He'll always have Paris, but Roubaix was not to be. Bradley Wiggins has spent much of the past two years espousing his veneration for Paris-Roubaix, to the point of declaring that he would swap his 2012 Tour de France win for victory in the hallowed velodrome. "Just google 'Bradley's love for Paris-Roubaix,'" he had told a reporter with mock exasperation on Friday when asked to revisit the topic once again.
After placing 18th on Sunday afternoon, however, Wiggins ruled out the prospect of reneging on his departure from Team Sky and continuing at WorldTour level for one final tilt at the race next year. His brings the curtain down on his road career with no regrets. "Nah, I've won the Tour, haven't I?” he told a group of reporters who had assembled outside the team bus afterwards.
Eclipsed by Chris Froome in Sky's Grand Tour hierarchy, Wiggins found solace these past two seasons by tapping into his teenage affinity for Paris-Roubaix, placing ninth twelve months ago and then building his truncated final campaign with the team expressly around the race. "I'm pretty happy, I've had a good run at the whole thing and this was always like a new job the last couple of years – a bit of a hobby, a passion," he said.
"But I've had plenty of opportunities. I rode this race 13 years ago and did it for a couple of years, so I'm not new to it. I had my opportunity back then but I think we've seen how cycling's changed with how many people were in the final."
As is his wont, Wiggins was placed towards the rear of the peloton on many of the early sectors of cobbles, and even at the Arenberg Forest, he was not as well-positioned as one might expect from a man with designs on winning the race. He was also caught on the back foot when Etixx-QuickStep briefly split the race in the crosswinds after the cobbles at Sars-et-Rosières with 75 kilometres remaining, but seemed to grow bolder as the afternoon progressed.
Finally, towards the end of pavé sector 7 at Templeuve, a shade over 32 kilometres from the finish, Wiggins launched an attack to show that at least some of the hype beforehand had been merited, as he soloed smoothly across to earlier attacker Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-QuickStep).
"When I attacked I was right on the motorbikes and it was like I was 16 again in London training on this mews next to my house thinking I was it," Wiggins said. "That was nice. It's something to tell the kids: Your dad was shit at Paris-Roubaix but he was leading at one point. Well, he wasn't leading it but he was leading the main group."
That would be as far as the illusion would last. Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) and Vandenbergh's teammate Zdenek Stybar bridged across shortly afterwards but in the absence of any spirit of collaboration, the group was pegged back before the next sector of cobbles. "It was in a pretty good position, no one really expected an attack there but I was just lumbered with a couple of people who didn't want to work," Wiggins said matter-of-factly.
He continued to be prominent thereafter but did not re-join the attacking until it was too late. A brief flourish with Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) on the approach to Roubaix came long after the decisive move had ghosted clear. His hopes had long been sunk. "We went up that drag with 5k to go but by then it's like that bit in the Titanic, where they're all hanging on and people are just falling,"he admitted.
It was a curious kind of Paris-Roubaix finale. Without Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, absent through injury, and puffed along by a tailwind for much of the day, some 40 riders were still in contention as the race hit the Carrefour de l'Arbre inside the last 20 kilometres. Despite Wiggins' assertion that it had been a "soft" edition of the race, he acknowledged that John Degenkolb's victory brooked no argument.
"I think the right winner won in John, but it was just a bit soft the way it went in the final, it didn't go on force like some of the classic editions of Roubaix," he said. "It would have been nice to have a proper one, à la Ballerini twenty years ago."
On crossing the finish line in the velodrome, Wiggins wheeled to a halt on the grass in the centre of the track and, just like last year, sat beneath a Vittel canopy to compose his thoughts while camera crews jostled for position for a final shot of the Briton, cursing silently at the pair of photographers who had managed to break the cordon and capture the moment for posterity.
Wiggins' wife Cath was ushered through to speak with him, and she wiped away a tear as she emerged, but his own expression was impassive as he soft-pedalled out of the velodrome shortly afterwards, reporters jogging in tow. He clambered aboard the Team Sky bus without a word, and whatever riot of emotions he must have felt at the finish were firmly in check by the time he re-emerged, as he hammed it up for a Sky Sports camera crew with his manager Dave Brailsford.
"I just kissed Dave on the head and told him we've gone through a lot through a lot together. He's known me since I was an 18-year-old streak of piss and now I’'m a 35-year-old streak of piss," he joked.
As Paris-Roubaix drew nearer, Wiggins had grown warier and warier of the hype that was building up around his final race at this level, admitting that he was keen not to become overwhelmed by the nostalgia of bringing an end to his professional road career, a 14-year story that suddenly took on a different slant following his dramatic weight loss of 2009.
"I've been trying not to think about it being the last one, but so many people came up to me in the race and said 'Have a nice life,' which was nice," Wiggins said of Sunday's race. "That was really nice and it's hard not to get emotional in that first 100k but I came through it well. I said to Mat Hayman at the start, 'I just want a clean run today' and I didn't have one puncture or one crash. I came through it pretty well."