Bradley Wiggins admitted his disappointment after being forced to abandon the Giro d’Italia, a race the Olympic champion had made his number one priority this season.
A second consecutive stage win for fellow Brit Mark Cavendish – and fourth of the event – today was overshadowed by the withdrawal of last year’s Tour de France winner, forced to pull out on the advice of Team Sky doctors prior to the stage start after suffering what was described as a “worsening chest infection”.
Wiggins will now return home to focus on recovery and preparation for the Tour, where his failure here could lead to fresh controversy over Team Sky’s plans to support team-mate Chris Froome over their defending champion.
For now, however, the 33-year-old was left to lick his wounds after a Giro which never really went according to plan for him.
“I’m disappointed, but some things you can’t control,” the seven-time Olympic medallist told Sky Italia. “It’s really disappointing to stop in this way because we came here for so much more.
“This morning the doctor said ’That’s enough’, because I didn’t really have much sleep last night and yesterday was really bad and we had a long stage again today.
“It’s how long you can keep fighting for before you say the GC has gone now.”
Wiggins had seen his slim chances of winning the Giro effectively ended in a miserable 12th stage yesterday, after which he plummeted to 13th place overall and five minutes and 22 seconds off leader Vincenzo Nibali.
Earlier in the event, he had suffered a painful crash on the seventh stage of the race and then seen the time trial where he needed to make up time hampered by a puncture before illness began to take its toll in the past couple of days.
Having come here for victory, Wiggins accepted there was little point in carrying on just to make up the numbers.
“It’s hard to be part of the Giro just to be a number because everybody expected so much,” he continued. “There are a lot of riders in the peloton at the moment that are sick, but as the winner of the Tour, you can’t hide away and get over it.
“It was hard being in that position yesterday, because I am not used to it. I am not used to being dropped on the flat from a grupetto. That’s a sign that something is not right.
“The decision was made with a view to being back to full strength for the Tour, so I think had we continued in this Giro, the risk was that I did more damage long term. I think the team have taken the decision to put a stop to it now and start thinking about getting back to full strength for the Tour.”
Officially at least, those Tour preparations will see him get ready to support Froome, who Team Sky principal Sir Dave Brailsford has already pegged as the team’s leader, despite Wiggins saying in the build-up to the Giro that his dream scenario would be to pursue a double.
In a statement earlier today, Brailsford steered clear of any mention of the team’s Tour plans, referring only to Wiggin’s current condition.
“Bradley will return to the UK for treatment and to rest and we hope to have him back on the road as soon as possible,” Brailsford said.
“As a passionate racer he wanted to continue but he is simply unable to do so on medical grounds.”
Ryder Hesjedal, the Giro’s defending champion, also withdrew today, having fallen even further off the pace than Wiggins as he too suffered illness amid the cold and wet conditions.
With Wiggins out, Team Sky must now put their focus here on Colombian Rigoberto Uran, who has retained third position overall after today’s long stage, which ended in another victory for Cavendish in a bunch sprint.
The Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider had left his team-mates behind by the time the leaders neared the end of the 254 kilometre run from Busseto to Cherasco, the longest stage of the race, but positioned himself perfectly and burst clear at the line to finish ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo and Luka Mezgec.
Cavendish was riding a special edition of his Specialized Venge bike, built to commemorate his 100th career victory achieved yesterday, although as he climbed off it he looked thoroughly exhausted with the tough mountain stages to come starting tomorrow.
Overall leader Nibali finished in the peloton along with closest challenger Cadel Evans, who remains 41 seconds back, and Uran, whose deficit stands at 2 minutes 4 seconds.
The 14th stage is scheduled to be a 168km slog into the Alps from Cervere to Bardonecchia although with foul weather continuing to batter this event, organisers were reportedly considering a change to the finish in order to eliminate a 7km climb to the line.