It felt like business as usual at the Tour de France on Sunday night, as Dylan Groenewegen returned to winning ways, his fourth consecutive edition where he has won a stage. The flying Dutchman has now won five, and judging by the celebrations, made his team's race.
To add to the sense of deja vu, Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) finished fourth; on three of Groenewegen's previous stage wins the Slovakian made it into the top four. It might well have been 2018 all over again.
It was not smooth sailing to this point, however. The Team BikeExchange-Jayco missed the last two Tours, partly due to nine-month ban for causing the crash at the Tour of Poland two years ago which left Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) in an induced coma. While the latter, who suffered horrendous injuries, has already returned to the top of the sport, it has been a longer road for Groenewegen.
There was a sense of this matter closing with this win, which came the day after Jakobsen won himself, both redemptive victories in a way. The 29-year-old moved teams, almost to escape his past, this winter, and is now at BikeExchange, a team where he feels supported, given opportunities. While he refused to be drawn on just how important Sunday's performance was, his emotion was clear on the finish line.
"It was a long way [back]," he said immediately after the stage. "I want to say thanks to my team, family and friends to bring me back to the Tour in a good shape. It's beautiful.
"Not physically but mentally it was a hard time, of course. After all that happened... This is for my wife and my son. It means a lot for me."
What Groenewegen did at the Tour of Poland in August 2020 left Jakobsen in a life-threatening state, and yet he has made it back to winning at Grand Tours. While the Quick-Step rider made an astonishing recovery, it has almost appeared a harder road back for the man who caused the crash.
"Of course he's a normal rider, he's here competing on the same terms as everyone else... I don't think you can say anything against that," was the verdict of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl's Michael Mørkøv.
"I think he will be very happy with this, I actually don't care," Jakobsen said. “Before the crash, I had a lot of respect for his record and how he approached his sport. That has since gone away, because in my eyes he really made a mistake in Poland. My admiration for him has gone, but he shows today that he can still do it.”
There was a time when Groenewegen was seen as potentially the leading sprinter in the sport, and while others have laid claim to this title in recent years, it might well be a battle between the two Dutchmen, who are indelibly linked by the crash.
Asked if this was his most "beautiful win", he was diplomatic, but paid tribute to his new team, which took a chance in signing him.
"I had this question before, and I said every victory in the Tour de France had something special," he said. "The Champs Élysées [his first Tour win] was really special... Every time had something special. This one has also a story.
"This means a lot for me that I’m back at the Tour de France, and it means a lot that my new team gave me this chance, believe in me, and give me the whole sprint around me.
"Yesterday I made a lot of mistakes and I was very angry with myself and really disappointed. My teammates said you can't turn back what happened today, moving forward and tomorrow is a new chance, we believe in you and you go for it."
It took hard work to get to the point of being able to win on Sunday. Groenewegen was involved in the crash with about 10km to go, which left him out of position, but he was able to fight back to the front. Then, once it finally came to the sprint, the Dutchman had to fight and throw his bike to beat Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) by just a tyre width. It was not easy.
"Wout made the joke we always made in the Jumbo team: if you’re not sure at the finish line you have to claim the victory, to celebrate," he said. "I was celebrating a little bit, but I was sure that I won. I was waiting for the word, and then the screaming and celebrating, celebrating with my team.
"Then I saw my dad, he’s following me the full three weeks, but normally I do not see him. That means a lot for me. I trained really hard last time and the time before, but all that happened… It means a lot for me for sure. My dad is also happy, and when you can win in the Tour de France the pressure is off."
The pressure might now be off Groenewegen, but it might also be that the monkey is off his back now too. As his teammates pointed out to him, the past cannot change, and now he is here in this race, he might just keep winning.
#TDF2022 THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS 💙💙💙 pic.twitter.com/PlegLKV4QEJuly 3, 2022
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