Deignan ready to reach for the sky
Donegal rider tells Gerard Cromwell how much he's looking forward to returning home to race in Giro
He might just live across the border in Letterkenny, but it's been a long and winding road to the Giro d'Italia start in Belfast for Philip Deignan.
The first Irish rider in over two decades to win a stage of a Grand Tour when he outsprinted Roman Kreuziger to take stage 18 of the 2009 Vuelta a Espana, just two years later injuries, illness and sheer bad luck combined to see Deignan all but say goodbye to cycling's WorldTour.
A two-year dalliance with the American scene, however, reminded him of how good he could be when things went right and having taken overall victory at the Tour of the Gila, second at the Tour de Beauce and top 10 at the Tours of Utah, California and the USA Pro Challenge against strong WorldTour opposition last year, Deignan found himself courted by the big teams again.
Having inked a two-year contract with Team Sky at the end of last season, a return to the WorldTour also brought him the dream opportunity to ride the Giro d'Italia in Ireland.
"It's definitely surreal," admits Deignan as he sits in Sky Headquarters in Dublin shortly before departing for Belfast and Friday's Giro start. "Obviously, there's been a gradual build-up to it and I've been thinking about it for quite a while, but as a bike rider living abroad, it's strange to be getting on a flight to Dublin to go ride the Giro d'Italia."
Since signing for Sky, however, Deignan has broken both collarbones, in separate crashes, the last one, in mid-February almost saw the dream shelved.
"It was always a race against time with the collarbone. About four or five weeks ago, I was worried that I wasn't in the right place physically, but, definitely, the way that I have come on since then, I'm really optimistic of doing a good Giro."
A comeback at the four-day Coppi et Bartali stage race was abandoned due to a vomiting episode the night before the last stage, but despite his recovery a few days later, the team then ruled out a ride in the Tour of the Basque Country the following week. It's one of the things Deignan likes about Team Sky.
"The team said: 'Yeah, you can do the Basque Tour, but we think doing a block of training will be better for you in the long term'," he says. "It's great when a team that thinks of you in the long term and not just the next race, which has been the case in the past.
"The Tour of the Basque Country is not a race you want to go into if you're not feeling 100pc. Instead, I got a really solid two-week training block in and went on to the Giro del Trentino and went well there. So, the form is really going in the right direction."
This policy of trying to stop riders doing more damage by racing when they're ill or not in shape also means team leader Richie Porte and Isle of Man youngster Pete Kennaugh will miss the Giro this week.
The fact that the team now has no clear-cut leader means Deignan will have more opportunities to do something in the race himself.
"I don't think it's ever happened on this team before... that we're going into a big tour without a big sole GC leader. It's going to change the dynamic of how the team races. We have nine riders who are each capable of winning a stage and are probably more motivated now by the fact that they're going to have their own opportunity to do that."
That opportunity could come as early as Friday's opening team time-trial, with the first man across the line from the fastest team taking the first pink jersey of race leader.
"Sky has always performed well in the team time-trial, but we're missing some of the horsepower we would have had in the past. It's always possible. The dream scenario would be that either us, Tinkoff-Saxo or Garmin Sharp would win the team time-trial, and either me, Nico (Roche) or Dan (Martin), one of us would pull on a pink jersey. But the big favourites are going to be GreenEDGE and Quickstep."
Built to climb rather than sprint, Deignan admits that the flat stages from Belfast to Dublin mean he may have to wait until later in the three-week race to go for glory.
"You try to explain to people that you're not a sprinter, but they don't really understand. It'd be nice to get up the road in your home country, but looking at it as a three-week race, any suicide attacks in the first few days would be a bit detrimental to the overall race."
As a teenager, Deignan and a group of non-cycling friends took the bus from Letterkenny to Dublin to watch the 1998 Tour de France start on O'Connell Street.
On Friday the wheel will come full circle, with friends and supporters from Letterkenny filling two buses to see him roll down the start ramp in Belfast.
"I've been racing abroad for so many years, listening to foreign fans shouting for their riders that it's going to be nice hearing a few people maybe shouting your name. Seeing a few Donegal flags would be nice too."
And what of the friends that travelled with him back in 1998. Will they be there?
"I don't know, actually. I haven't asked them. It'd be funny," he laughs. "When we went to the Tour the last time, they were stuck in a pool hall, smoking. They didn't even watch the race. It'd be nice to see them there on Friday."