Reigning champion Chris Froome and his Sky team could barely hide their excitement ahead of Saturday’s Tour de France start in Normandy.

Speaking from their team hotel on Thursday, Froome and Sky boss Dave Brailsford identified Colombian climber Nairo Quintana as a particular threat to the Briton’s hopes of a hat-trick of Tour successes.

Quintana finished second to Froome the two years he won the Tour — in 2013 and last year — and with the reigning champion branding this year’s edition “a climber’s Tour”, much is expected of the Colombian.

“I think he’s more motivated than ever,” said Froome of Quintana.

“In both Tours that I’ve been able to win he was runner-up. As it stands now on paper and on the road he has to be the biggest rival for me.”

Brailsford suggested the one thing holding back Quintana, 26, is the fact he’s never won the race before.

But the Colombian has been in fine form this season, already winning two week-long stage races in Catalonia and Romandie, while finishing third in the Basque Country.

“He’s had a good season,” said Brailsford. “His previous (Tour) performances have been optimised by a strong last few days and last week.

“The question is whether he’s stepped up. He’ll be asking himself that question as much as everyone else (will).

“He’ll come with confidence but also questions because he’s never done it. He’s a brilliant rider, a fantastic rider, but there are chinks in his armour we can exploit if the opportunity arises.”

Froome also showed at the beginning of June he’s riding into top shape by winning the Criterium de Dauphine stage race.

But his preparation this year has been quite different to when he won his first Tour three years ago.

– ‘Toughest challenge’ –

Then he competed in several week-long stage races from early February to late April before also taking part in the Dauphine in early June.

This time, though, he raced the five-day Sun Herald Tour in Australia in early February but then didn’t race again until the Tour of Romandie in late April.

“It’s perhaps the toughest challenge I’ve faced in my career to date, trying to come here and target a third Tour de France,” said Froome, 31, who is mindful not only of being in form for the Tour, but also maintaining that condition through to the Rio Olympics in August.

“My wife and I have just had our first son so personally it’s been good for me to spend more time at home and ease into racing.

“I feel it’s been good for me to change it up a bit, to have almost a different focus. But I trust in the training I’ve been doing that I would reach this point in the best condition, even though I’ve had no racing since February (until late April).

“I’m glad we did take that approach and hopefully I’ll carry my form better into the third week. The goal is to hopefully be in better condition in the third week than in the past.”

It’s not just about fending off the challenge from Quintana, though, as Froome insisted: “I’ve got more rivals and the level of my rivals is that much stronger.”

But Brailsford is confident his man, and his team have the necessary tools to triumph once again.

“This is one of the high points of the year for us,” he said.

“This year there’s a real excitement and anticipation for the race. It’s going to be a hard race, a tough race this year, but Chris is a fantastic leader.” – Agence France-Presse

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