Dutch cyclist Dylan Groenewegen was literally and figuratively a broken man following a crash almost two years ago which had dire consequences for him and Tour de France rival Fabio Jakobsen.
It was August 2020 at the Tour of Poland, and the pair were riding against each other, side by side in a high-speed finish, eyeing victory, when Groenewegen squeezed Jakobsen into the barriers.
There were no winners that day.
Jakobsen was placed into an induced coma after crashing through the barrier, suffering horrific facial injuries that required multiple surgeries.
Groenewegen broke his collarbone, was suspended from competition for nine months for deviating from his line and required police protection after receiving death threats.
That both men later returned to the winner’s circle is a true testament to their resolve.
For the first time since the sad tale, Groenewegen will return to the Tour de France, which starts tonight, ready to face off against race debutant Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) and other billed sprinters including Australian Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal).
The four-time Tour stage winner headlines the Australian-registered BikeExchange-Jayco team, which he joined at the beginning of this season in what was a fresh start following a long tenure at Dutch squad Jumbo-Visma.
BikeExchange-Jayco sports director Matt White recognised the ridicule Groenewegen endured for his involvement in the crash, which fiercely divided public opinion and the peloton, but added that the demons from it have been exorcised as the 29-year-old aims to make the most of limited opportunities for sprinters at this year’s Tour.
“He’s clearly moved on. I think he’s won [several] races since,” White told ABC.
“But it’s something no one wants to happen. II’s something that, you know, anyone would be lying to say you forget about things that happen like that in your career.
White contrasted Groenewegen’s past case with an incident at the Criterium du Dauphine in June where Sebastian Molano and Hugo Page were involved in a heated altercation following some dicey race moves.
“Molano from UAE [Team Emirates] punched a bloke twice two weeks ago and didn’t even get suspended,” he continued.
“So, it is quite hypocritical. The suspension that was handed out to Dylan compared to a fine that was handed out to a guy who physically punched a bloke two times and then went after him after the finish line.”
Groenewegen will share team leadership with Australian Michael Matthews at the Tour. Both champions are aiming for stage victories, which is especially important to the squad currently facing relegation under a promotion/relegation system introduced this season.
“It’s something we’re conscious of, and any of those teams in the last seven spots vying for position, they’d be lying if they said they’re not conscious of it,” White said.
“But we’re focused on winning, we’re focused on the Tour de France. We’ve got a lot of races off the back of the Tour in August and September up until the middle of October, where we’ve got a good plan in place.
“[British sprinter] Simon Yates isn’t here, which opens [it] up. We’ve got our best bike rider who is going to be available to pick up points in the period after the Tour as well.
“But our total focus now is on trying to win a stage of the Tour de France and be as competitive as we can here over the next three weeks.”
Groenewegen has celebrated four victories this season, winning two stages in his first race with BikeExchange-Jayco at the Saudi Tour in February.
He quickly developed a rapport with teammate Luka Mezgec, who White said has been “vital” to his smooth integration into the English-speaking squad.
Positioning a sprinter for victory in a tightly packed bunch of riders, racing aggressively and accelerating up to 70kph can be as key as speed, and is where Mezgec fits in. Jakobsen’s squad is the benchmark in positioning.
Groenewegen has also altered his preparation, competing in hillier races in the lead-up with the hope of being more competitive, especially considering the opportunities for sprinters are stacked in the first and the last week, with hilly terrain and mountain passes to survive in between.
“When he’s won stages in the Tour de France before, he’s just done flat races to prepare, so he’s gone to a smaller race, had a couple of easier wins, and got to the Tour and he’s won at the Tour,” White said.
“But anyone who follows the Tour de France, or especially the way we see it in the car, some of those mountain stages he has been, in the past, the first guy dropped, and it’s been a real struggle for him to get through.
“I think that’s going to hold him really good over the three weeks. We’re confident that his condition is as good — if not better — than it’s ever been before.
“If you’re feeling better at the end of those stages, it also gives you the ability to sprint faster as well.”
Matthews is aiming to conquer undulating stages and has ruled out competing in addition for the green jersey, which he won in 2017, but believes the first week of the Tour could lend itself to something arguably greater.
The Tour starts in Copenhagen with a 13.2km time trial followed by two flat stages that windy conditions could influence, before the race moves to France on Monday.
There, hilly terrain and cobbles await what will surely be a nervous peloton. It presents an opportunity for Matthews to wear the heralded race leader’s yellow jersey for a stint.
“A lot of riders will be trying to go for that yellow jersey in the first week. It’s also something we’re very interested in to try and take it,” Matthews said.
In total, nine Australians will compete at the 109th edition of the Tour, including Matthews, Luke Durbridge and Nick Schultz at BikeExchange-Jayco and Caleb Ewan at Lotto Soudal, Ben O’Connor — who, with AG2R-Citroen, has ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Richie Porte and Cadel Evans and finish on the podium — Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious), Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech), Chris Hamilton (Team DSM), and Michael Storer (Groupama-FDJ), who will make his debut.