Riding is Life


For the Tour’s sprinters, the mountains are an agony

With elimination lurking behind, Fabio Jakobsen's mountain goal is to survive to sprint again.

Fabio Jakobsen crests the summit of the Tourmalet with his team. Photo: Kramon

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 07.07.2023 Photography by
Kramon, Cor Vos, and Iain Treloar
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The grupetto went flying down the Tourmalet yesterday, cutting the apex of the first hairpin with the shriek of protesting brake pads and whir of expensive carbon fibre. Silence returned to the valley, and the waiting began.

About five minutes later – maybe more – came the parp of police motorbikes over the summit, signalling the last riders on the road. Four figures in the blue of Soudal-Quick Step, flanking the white European champion’s jersey of Fabio Jakobsen, followed by the broom wagon. Fall behind that, and you’re done, eliminated from the Tour de France. 

For bigger sprinters like Jakobsen, this is the real jeopardy of the Tour de France: the fight to live to fight another day. 

Descending the Tourmalet. Photo: Cor Vos.

Today, stage 7, into the boulevards of Bordeaux, is what that exertion was for – a flat stage for the fast men after two jagged days in the Pyrenees. All being well, Jakobsen will be gliding through the turmoil of the run-in to throw his body and bike toward the line at 70 km an hour. There’s risk in that, as the Dutchman knows all too well; he nearly died in a crash in 2020, crashing into barriers at the Tour de Pologne. But that’s a threat a top sprinter can rationalise, and it happens at the same pace they operate – a whir of peril, passed (or not) at the limits of human reaction.

The hours-long suffering of a day in the mountains is different. Muscular bodies failing to defy gravity, suffering through unfavourable terrain. On the Col du Lautaret, more than half an hour after the GC guys had finished, Jakobsen was still there, labouring upwards. At the team buses, sport director Iljo Keisse was waiting nervously, explaining to Escape Collective how the team car feeds time cuts up the road to their little Jakobsen grupetto, calculations worked out at the start of the day and updated on the fly. “So is Fabio going to make the time cut today?” A shrug and a tense smile. “I think, but there’s always a bit of stress.”

In Netflix’s Unchained, filmed at the Tour de France last year, Jakobsen’s battle to stay in the race was one of the more dramatic moments. His teammates escorting him up the Peyragudes on stage 17 had received their orders to leave him to ride in alone, so that half the team wasn’t eliminated in one fell swoop of a commissaire’s pen. Florian Sénéchal and Yves Lampaert screamed down the mountain at their teammate as the clock ticked down.

With seconds to spare he crossed the line, slumped against the barriers gasping for breath. Yesterday was tight, but not that tight – in the end there were minutes rather than seconds up the sleeve, but it was still a rough day on the bike for Jakobsen. After descending down to the team bus, he wearily clicked out, grimacing a little as he handed off his bike to a mechanic and walked through a throng of Dutch and Belgian media, before turning to sit on the steps looking out. 

For a couple of minutes he sat there, thousand-yard stare at the concrete, answering questions in a language I don’t understand. I didn’t need to. Did it hurt? Yes, of course. How do you make it through these stages? I don’t know. Are you hoping for a stage win tomorrow? Yes, but there are a lot of fast guys at this Tour. Will you make it to Paris? I’ll try.

That’s all he can do, one rough day in the mountains at a time.  

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