UTRECHT, Netherlands — Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali did not see much of rival Chris Froome the last time they raced each other.
That's because Froome was a dot on the horizon.
At the Criterium du Dauphine race last month, Froome sent out a major warning to Nibali — and others — that he is in great form, clinching overall victory on the back of two dashing stage wins in the mountains. Nibali, meanwhile, finished 12th.
Their rivalry resumes Saturday, when the Tour gets underway with a short and sharp 13.8-kilometer (8.6-mile) individual time trial in the cycling-mad Dutch city of Utrecht.
Froome, the 2013 Tour winner, is feeling extremely confident.
"I've come to the start of this race in perfect condition. I'm surrounded by what I think is the strongest team in the race," Froome said on Friday. "It's probably going to be one of the most contested races in years."
Saturday's opener gives Froome, the faster rider, a chance to get an early edge on the Italian.
"I'd expect time gaps of at least up to 20 seconds between the (main) contenders," the Kenyan-born British rider said. "So, yes the race between the (overall) contenders does start in that regard."
The roles are reversed from last year, with Nibali as the defending champ, which takes some pressure off Froome.
"That's definitely a big factor in how I'm feeling," Froome said. "Certainly not coming in as defending champion, I've got everything to look forward to."
Froome failed to defend his title last year after crashing early on.
As in last year's race, cobblestone sections will feature again and seemingly suit the slick bike-handling skills of Nibali more than they do Froome.
"I've been out there and looked at the cobbles, and I'm quite looking forward to that stage," said an optimistic and upbeat-sounding Froome, sitting at a pre-race news conference in the middle of his Team Sky teammates.
The race is being touted as a thrilling four-way scrap, one which should very much include Giro d'Italia champion Alberto Contador and Colombian climbing ace Nairo Quintana, the 2013 Tour runner-up.
"He is one of the favorites, if not the No. 1 favorite," said Nibali, who last weekend successfully defended his Italian national title.
Contador, a two-time Tour winner who was also stripped of his 2010 title for a failed doping test, hopes to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro-Tour double the same year.
But Nibali and Froome both expressed reservations as to the likelihood of that happening.
"It's going to be interesting to see how much he pulls up (the mountains) in the third week, seeing as he already has a Grand Tour in his legs," Froome said.
Ending with four straight days of climbing in the Alps, including the penultimate stage up the famed L'Alpe d'Huez, it is a Tour very much for climbers. Hence why Froome's performance in the Dauphine was so impressive.
At that race, Nibali claimed the overall lead with two days remaining following a long and rain-soaked mountain Alpine stage. But then Nibali cracked in the last two days, and Froome made the most of it.
"I had a difficult Spring with no victories," Nibali said. As the defending Tour de France champion it wasn't a good way to start the season."
The 25-year-old Quintana, meanwhile, won his first European race of the season at the Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy in Mid-March.
Then, after finishing eighth at the Tour of Romandie in Switzerland, ending early May, he returned home to train for a few weeks in Colombia. That decision prompted Nibali, speaking to reporters during the Dauphine race, to ask "where is Quintana?"
Quintana returned to Europe for the Route du Sud race in France, which ended June 21, and where he placed second behind Contador.
Nibali sought to clarify his previous comment on Quintana's whereabouts.
"The sense of my question was that we knew where all the other riders were ... We get followed closely," said Nibali, who was speaking Friday through a translator. "My remark was that we hadn't seen Quintana since the Tour of Romandie. I didn't want to cause controversy; it was just to ask where he was."
Nibali rides for the Astana team, which has been answering many questions of its own, after five senior and development squad riders were caught doping with EPO and steroids since last August.
Cycling's governing body, UCI, even said there were "compelling grounds" to request that Astana, which is backed by the Kazakhstan government, be stripped of its license altogether.
"Our license was called into question but never taken away," Nibali said. "We've paid the price for the riders who doped, but we can't pay the price for mistakes we haven't made ourselves."