UTRECHT, Netherlands (Reuters) - Vincenzo Nibali has had a stressful season, but the Italian champion believes he is in fine shape to defend his Tour de France title.
His Astana team faced the possibility of being stripped of their World Tour licence following positive dope tests, learning they had retained their elite status only in late April.
"The Astana team had some troubles at the start of the year. The media spoke a lot about it there were a lot of rumours. Our licence was called into question but never taken away," Nibali told a news conference on Friday, a day before the Tour stars with a 13.8-km time trial in Utrecht, Netherlands.
"Our team is followed closely. Our training program has been spoken about and we've paid the price for the riders who doped but we can't pay the price for mistakes we haven't made ourselves."
The debate surrounding Astana's licence lasted two months during which Nibali looked well below his best.
He finished the Tirreno-Adriatico week-long race a disappointing 16th before ending up 10th at the Tour de Romandie, both times far off the pace of Tour rivals Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana.
"I had a difficult Spring with no victories, and I wasn't in good enough shape to win races in Spring, and as the defending Tour de France champion it wasn't a good way to start the season," said Nibali, who snatched his only victory this year when he retained his Italian road race title last weekend.
"But with my coach Paolo Slongo we have had an ideal preparation, more or less the same plan as last year."
Nibali showed improvement at the Criterium du Dauphine in June. Even if he finished outside the top 10, Nibali displayed glimpses of his brilliant self in the sixth stage, unsettling Froome with a bold move that earned him second place on the day.
"I'm pretty much in the same form as last year. I know there is a lot of expectation but there are a lot of other riders in contention who have won more than me this year, like Froome who won the Dauphine and Contador," he said.
"But I am coming here in good form."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)