ALBERTO Contador knows that Chris Froome is still the man to beat in the Tour de France but believes he is in better shape to do it in 2014.
Former champion Contador is seen as the main threat to Froome retaining his title, but the Tinkoff-Saxo rider must do better than last summer when what was expected to be a fierce fight ended with the Spaniard six and half minutes off the pace in fourth place.
His form to date this season has given Contador all the confidence he needs going into Saturday's opening stage from Leeds to Harrogate.
"I think that Froome is the one to beat this year as he has been the best rider in the last two years," Contador said through an interpreter. "He's shown he's a very strong rider on the Tour de France and he is the number one favourite.
"But this year I'm in better shape than last year. I don't know if it's enough to beat him but I'll try."
Contador took a huge confidence boost from the Criterium du Dauphine, so often a key test of form ahead of the Tour, when he resisted Froome's attacks on stage two. The 31-year-old eventually finished second, beating Froome after the Sky man struggled following a stage six crash.
"I think it was a very, very good race for me," Contador said of the Criterium. "It gave me great confidence to see that I could resist every attack from Chris Froome. I don't know how he was feeling at the time but for me it was great and gave me lots of self-confidence."
Contador, who won the Tour in 2007 and 2009 before being stripped of the 2010 title for failed doping test, knows it takes more than good form to win a Tour de France, and reckons the 2014 edition contains even more traps than usual, particularly in the first week.
He pointed to the unusual number of climbs on the second stage from York to Sheffield, as well as the feared cobblestones to come on stage five from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut.
"You have to go into that stage with a lot of respect," he said of the cobblestones. "You can lose the Tour there but you can't win it."
Contador has not ridden Sunday's stage two, but knows of the dangers lurking in the Yorkshire hills too.
"I have seen a video of the stage, and I think it will be very, very tricky," he said. "There will be some differences between riders and you also have to consider how the wind can play a very important role.
"There are a lot of climbs for a second-day stage, and I think will be very tough, very tricky."
Contador will have to cope without key lieutenant Roman Kreuziger, stood down due to abnormalities in his biological passport, while Michael Rogers and Rafal Majka come into the race on the back of a testing Giro d'Italia.
Tinkoff-Saxo general manager Bjarne Riis insisted Majka was always pegged to the ride the Tour, rather than being a late replacement for Kreuziger, and Contador expressed full confidence in his team.
"I think we have a very strong team this year, even without Roman," he said. "Rafal is an extraordinary rider and he will be very, very good help for me in the mountains. I have a very strong team and I can rely on everybody."
Earlier this week, Contador told Spanish newspaper AS he was surprised Froome's Team Sky had elected not to bring Sir Bradley Wiggins to the start-line, sentiments echoed by Riis.
Asked he would have picked him, Riis said: "He's not on my team so I'm not able to do that. If he was, probably yes."