Fabian Cancellara's press conference after taking the yellow jersey in Zeeland on Sunday evening ran on so long that one wondered if he sensed it might be the final time in his career that he found himself in such a position at the Tour de France.
In the build-up to the race, Cancellara had neither confirmed nor denied speculation that this would prove to be his last appearance at the Tour, given that his retirement is – very provisionally, mind – pencilled in for when his current contract expires at the end of 2016.
Cancellara's 29th day in yellow on Monday – a record for riders who have never won the Tour overall – ended, as anticipated, with him ceding the lead atop the Mur de Huy, but also, rather more unexpectedly, with his retirement from the race.
Among the fallers in the mass crash with 60 kilometres to go that caused the stage to be neutralised temporarily, Cancellara managed to remount and finish, but x-rays afterwards showed that he had suffered transverse process fractures of two vertebrae his lower back.
Though a non-starter on Tuesday's stage to Cambrai, Cancellara was on hand at the start in Seraing to lend moral support to his Trek teammates as they faced into the pavé without him, and to speak to the press before taking his leave from Planet Tour. "I'm feeling sad and I have a lot of pain, even more than yesterday," Cancellara told reporters. "I could kind of sleep but when I woke up I felt like a truck was running over me, I have pain everywhere.
"I leave the Tour and lose the yellow jersey, and I couldn't even defend it [after the crash]. The only chance I had was to finish the race and honour as best I could this jersey, out of the respect I have for it."
Cancellara's injuries are remarkably similar to those suffered when a crash at E3 Harelbeke in March brought a premature halt to his Classics campaign. On that occasion, Cancellara spent almost a month off his bike and took two full months away from racing before returning to competitive action at the Tour des Fjords.
Such a timeline this time around would rule him out of the Vuelta a España, due to start on August 22 in Marbella, and surely compromise his hopes of riding – and winning – the World Championships road race in Richmond in late September. Cancellara was non-committal when asked when he envisaged returning to the peloton, stating that it was simply too early to say.
"Coming back in the spring was already hard and guessing how long it will take to recover now is up in the air. We'll go step by step but the first priority is to recover from my crash," Cancellara said. "I know all the situations and circumstances to handle the broken bones but the weird thing is what am I going to do now? Watch the Tour de France? I don't know, maybe I'll watch a few stages."
Trek Factory Racing manager Luca Guercilena was equally coy about precisely when Cancellara might target a comeback, though he suggested that his time away might, by necessity, be somewhat shorter this time around.
"The last time we had a bit of time to get him back and ready in time for the Tour so we could allow Fabian to get back up to speed with a lot of calm," Guercilena told Cyclingnews. "It's clear that there's just August and September left in the season and time is going by quickly."
Both Cancellara and Guercilena applauded the race direction and UCI commissaires' decision to neutralise the stage following the crash that ultimately ended his Tour. "This polemic is so far done, it's beyond discussion, they had to neutralize it. Can you imagine if there was a third crash, and riders maybe with bigger problems than we had?" Cancellara said.
"I remember in Tour de Suisse it was the same. Soler crashed, there was no ambulance or doctors behind and they also neutralised it. Whether it's the yellow jersey or just a normal single rider from any team, it's a question of safety."
Cancellara would not be drawn on whether he would return to the Tour in 2016 – "Right now cycling and being the yellow jersey isn't important to me, what's important is that I'm a person who wants to get home to his wife and family," he said – though Guercilena hinted that the Swiss rider would not want to end his relationship with the race in such circumstances. "It's certainly not the way he'd want to say goodbye to such a big race," he said. "We'll see next year."