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Friday July 4, 2014 MYT 1:22:05 AM
Friday July 4, 2014 MYT 1:22:54 AM
by martyn herman
LEEDS England (Reuters) - Defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome says the problems that have blighted his season are behind him and he is ready to use the energy of a home Grand Depart as the launch pad to retaining his title.
The Team Sky rider, who became Britain's second Tour champion last year when he succeeded team mate Bradley Wiggins, has suffered a far from ideal build-up, withdrawing from the Tirreno-Adriatico in March with a lower back injury.
Froome, 29, has also been battling various ailments, and last month was at the centre of controversy when cycling's governing body was accused of giving him preferential treatment to use a steroid-based drug to treat a chest infection.
Yet, the African-born rider looked relaxed and confident during a news conference in Leeds on Thursday, two days before the 2,272 mile race starts with the first of three eagerly-awaited stages in Britain.
"I've had adversity, lower back and chest problems this year and the crash in the (Criterium du) Dauphine set me back a little bit," Froome, flanked by his team mates, told a crowded news conference.
"But the last few weeks training have been very good and I come here feeling that I can perform like I did last year."
The opening stage on Saturday, a 190.5km ride across the hills and valleys Yorkshire folk like to call God's Country, is expected to draw thousands of fans on to the streets as Britain hosts the opening stage for the first time since 2007.
Fellow Briton Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who will be one of the favourites to pull on the famous maillot jaune after a likely sprint finish in Harrogate on Saturday, expects the atmosphere to be "phenomenal".
Froome, who does not have quite the same fan appeal as Olympic champion Wiggins, said being defending champion added a little more pressure, especially at home.
"It's definitely increased a bit," he said. "There are going to be huge crowds, but it's warm, positive energy and as a team we could not ask for more.
"It could give us the launch pad into the Tour."
Froome is the favourite, although with Spain's former winner Alberto Contador back in form and other riders such as American Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali expected to challenge, he said, winning it again would be "no walk in the park."
"It's not easy getting yourself ready for a Tour de France you really have to put yourself through hell to be on the start line and I really feel each of the nine guys has done," he said.
"Given the structure of the Tour, the different challenges; we have the cobbles, we have these tricky stages up here, we have five summit finishes, 54km time trial it's not possible to say I'm definitely going to win.
"But I will give it my absolute everything."
Asked whether Contador was his main rival, Froome added: "He is definitely more competitive than he was last year.
"His run-up to the Tour has been a lot smoother. But it's true of all my main rivals here, they have all upped their game and it's going to be a really exciting Tour this year and a battle all the way to the end."
Contador, who was far from his best when he finished fourth overall last year, has been in fine form this season, beating Froome at the Criterium du Dauphine last month and winning the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of the Basque country stage races.
(Editing by Julien Pretot)
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