Few riders will be more driven to win the Tour de France than Alberto Contador, but the two-time winner from Spain places Briton Chris Froome and Colombian Nairo Quintana on a peg above him and the rest.
For now, at least.
Tinkoff rider Contador hopes he will be celebrating the third Tour victory of his career when the 21-stage race finishes in Paris on Sunday, July 24, knowing the course this year suits climbers such as him. But he knows also that 2013 winner and defending champion Froome (Sky) and Quintana (Movistar), runner-up to the Briton in both races, are not his only rivals through the 3535-kilometre race that gets underway at Mont Saint Michel in Normandy on Saturday
Australian Richie Porte (BMC), American Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Italians Fabio Aru (Astana) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r), Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Trek) and Irishman Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) are also genuine contenders.
"At the start of the Tour there will be many good riders, but that always happens every year," Contador told ESPN.
"In theory, Froome and Quintana are a bit above the rest, but in the end the route and the race circumstances will make the race more open or closed."
Froome, 31, and Quintana, 26, will start the Tour hot off recent wins. Froome won the Criterium du Dauphine, beating Bardet, Martin, Porte and Contador in that order. Quintana, now a better time-triallist, won the Route du Sud against a weaker field but with a display that smacked of his early-season class on the World Tour that included victory in the Volta Cicilista a Catalunya, third in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and first in the Tour de Romandie.
Froome has risen to a boil since his Herald Sun Tour win in Australia in February, placing eighth in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and 38th in the Tour du Romandie -- where his mountain stage win was a strong clue to his emerging form for the Criterium du Dauphine.
Contador, whose own nine-rider team will be named on Tuesday, believes Froome is slightly best positioned of all the favourites, citing his British Sky team's strength as cause.
"This year, besides the [form of the individual team] leaders, you must also take into account the strength of the Team Sky which will also control the race," Contador, 33, told ESPN.
BMC's Two-Pronged Attack A Threat Or Not
Experience nevertheless tells Contador to look beyond Froome and Quintana for Tour threats. And he is particularly wary of former Saxo teammate Porte, who helped him win the 2011 Giro title that was subsequently taken from him.
Porte, 31, then joined Sky, for whom he helped Bradley Wiggins win the 2012 Tour win and Froome to his victories in 2013 and 2015 before signing with BMC. Porte is now BMC's co-leader for the Tour with van Garderen, 27, who placed fifth overall in 2012, when he won the best young rider's white jersey, and in 2014.
"Richie is a great rider and a great rival in the Tour, as he demonstrated in the last Criterium du Dauphine," Contador said of the Australian who finished fourth in the Criterium du Dauphine fourth having previously placed second in the Tour Down Under, third in Paris-Nice and fourth in the Volta a Catalunya.
"He has matured as a rider and is a complete rider, both in time trial and climbing. Perhaps he is not at the same level as Froome or Quintana, but he will be a rival to keep in mind."
Contador is wary and skeptical of BMC's two-pronged attack with Porte and van Garderen, who starts the Tour having won the mountainous Queen stage of the Tour du Suisse -- his best result of the year after finishing second in the Ruta del Sol and fifth in the Volta al Catalunya.
"Having two leaders is theoretically an advantage," Contador said, "but it can also be a handicap if one of them is superior to the other and the team don't set clearly the priorities."
No Regrets For Trying Giro-Tour Double
Contador, from Pinto near Madrid, is excited about his Tour prospects. And so he should be given his rich pedigree in the Grand Tours. He won the Tour in 2007 and 2009, and the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana in 2008. He was then stripped of wins in the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro in 2012, when slapped with a backdated two-year ban after testing positive for clenbutrol during the 2010 Tour - Contador claimed he had eaten contaminated meat -- but returned as good as ever after serving his suspension to win the 2012 and 2014 Vuelta and the 2015 Giro while placing fourth in the 2013 Tour and fifth in 2015 having crashed out in the intervening year.
He missed the Spanish road championship on Sunday, citing "health reasons", but he told ESPN beforehand that he felt "much better" than in 2015, when he started the Tour after winning the Giro.
"At this point last year I was destroyed, very tired because of the demands of the Giro."
But Contador has no regrets about attempting the Giro-Tour double last year, as he did in 2011; in both years he won in Italy - he was stripped of the 2011 Giro title as a result of his backdated doping ban - before finishing fifth in France.
"My last season  was very good," Contador told ESPN.
"I don't regret having raced the Giro.
"Circumstances made the double very hard. Maybe I should have changed several things, like not racing the Route du Sud [that he won after the Giro] and being rested a little more."
This year, Contador has figured strongly with a third in the Volta ao Algarve, second in Paris-Nice and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, and victory in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco before his aggressive fifth at the Criterium du Dauphine in which he won the prologue time trial.
Learning From Adversity
Contador is a fighting racer, one who does not think of the restrictions that come with age. The Spaniard earlier this year shelved his initial plan announced last year to retire after this season, and he told ESPN ahead of the Tour de France that he didn't think he had reached the point at which a cyclist relies on racing smarts to make up for what they may have lost in strength as they get older.
"This season, with training data we have and race performances, I feel better than ever."
Contador's future is clouded in doubt, however, after the Russian owner of his Tinkoff team -- Oleg Tinkoff -- announced that he would end his support after this year.
"My idea is to continue to compete, normally for two more seasons," Contador told ESPN.
"But I will no longer set any specific date to retire. That will depend on if I continue to feel competitive at the highest level. Most important is to be on a team that guarantees to fight for victory in the Tour, which is what you want when you think of engaging a rider like me."
For all his experience -- and the highs and lows -- Contador has not forgotten his Tour debut in 2005 when he placed 31st overall. More significant was the fact that he was alive, let alone racing in the world's biggest cycle race, after recovering from brain surgery for cerebral cavernoma. The condition struck during the 2004 Vuelta a Asturias, and he underwent brain surgery.
Contador returned to cycling at the 2005 Tour Down Under, winning stage five, and he told ESPN that the race in South Australia "will always have a special place in my heart ... I would like to return someday".
"Overcoming adversity, especially when it's due to illness or serious accidents, teaches you to appreciate truly important things in life, to surpass yourself, to fight back for your goals."
Contador's adversity did more than motivate him to become a Tour champion. It led him to create the Alberto Contador Foundation that aims to increase awareness and prevention of brain strokes and runs a junior and under-23 cycling team to promote health and wellbeing.
"We also have other projects like Bikes for Life where people give us second hand bikes. We fix and send them to Africa or other places. The goal is to give back some of all that cycling gave to me."