Encouraged by his team-mate Alberto Contador’s strong showing in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, Tinkoff Saxo rider Nicolas Roche has predicted a very close and dramatic match between the Spaniard and defending champion Chris Froome.

Roche backed Contador in last year’s race and while the 2007 and 2009 winner was not at his top level, the Irishman is convinced that things will be different this time round and that the team has a very real chance of winning the race.

“I was already very excited about riding for him in the Tour last year,” said Roche, speaking to CyclingTips after an intense altitude training camp in Livigno, Italy. “When you see the level he is at this year, it makes it even more exciting.

“I think himself and Froome have no other competition. Okay, maybe Valverde might be a third one, but it is going to be very, very important for both of those leaders to have a strong team around them so as not to be caught up in anything.

“It is going to be a tough three weeks but I think it will be pretty exciting. I think it is going to be one of the most exciting Tours of the last couple of years, where you can see a proper, real battle. A good duel. Two years ago we knew that Wiggins was going to crush it, then last year Froome was very strong. I think this year there is a real 50-50 chance [between Contador and Froome]. I am looking forward to it.”

Roche eschewed his traditional Tour/Vuelta programme to instead ride the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France double. He had hoped to figure well in the Italian race but had to give up his GC hopes when he was caught up in a crash and lost time.

He instead rode for his team-mate Rafal Majka, who led the best young rider competition for much of the race and eventually finished sixth.

He also had a chance to try for a stage win, but had to settle for fifth at Oropa and fourth on Monte Zoncolan. He said a miss-timed attack cost him his chance in the former, while he rode for team-mate – and eventual stage winner – Michael Rogers in the latter.

In the interview below Roche talks about his Giro d’Italia experience and what he has been doing since, his programme between now and the Tour de France, his reason for missing the Irish road race championship and his thoughts on what could be a massive battle between Contador and Froome.

CyclingTips: First off, Nicolas, how have things been since the Giro?

Nicolas Roche: Things are going okay, I am recovering after the Giro. I just spent ten days in Livigno. I am driving back down now at the moment and racing the Route du Sud this weekend. I am flying there tomorrow morning.

CT: You have not competed since the race. Do you feel the legs are coming around?

NR: Yeah, it has been quite tough. It was a pretty intense Giro. While I finished the Giro better than I started, I still feel the tiredness of a Grand Tour. But that is only normal. There is another two full weeks to the Tour, so a bit of racing this weekend won’t harm me, then a week at home to get ready.

CT: In the past when you have done two Grand Tours, you have often been stronger in the second one. Presumably you are hoping that is the case so you are in top shape for the Tour?

NR: Hopefully. In the second Grand Tour, I always feel good. But then it is always different when you do Tour and then Vuelta, whereas this time round it is different.

Hopefully the condition will be better at the Tour. I was always pretty clear about the Giro, saying I didn’t know where I was standing. I knew I wasn’t in top shape but I didn’t know how good or bad I would be. In the end the crash I had took me out of GC contention, but I definitely don’t think I would have had a top five. I might have been fighting for that tenth, twelfth place, but you can’t do that any more.

I did a lot of work for the team and Rafal [Tinkoff Saxo team-mate Rafal Majka, who finished sixth. It was very important because until the last three days of the Giro, he was racing for a podium. He really sacrificed himself last year for me in the Vuelta and it was only fair that I did the same this time around.

The team were good enough to give me my chance to go in the breakaways so those three days were important for me to be there. In those three days I was up the front. It didn’t quite work out for a stage win either, but I tried to do what I could up there.
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Although I didn’t go the Giro that I was hoping for a the start, I think I didn’t do a bad Giro. It is one thing fighting for a breakaway but it is another fighting for a breakaway when you have also been riding for your team-mate the day before in the mountains.

I felt like I was riding for GC every day. I was just all day in the wind, whether I was in the bunch working or in the front in the breakaway.

I definitely didn’t save any energy for after the Giro.

CT: So how do you feel about it overall?

NR: Like I said, it wasn’t the Giro I was hoping for, but I think I didn’t do a bad Giro. I was present when the team needed me, and I was in the breakaways when I had to be.

Okay, the two disappointments are…I really think the day was Monte Oropa was a big chance for a stage win for me. I blew up going too early on the second-last climb. But then the bunch was coming back up very, very fast. I thought that I would give it a chance.

I was hoping that the descent was a bit more technical. I lost a lot of energy and I never recovered until the last climb.

I think on Zoncolan, it was hard with guys like Pellizotti who were obviously in top form. I knew it was going to be difficult to win. Luckily enough Michael was in top form and so I rode for him in the last part of the race. I was happy he was able to win and then I just hung in there to get the best result possible.

My big disappointment is on Monte Oropa. I think that was a real chance for me to win the stage. I was fifth, it was not a catastrophe.

CT: What do you hope to do in the Route du Sud?

NR: I have no idea. It is never easy when you go straight down from altitude to racing. I want to use it to get the rhythm back in. I have been riding up and down climbs but I definitely think I need to get some rhythm. I think it will be good to open up again.

I am going there with no expectations, just hoping to have a good race, do some good hard work there and come out of it good for the next two weeks to be ready for the Tour.

CT: Will you be doing the Irish nationals?

NR: I won’t this year. If I had ridden the Giro of my career I would have taken the chance, but unfortunately I don’t want to take the risk for the Tour. So I feel I need to race Route du Sud, recover and then get ready for the Tour. So unfortunately this year I am going to have to skip it.

It is always a tough decision. This is the second year in a row I won’t be there. I have only missed two in the last eight years, but I just think it was too much travelling, too much with the Giro and then going to the training camp, racing Route du Sud and we are leaving early for the Tour this year to check out the cobbled stage. So I thought it was just that bit too much, unfortunately.

CT: How do you feel about Alberto Contador’s race in the Dauphiné? Presumably that gives yourself and the team a lot of encouragement for the Tour…

NR: Definitely. I was already very excited about riding for him in the Tour last year. When you see the level he is at this year, it makes it even more exciting.

I think himself and Froome have no other competition. Okay, maybe Valverde might be the third one, but it is going to be very, very important for both of those leaders to have a strong team around them so as not to be caught up in anything.

It is going to be a tough three weeks but I think it will be pretty exciting. I think it is going to be one of the most exciting Tours of the last couple of years, where you can see a proper, real battle. A good duel. Whereas two years ago we knew that Wiggins was going to crush it, then last year Froome was very strong.

Even though we were all hoping Alberto was going to be a challenge, everyone after the third mountain stage was almost sure that Froome was going to win it.

I think that this year there is a real 50-50 chance. I think and I hope it will be an exciting Tour. I want to be part of the strategic plan in the race. I am looking forward to it…