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Tour de France

Tadej Pogačar title defense at Tour de France takes huge hit after loss of Rafal Majka

UAE Emirates on the ropes after loss of fourth rider as pressure mounts on Tadej Pogačar; Tim Wellens latest to leave with COVID-19.

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LOUDERVIELLE, France (VN) – Tadej Pogačar is running out of teammates just as fast as he’s running out of time as he hunts a third straight yellow jersey.

UAE Team Emirates confirmed Wednesday top climber Rafal Majka is out of action after a bizarre incident on the extra steep Péguère climb deep in the final of Tuesday’s stage to Foix.

“Majka sustained a strain injury to his thigh after some mechanical trouble on stage 16 when his chain broke,” team medic Dr. Adrian Rotunno said Wednesday.

“This resulted in a high-grade partial thickness tear of his right quadriceps muscle, and unfortunately due to the muscle damage is unable to ride.”

Also read: Pyrénées provide perfect playground for Pogačar-Vingegaard final at Tour de France

Pogačar loses his strongest helper, and finds himself with just three UAE Team Emirates teammates remaining heading into two crucial summit finishes Wednesday and Thursday.

George Bennett and Vegard Stake Langen left due to COVID earlier in the race, while Marc Soler suffered through the second week and missed the time cut Tuesday.

Pogačar said that not having Majka in the race complicated things. “It’s going to be really tough. We only have four guys left, and I’m really sad for Rafal because he was feeling really good. He tore a muscle. And he tried today, he went on the home rollers to try to move the legs, but it’s just not possible. We will fight with what we have, and it’s still not over.”

He said that the absence will have an effect. “It changes a lot. But yeah, I need to figure out how to get the time back.”

Jumbo-Visma is counting on five riders to defend Jonas Vingegaard and his 2:22 advantage over Pogačar as the Tour roars into its final week. Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert became instrumental to the Dane after Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk left the race in one dramatic stage last weekend.

Meanwhile, Ineos Grenadiers sits pretty with all eight starters but has far more road to recover than Pogačar, with Geraint Thomas in third place.

Pogačar needs to attack at every turn to retain his Tour title this week. The Slovenian isn’t shy in attacking alone, but Majka proved a top lieutenant when racing was stitched back together.

The Pole was towing his captain through the steepest part of the Péguère in the closing hours of Tuesday’s stage. Majka was setting the tone on the front of the GC group when his chain dramatically broke, and saw him freewheeling to the side of the road.

Soler missed the cut Tuesday night and Majka went to the medical ward Wednesday morning.

All of a sudden, Brandon McNulty, Mikkel Bjerg and the sick and off-form Marc Hirschi have a lot more work to do in the UAE Emirates engine room.

Tim Wellens also makes exit Wednesday

Majka wasn’t the only rider out of the race ahead of stage 17 on Wednesday.

Lotto-Soudal lost attacking ace Tim Wellens to COVID-19 ahead of the stage start as the team continues to rue a dire Tour de France.

Caleb Ewan came to the Tour hunting sprint victories but is yet to score after untimely crashes and extra-aggressive racing zapped his sprint legs in the flat finishes so far.

“Unfortunately, Tim Wellens has to leave the race,” read a team message Wednesday. “After having mild symptoms this morning, a test showed he has COVID.”

Ewan now has six to support him in his last opportunities for victory in stage 19 on Friday and the closing stage in Paris on Sunday.