LAUSANNE, Switzerland: Champion Tadej Pogacar said on Saturday he fears COVID-19 could wreak havoc on this year’s Tour de France after the Slovenian tightened his grip on the leader’s yellow jersey after stage eight.
Belgian rider Wout van Aert sprinted to victory in the coronavirus-hit proceedings at Lausanne with Pogacar finishing third.
The peloton left Dole in the Jura region under a cloud after Norwegian Vegard Stake Laengen from Pogacar’s UAE Team Emirates and Frenchman Geoffrey Bouchard of AG2R Citroen tested positive for the virus and were withdrawn.
“It’s a big scare, the pandemic is still there with us, and we can’t risk racing with it,” said the 23-year-old two-time defending champion.
“We get tested every two days or so but Vegard got ill during the night, really, it’s worrying. All the fans packed tight on the roadside and shouting, sometimes you think maybe this is a source.
“He’s the train of our team,” the Slovenian continued of Stake Laengen.
“The big guy who leads us out, but I think we can make it to Paris without him.”
Jumbo-Visma’s van Aert won on a late incline ahead of Australia’s pre-stage favorite Michael Matthews with Pogacar just behind.
This was a second stage win for van Aert, who also came second three times during the opening stages in Denmark, and extends his lead in the sprint standings to 264pts ahead of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s Fabio Jakobsen on 149 and Pogacar, 128.
Van Aert’s chief rival Mathieu van der Poel fell off the back of the peloton before the attack.
“It would have been more prestigious to beat Mathieu too, but I can only beat who is there,” said van Aert, who alongside Pogacar is the big star of this 2022 Tour de France.
Taking a seat Pogacar had just vacated van Aert rigorously drenched his hands in sanitary gel, just stopping short of smearing it on his face.
“It’s never easy to win a bike race, and never easy to win a Tour de France stage, I need to find a way to thank my team for helping me today,” he said.
Pogacar also took a four-second bonus for his third place and extends his overall lead on Jumbo’s Dane Jonas Vingegaard at the top of the rankings to 39 seconds.
After the Covid withdrawals, cowbell ringing roadside fans cheered the pack along the way to the Swiss border where they caught a glimpse of what is to come with the Alps rearing into view on the horizon.
An early fall caught Pogacar and third-placed Geraint Thomas, while French climber Thibaut Pinot not only fell twice but also took a smack on the nose when a roadside food bag distributor got things badly wrong.
Denmark’s Magnus Cort Nielsen of EF Education-Easy Post will ride stage nine in the polka dot jersey again while Tom Pidcock of Ineos will wear the white under-26’s jersey albeit as second placed man behind Pogacar.
Sunday’s ninth stage runs from Aigle to Chatel les Portes du Soleil, an Alpine resort on the French-Swiss border, with more 40km of climbing on the 192km itinerary.
It reaches a high point of 1,778m at the Col de la Croix summit while a 15km, six percent, gradient challenge up the Pas de Morgins awaits any tired legs before the Tour re-enters France for the final 10km.