In hindsight, it was something of an omen. On the day Fabian Cancellara's final Tour de France visited his hometown of Bern, most of the noise in the finishing straight was being generated by a boisterous group of Slovak supporters, who blared horns and chanted the mantra of ‘Sagan, Sagan, Sagan' over and over again as the peloton drew nearer to the Swiss capital.
Not all of the portents were gloomy, mind. The finish line was directly opposite the Wankdorf Stadium, site of the ‘Miracle of Bern' World Cup final of 1954, when West Germany upset Ferenc Puskas and the great Hungarian side, another seemingly unbeatable foe from central Europe. Certainly, Cancellara was going to have to summon up something unexpected if he was to deny world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) a third stage win of the race.
There was precious little coincidence about the fact that the route featured a short, sharp climb – replete with a section of cobbles – ahead of the final kilometre. The home hope was clearly that Cancellara could replicate his Tour of Flanders exploits or even his swatting away of the sprinters in Compiegne at the 2007 Tour.
Only Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) briefly managed to escape the clutches of the peloton on the run-in, however, and a group of 30 or so riders crested the hill together to contest the stage win. A notable feature of the latter part of Cancellara's career has been his development of a sprint finish – enough to earn him podium finishes ahead of ostensibly quicker men at Milan-San Remo – but there would be no heist here.
Cancellara was well positioned and sprinted gamely, but his legs could only carry him so far in this company and in this kind of race. He finished in sixth place, while Sagan pipped Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) to the stage win by the narrowest of margins.
On crossing the line, Cancellara paused briefly to embrace his wife and daughter, before wheeling his way carefully through the finish area towards his Trek-Segafredo bus, a Swiss television crew following at an almost deferential distance. Cancellara doused his head in water on reaching the bus and then climbed aboard to dry himself before facing the impromptu media scrum that had built up outside.
"All day was very fast so there was less time to think about what I'd do at the end. I knew the last 5k was going to be very tough and it was like that. It wasn't that easy but I wasn't badly placed. But I was missing that last little something that could have been in the legs," Cancellara said, without rancour.
"Everyone was full gas and when everyone is full gas like that it's hard. We challenged each other. I had to fight with Kristoff for position in the last 500 metres and I was thinking maybe I'd have a go a bit earlier, but it was such a long straight line so you cannot just make an attack."
Cancellara announced his intention to retire at the end of 2016 more than two years ago, and all year he has rejected the idea that his final season might become something of a farewell tour. As at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix earlier in the year, he downplayed the impact of the emotions of the day.
"There was no space to think about emotion. The space was only to think about position, getting water, recovering in the race and cooling down from the heat. In the end, I was focused totally to get everything out for the final," Cancellara said.
"Today is the day of a bike race but maybe when I think about it tomorrow or in the next days, it will mean a bit more. Right now in a race, it's damn hard, so you're 100 per cent focused on your legs and everything you need to do for the finish."
At times, Cancellara has affected a distaste for the ever-increasing dimensions Tour, speaking of his delight at sampling the rather more homely Tour of Austria when he skipped the Grande Boucle in 2013. And yet, the old race exerts a pull all the same and Cancellara could hardly leave it off the playlist for his final season. He holds the distinction wearing the yellow jersey for more days – 29 – than any other rider who has never won the race outright. Berne was likely his final chance to add to his haul of seven stage wins.
"The bunch went slow and then again attacks, and I was thinking of jumping on some. For sure it was hard to balance out what is the best solution. But I think I didn't defend myself badly," said Cancellara. The storybook finale was not be.
"And it's OK like that. I'm not a sprinter. Maybe people think I can always sneak away and make a small attack, but after two weeks it's not possible. But it's OK like that."
Tour de France stage 16 highlights video
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