Tadej Pogačar has admitted that Covid-19 is "a big scare" after his teammate Vegard Stake Laengen was forced out of the Tour de France due to a positive test result.
Thoughts of the pandemic returned to the forefront of everyone's minds on Saturday morning with Laengen and Geoffrey Bouchard of AG2R Citröen both abandoning the race, and subsequently heightening the tension amongst the peloton ahead of a mandatory round of tests on Monday's rest day.
Laengen is the only rider to have been part of both of Pogačar's yellow jersey triumphs in the past two years, and the Norwegian was a crucial domestique in the opening week of this race.
Pogačar won the sixth and seventh stages and collected a further four bonus seconds on stage eight to take his advantage to Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) at the top of the general classification to 39 seconds.
Put to him that the only way he can be beaten is catching the virus, the 23-year-old replied: "Covid is not the rival. It's just a virus that can affect things."
The Slovenian, however, admitted to French TV that "it's a big scare", before later expressing concern to journalists. "It can ruin the whole Tour," he said, "but the rivals are from the other teams like Jumbo and Ineos.
"Every day on the road, on the climbs, there are so many people screaming at you, cheering, which I like but it increases the possibility that you get infected by viruses. I hope this was it [and] that we don't go home because of it and we stay safe until the end."
Addressing the departure of one of his key helpers, Pogačar added: "We lost Laengen today. He was the big guy of the team. He was really strong, in good shape, pulling on the flat, [and] hills. Everywhere. He's like a train in the team.
"It's going to be hard without him, but I think we can manage with seven riders to make it to Paris."
Pogačar was protected from any danger on the final climb into Lausanne on stage eight, but he was unable to beat Wout van Aert for the win, the latter claiming his second triumph of the race.
"Other teams were controlling today, so I was expecting there to be a sprint at the end," he added. "I tried for the win, but today I was not the fastest. Third place was really good for me."
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