By Julien Pretot
PAU, France (Reuters) - Chris Froome is fresher, better prepared and stronger than he was when he won the Tour de France in 2013.
The Briton enters the mountainous part of this year's race with the overall leader's yellow jersey on his back after avoiding the pitfalls of a treacherous first week.
Starting with Tuesday's 10th stage, three treks in the Pyrenees and four in the Alps hold the keys to a race on which Froome already has a firm grip.
Froome, who crashed out of last year's Tour, leads American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) by 12 seconds.
Spain's Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo, +1:03), Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar, 1:59) and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana, +2:22) are further back and will need to attack, possibly anticipate a probable brutal acceleration by Froome in Tuesday's final ascent to La Pierre St Martin.
"I expect Nairo Quintana to start trying to gain time, but if you’re one of those big GC (general classification) contenders and you’re losing time on an almost daily basis, it has to be quite a negative thing within the team and morale can’t be good," a hugely confident Froome told a news conference on the first rest day of the race on Monday.
"This year I feel as if I’ve come in much fresher, a lot more mentally prepared and I feel as if I’m getting stronger in this year’s race.
"Now it’s up to other teams to put the pressure on us. This is the heart of the race now. This is where all the action’s going to be happening, we’re going to see who has done their homework, who has got what in the mountains."
Quintana, second in the 2013 Tour, has been widely regarded as the best climber of the pack and he and Spain's Alejandro Valverde, who is also in the mix in the overall standings, could play a team card to unsettle Froome.
"Another Tour starts tomorrow," Quintana told a news conference. "Starting from tomorrow the Tour can be won and it can be lost."
Quintana, like Contador, will be expected to produce fireworks and the quiet Van Garderen will be hoping to weather the storm and see where it takes him.
"I don’t think my strength is going to be to wipe the road like Quintana or Contador," he told a news conference.
"Those guys to me are probably going to get nervous and are go jump, jump, jump whereas I can stay a little bit more calm and if those guys wear themselves out, in the third week, my consistency can be a factor."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)