Alberto Contador listened carefully to the questions put to him during his pre-Tour de France press conference on Friday, trying to hide his emotions behind carefully pondered answers.
His strategy appeared to be simple: put the press on Froome by declaring him as the big favourite but make everyone aware he is in far better shape than last year when he struggled to be competitive and finished only fourth overall.
"I’ve said this lots of times and so it maybe repetitive but the rider who’s shown to be the strongest in the last two years is Froome and he’s the number one favourite," he said, preferring to answer every question in Spanish.
"Have I got better form than last year? Definitely. I don’t know whether it’ll be enough. And there are other riders out there who can also have a huge influence on the race."
Contador did admit that this year's Tour de France will be special. Be it for the start in Yorkshire, the difficult early stages in the hills and on the cobbles and because of his rivalry with Froome.
"For me all of them are special but this one is exceptional, this is the one everybody wants to win," he said.
"I've come to this Tour very calm, in good shape, with lots of good race results. Froome is the top favourite and I'll ride day by day to see what happens. But yes, it’s a very special, important Tour."
"There's no doubt that I've come here in a good state of form, but the first week is not as decisive as perhaps other years (because of the lack of an individual or team time trial). There are key stages like the second and the fifth stages but it’s when we get to the Vosges when we'll see everybody’s real condition."
Contador and his Tinkoff-Saxo teammates studied the cobbles of stage five for a final time before traveling to Leeds on Oleg Tinkov's private jet. He seemed wary of Froome and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) on the cobbles.
"I think that we could see a series of different outcomes but Froome has a very strong team for the cobbles, Nibali is good too for this terrain. In any case, it’s going to be a battle for survival for every rider. It’s going to be a stage where you can lose the Tour, but also a day where you can gain a lot of time on your rivals. It’s difficult to make a prediction."
Contador revealed he has not seen Sunday's second stage in the Pennine hills.
"I’ve seen it on video but I've not been to see it. I know it's going to be really hard and there could well be time differences but one big factor will be the wind too. And that's a heck of a lot of climbing for the second day. We will have to be very focused all the way and I hope my legs respond all the way through."
Best Contador ever?
Contador was asked if he is strong as in the 2010 Tour de France. He won the Tour de France that year but was later stripped of victory after his positive test for Clenbuterol. He spotted the trick question and quickly came up with an diplomatic answer.
"My best prepared Tour was in 2009 (the year he beat Andy Schleck and then Astana teammate Lance Armstrong)," he said.
"I don’t know what my shape really is yet for this year's Tour, I do know that I’m in good shape, I feel a lot better than I have done in other years. my preparation has been very good, doing thousands and thousands of metres of climbing."
He also insisted he is confident his Tinkoff-Saxo teammates can help him win the Tour, even without key rider Roman Kreuziger, who has been forced to sit out the Tour due to doubts by the UCI about his Biological Passport data.
"We've got a very strong team in the mountains," Contador pointed out.
"Rafa (Majka) is a great rider with a lot of quality. He was going to be in the team regardless of whether Roman was coming or not, I trust them all implicitly."