LEEDS, England (AP) Chastened by a miserable season on his bike last year when all he saw of chief rival Chris Froome was his back, Alberto Contador vowed to do better and changed his training.
An instinctive rider gifted with natural abilities in the mountains, the leader of the Tinkoff-Saxo outfit had long been reluctant to accept innovative training methods, usually preferring quantity to quality, and spending long hours on the road during the winter months.
This year, Contador rode less. He consented to increase his workload in altitude on the slopes of the Mount Teide in Tenerife, as well as using a power meter, and worked with Stephen De Jongh, a former Team Sky sports director who is said to have helped him control his weight.
''For more than 10 years, he stuck to the same program over the winter, accumulating kilometers and hours in the saddle,'' Tinkoff-Saxo sports director Laurent Mauduit said. ''This year, he has replaced quantity with quality. He has worked with great intensity, and tried to dig into his reserves.''
The payoff has been worth it, so far. Contador is back to his best form in years, and the Spaniard lines up for the start of the Tour de France on Saturday believing a third victory is within his grasp.
At 31, ''El Pistolero'' can expect to remain in top condition for only a few more years. He has won five grand tours, including two Tours, and after being tamed by Froome and finishing fourth last year in the heat of the French summer, he is ready to mount a stronger challenge.
''This is a very special Tour for me,'' said Contador, who was stripped of the 2010 Tour title for a doping violation and lost a podium spot in the 2013 Tour on the penultimate stage.
''Froome is the man to beat, he has been the best in the last two years, and has shown his form in the Tour before. But I'm in a better shape than last year. I don't know if it will be enough to beat him but I'll try.''
Contador was in superb form in March when he won the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico race. Then last month at the Criterium du Dauphine, the Tour's dress rehearsal, Contador did not win but came out on top of a fierce battle with Froome to confirm his status as the Briton's main challenger.
''The Dauphine was a very good test for me, it was good for my confidence that I resisted all of Froome's attacks,'' Contador said. ''I don't know if he was at his best but for me it was a great test. Good for my confidence.''
With less time trialing this year, Contador believes the race will be decided in the mountains. He also thinks his strong team of experienced riders, including 14-time Paris-Roubaix veteran Matteo Tosatto, will be a key asset during the fifth stage featuring nine sections of cobblestones.
''You will have to face stage five with a lot of respect,'' said Contador, who escaped unscathed when the race last hit similar terrain in 2010. ''It will mean survival for everybody. You have to be confident. You can lose the Tour on that stage.''