Philip Deignan’s Italian job at the Giro starts much closer to home

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Philip Deignan’s Italian job at the Giro starts much closer to home
Sixteen years have now passed since Philip Deignan and his pals booked themselves return bus tickets from Letterkenny to Dublin.

Sixteen years have now passed since Philip Deignan and his pals booked themselves return bus tickets from Letterkenny to Dublin.

It was the summer of 1998 and Deignan, who was then 14, was developing an interest in the sport of cycling. He had acquired a steel Peugeot racing bicycle that he could barely swing his leg over.

With the World Cup taking place in France, it’s usual July delicacy was on Irish shores. The Tour de France was starting in Dublin.

And whilst his friends decided to hang around smokey pool halls, Deignan was enthralled by what was taking place on the streets.

“That was the day I decided I wanted to be come a cyclist,” Deignan says. “The seed was planted that day in Dublin.”

This Friday, Deignan will take part of the Grande Partenza of the Giro d’Italia in Belfast. It’s the first time a Grand Tour has returned to Ireland since 1998.

Deignan is now in his 10th year as a professional having opted to pursue his dream of cycling over a quantity surveying course he had started at university in Liverpool.

The highlight of that decade, which began with a three-year stint in the saddle with French outfit AG2R Prévoyance, was Deignan’s stage win and ninth place overall finish at the 2009 Vuelta a Espana.

His overtaking of Roman Kreuziger in the last few metres of the 18th stage from Talavera de la Reina to Avila saw him rise to fame.

The macro of the win in Spain was that Deignan had followed in the footsteps of the Irish greats in winning a stage at a Grand Tour. The former Four Masters Cycling Club member had joined four masters. Only Shay Elliott, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Earley had by then achieved such a feat.

“It was a massive win,” Deignan says. “It’s big when I even look back at some of the guys I managed to get the better of that day.”

It terms of the micro, Deignan was content after a difficult few years when he was unsure whether he had taken the correct career path.

“The year before I had considered stopping cycling altogether as I wasn’t sure if it was working out,” he says.

“I had a rough couple of years and was trying to find a team. If the right team hadn’t come God knows where I would’ve ended up. Maybe I’d have gone back to college. I just don’t know.”

The newly-formed Cervélo TestTeam had in 2008 offered the platform for Deignan to compete alongside former Tour de France green jersey winner Thor Hushovd and Carlos Sastre, who was then the reigning Tour de France winner.

By the end of 2010, though, Cervélo had folded and Deignan, who still had a year to run on his contract, had failed to follow up on his successes of 2009.

However, UCI rules to determine ProTour licenses for 2011 stated that results from both 2009 and 2010 had to be taken into consideration, meaning Deignan’s average was stronger than his form.

That form didn’t soar during a difficult year at RadioShack in 2011 and 2012 at Pro Continental US team UnitedHealthcare.

Many might’ve thought Deignan’s reputation had diminishing when in fact it was rekindling.

Last year he won the Tour of the Gila stage race and the mountains jersey there, before finishing runner-up in the Tour de Beauce and claiming sixth on GC at the Tour of Utah.

He turned in another fine performance at the Tour of California, taking ninth overall and then he notched a top 10 at the US Pro Cycling Challenge.

His abilities, particularly in mountainous terrain, meant Team Sky confirmed their new recruit in September of last year.

“I was pretty happy at UnitedHealthcare and not really on the lookout for anything,” Deignan adds. “But when the chance came, it was almost too good to be true - going to Team Sky on the ProTour.

“I’d not have got the chance had it not been for the consistent year when I was reasonably solid.”

Team Sky are considered the frontrunners in the sport, whether on or off the bicycle.

As well as housing the last two winners of the Tour De France in Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, there are exceptional support systems in place.

“It’s all about marginal gain,” Deignan says of his employers. “We have daily contact and analysis, as well as the best equipment and nutrition.”

Although he’d competed in the 2008, 2009 and 2011 varieties, with the first three days to be held in Ireland - the first time the race has ever begun outside mainland Europe - the Giro was Deignan’s priority for 2014.

After recovering two collarbone injuries either side of Christmas, he was forced to withdraw from the Tour of the Basque Country last month with a bout of gastroenteritis.

“That set me back a week but it’s not necessarily such a bad thing,” Deignan says. “In a three-week tour like the Giro, everyone will be tired on the last week and sometimes that suits someone just coming back to full fitness.

Deignan spent a week night last week assessing the stages for the Giro. A comfortable climber, any possible breaks aren’t likely to take place in Ireland on the flat stages.

For a sport so occasionally choreographed and tactical, there’s a streak of rawness.

“It’s sometimes difficult to explain,” Deignan says. “There’s an element of instinct and although you’re working under team instruction, you also have to be smart. It’s about having a right combination.

“I’m more than happy to do what the team want me to do, whether it’s to ride in support or with freedom.

“Cycling can be like chess but sometimes you just react. That’s the beauty of the sport.”

The Giro will begin with a team time trial in Belfast on Friday and continue with a road race stage the following day starting and finishing in Northern Irish capital before stage three takes the riders from Armagh to Dublin on Sunday.

“People think Ireland is just rainy and green but the other competitors will be surprised at how popular the Giro will be with huge crowds expected,” Deignan says.

“We’ve got a really good chance to show off our country. The Giant’s Causeway course on Saturday is nice but when you’re cycling the 200-odd kilometres it really doesn’t matter where you are.”

Deignan’s role will be so much different to the one he fulfilled as a teenager back in 1998. It’ll be more toe-clips than toe-tips.

“I never thought back then I would get a chance to ride in a Grand Tour in Ireland,” he adds.

“It’s something that doesn’t come around often and probably won’t happen for a long time. I’ve not raced that often in Ireland lately so I’m delighted to be part of the Giro.”

The competitors roll out of Belfast’s Titanic Quarter on Friday and 3,345 kilometres later the race will finish in Triese, a seaport city in north-eastern Italy.

It promises to be a tough journey. Just like the one Deignan has taken to get there.

“It’s funny how unpredictable life as a sports person is,” he says. “I’ve had a few tough times but I’m still at it, working hard and enjoying the experience.”