.
“I’m hoping for those battles to resume and I hope Jakobsen comes back to where he was and there’s no other injuries that prevent him from coming back to his former power as a sprinter because that was really interesting to watch.”
The sprint battles tipped at the beginning of the season didn’t totally eventuate this year with the absence of Groenewegen and Jakobsen, plus other casualties.
Fernando Gaviria, who celebrated six victories, was diagnosed with COVID-19 twice, seemingly around the times his performances dipped. The Colombian tested positive at February’s UAE Tour, where he had attributed a sluggish start to jetlag, and at the Giro d’Italia in October, which he consequently withdrew from after stage 15.
“I was a bit disappointed with Gaviria … but take it with a pinch of corona,” McEwen said.
“He was one of the very first people I heard of to have coronavirus and … [we] don’t know how long it really takes to recover. You know, you hear of guys getting glandular fever and you go, ‘Well write him off for any time soon, he won’t be back ever where he was.’ I’ve seen guys like that as well … they never got back to where they were after glandular fever. Look at Cav [Mark Cavendish, who was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus in 2017].”
McEwen anticipates that the ‘veterans’ of the peloton will make a comeback in 2021 after a season in which youth trumped experience, with a 21-year-old winning the Tour de France, a 25-year-old the Giro and a 31-year-old the Vuelta a Espana.
“The 32-36 [year-old] bracket, they’re great riders but at that age you start to need the racing and consistent seasons to keep rolling on. It’s hard to come off training and race well,” he said.
“This funny season we had this year, some guys hadn’t even really started racing again before racing stopped. And by the time they started racing again, they’d almost had an entire year away from racing, so that really affects the older guys, guys over 30. It gets harder and harder to hit the ground running, have really good form just off training.
“I always thought the younger guys would be at a real advantage this year,” McEwen continued.
“I think next season, with the somewhat of a season [in 2020] and plenty enough racing, that the older, more experienced guys, they’ll come out firing better next season than they did this one.
“Although there’s been a somewhat changing of the guard, I don’t think it’s completely changed. Don’t write off some of the 30-pluses.”