Fabian Cancellara abandoned the Vuelta a España on stage 3 to Málaga after suffering from a stomach ailment that prevented him from being able to eat, and falling so far behind the race he would not have made the time cut.
Only Cancellara himself knows the black thoughts he carried with him as he laboured alone almost half an hour behind the peloton on the road to Malaga on Monday afternoon, but the general sentiment seems obvious – 2015 has not been his year.
For the third time in his staccato season, ill fortune beset Cancellara as he was forced to abandon the Vuelta a España due to an intestinal ailment with 35 kilometres remaining on stage 3, played out in sweltering heat on the Costa del Sol.
Cancellara had both his Classics campaign and his Tour de France cut short by crashes – he sustained fractured vertebrae in each incident – and the Vuelta marked his second comeback of the year. With the World Championships in Richmond at the back of his mind, Cancellara hoped that the race might usher in an Indian summer to put a different slant on an otherwise ill-starred campaign.
Already stricken with illness in the build-up to the race, however, Cancellara’s condition deteriorated after the opening team time trial in Marbella on Saturday, and on stage 2 to Caminito del Rey, he suffered visibly and finished almost half an hour down.
"Already on the first day in the time trial he was sick and he was getting worse yesterday, he barely made it to the finish," Trek Factory Racing directeur sportif Dirk Demol told Cyclingnews. "This morning, he thought the fever was gone and he wanted to give it a try but it was impossible to continue. He’s really sick, it’s a stomach problem, and we’re waiting now for the doctors to tell us exactly what it is."
Despite his malady, Cancellara’s determination to remain in the race was such that he eventually had to be all but coaxed off his bike by directeur sportif Josu Larrazabal, who was following him in the second team car. For more than an hour, Cancellara ignored its stalking presence at this shoulder before finally relenting.
"It was probably one of my hardest days on the bikes today," Cancellara said in a statement issued by his Trek team later on Monday evening. "I wanted to keep going, I did not want to stop, but Josu told me to stop because I was already out of the time limit and it didn't make sense to continue."
After crashing and fracturing vertebrae on stage 3 of the Tour, Cancellara had insisted on riding to the finish on the Mur de Huy rather than abandon immediately in the yellow jersey of race leader. If that was a point of pride, his forlorn, solo effort here was perhaps born of simple desperation to keep his season alive.
"After a year like I had so far I didn’t want to stop. It was like when I was in the Tour, I was alone on the road, and I had so many flashbacks from the whole entire year and it was why I kept on pushing," Cancellara said. "But in the end it’s your health that counts the most and if you are not 100% you feel it. I don’t know how many percent I had, but I was completely empty."
It remains to be seen whether Cancellara’s fleeting Vuelta appearance will be the final act of a season that had seemed to promise so much when he powered to a stage in at the Tour of Oman in February. Though he refused to make any pronouncements beforehand, it was clear that he had come to the Vuelta with the intention of building towards the World Championships in Richmond on September 27, but his preparations have been compromised severely by his early exit.
One precedent provides a glimmer of hope: in 2011, Mark Cavendish was forced out of the Vuelta by illness on stage 4, but recovered to win the Worlds in Copenhagen five weeks later. Cavendish received dispensation from the Vuelta organisers to participate in that year’s Tour of Britain following his abandon, but Demol said that it was too early to discuss a contingency plan for Cancellara at this juncture.
"Fabian really wanted to continue, he had a lot of motivation to come here because with the World Championships, he needed the Vuelta," Demol said. "With the illness now, it’s going to be difficult so we don’t know what he will do next. There’s not so much racing left this season. We don’t give up and we have to make new plans, but right now it’s too early to decide what they are."