Sam Bennett can blame it all on simple twist of fate

He has not won a race since Tavira last year but his next victory is surely pending

Eleven months and six days ago Paul Kimmage wrote an article where he contrasted the immediate prospects of Sam Bennett and Fabio Jakobsen. I remember that because the newspaper clipping is right here in front of me, and as Kimmage invariably can and does, the story is deftly told and the content quite startling in its accuracy.

It is focused on events in Tavira on May 7th, where Bennett has just won Stage Three of the Tour of the Algarve. I remember that too because it was my mother’s birthday, and with many of the restaurants still closed we’d ordered Johnnie Fox’s at home, and I filed a quick report before running across the road to collect our tons of food and gallons of drink.

Bennett was on the proverbial roll, previously winning Stage One from Lagos to Portimao, which meant he had seven victories already in 2021, including two at Paris-Nice, plus his first one-day Belgian Classic at Brugge-De Panne, where he brilliantly outsprinted local favourite Jasper Philipsen.

If 2020 was by far his best to date – the then 29-year-old from Carrick-on-Suir winning two stages of the Tour de France, the fifth rider in history to win in Paris while also wearing the green jersey, the second ever Irish rider to win that prize after Seán Kelly last won it in 1989, etc – well 2021 surely promised even better.

By the end of that 2020 Tour his then manager Patrick Lefevere at Deceuninck-QuickStep (now Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) described Bennett as "unbreakable", and for good reason. People can say what they want about professional cycling: Bennett's victory on the Champs-Élysées that day in September is unquestionably one of the finest moments in Irish sporting history. End of that story.

That day in Tavira, Jakobsen finished far back in the peloton in 126th position, nonetheless a victory in his own right. Nine months previously, in the pandemic-delayed Tour of Poland, Jakobsen, at that time Bennett’s team-mate at Deceuninck-QuickStep, suffered vicious injuries in the sprint finish on the opening stage of the Tour of Poland, effectively shoved into the crash barriers by fellow Dutch cyclist Dylan Groenewegen, riding then for Team Jumbo-Visma, who later got a nine-month ban for his recklessness.

Lucky to survive

Jakobsen was lucky to survive. Bizarrely enough a race official behind the crash barrier helped break his fall. A son of cycling-mad parents, named after the Italian rider Fabio Casartelli, who died in a horrific crash during a Pyrenees descent in the 1995 Tour, Jakobsen, then aged 23, was seen as the new face of Dutch cycling. After that crash his face was unrecognisable.

In a December 2020 interview with Thijs Zonneveld, the best cycling writer in the Netherlands, his then fiancée Delore Fahrenhout recalled the moment she first saw Jakobsen lying in his hospital bed in Poland.

“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.”

Kimmage aptly describes that scenario as the split-second moment where a simple twist of fate can and often does change everything in professional cycling.

Jakobsen remembers nothing of the crash, telling Zonneveld in that same interview: “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 50, 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.”

Injury

Believe it or not, Jakobsen was back on his racing bike for the Tour of Turkey in April 2021, finishing 133rd overall, his best place being 39th on the sprint finish into Alanya, that Stage Three won by his team-mate Mark Cavendish, a tell-tale sign of what was to come: after replacing Bennett as the team sprinter at Deceuninck-QuickStep, Cavendish won four stages in the 2021 Tour, with that equalling the outright number of 34 stage wins, as previously won by who else but Eddy Merckx.

By then Bennett was off his bike, withdrawing from the Tour due to a knee injury sustained during a training ride early last June: by another simple twist of fate Cavendish won his first of four stages on Stage Three, where his main sprint rival, Caleb Ewan from Australia, crashed at the finish of Stage Three, breaking his collarbone in four pieces.

On Friday, Ewan won Stage Six of the Tour of Turkey, finishing in Eceabat, forever associated as the nearest town to the Gallipoli campaign during the first World War, where some 10,000 Australians were among the estimated 100,000 casualties. In the 1981 film Gallipoli by Peter Weir, before he directed Dead Poets Society and Witness, superbly soundtracked by Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygène, there is a scene where the young Australian soldier Archy Hamilton, played by Mark Lee, is asked by his sprints coach and uncle Jack:

“What are your legs?”

“Springs. Steel springs.”

“What are they going to do?”

“Hurl me down the track.”

Jakobsen has six wins already in 2022, including two at the Tour of Algarve, plus one at Paris-Nice. At age 31 and now riding for Bora-hansgrohe, Bennett has not won any race anywhere since that day in Tavira on May 7th of last year.

Bennett finished third in Monday’s Stage Two of the Tour of Turkey, might well have won Thursday’s Stage Five had his chain not slipped off, and knowing that legs with steel springs like his don’t easily go away, his next victory is surely now pending.

All it will take is another simple twist of fate.