Feature: Morale boosted by return to form, Deignan believes in podium finish in Tour of California
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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Feature: Morale boosted by return to form, Deignan believes in podium finish in Tour of California

by Shane Stokes at 7:23 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews, Tour of California
Irishman wants top three overall result after his Tour of Gila victory

Philip DeignanFiring on all cylinders again after a couple of lean seasons, a resurgent Philip Deignan believes that he has the condition to aim high in the Tour of California. The UnitedHealthcare pro was sitting third overall heading into today’s fourth stage, and now feels it should be possible to maintain his prominent placing until the end of the race.

“At the moment we are thinking about trying to hold third,” he confirmed prior to the start of today’s stage four, a lumpy 134.6 kilometre race from Santa Clarita to Santa Barbara. “I think it is possible when you see how I time trialed in the Tour of Gila, and when you see who is around me, close on GC. It is definitely possible. I think we have to aim high and we are ambitious to hold third place on GC.”

Deignan has shown solid form this season. He was sixteenth in the Tour de San Luis, fourteenth in the Volta ao Algarve and eleventh in the Settimana Coppi e Bartali. In April he headed to the US and after a period of time spent at altitude, went to the Tour of the Gila believing he could ride well.

Things played out perfectly, with his fourth on stage one and fifth in the day three time trial putting him within striking distance of the race leader’s jersey. He then sealed his final victory with a strong performance on the last stage to Pinos Altos, where he placed third at the line and ended up 28 seconds clear of runner-up Phil Gaimon (Bissell Pro Cycling) in the overall standings.

The result was his first win since taking a stage in the 2009 Vuelta a España, and was hugely important for his confidence.

“It has been a long time since I won a race. I almost forgot what it felt like, to be honest,” he admitted to VeloNation.

“Three weeks before the race I went to altitude in Boulder, Colorado to acclimatise. Gila is at altitude so I knew by doing that I would be well prepared heading into the race. I think the moment when I realised I had the possibility of winning Gila overall was after the TT. I have been going pretty well against the clock this year…the team did some work this winter on my position in the wind tunnel, and I also had a TT bike at home this year as well. Those things add up.

“Anyway, after the time trial I was in the perfect position going into the last stage. I felt that I was getting stronger as the race progressed. I knew if I played my cards right I would have a chance on the last day.”

Deignan started that final stage 21 seconds behind race leader Janier Alexis Acevedo Colle (Jamis Hagens Berman) and seventeen behind Chris Baldwin (Bissell Pro Cycling). He was able to get rid of both during the stage, riding his way into the jersey.

“The whole team had a plan, we all knew what we had to do. The team had a successful week in the build-up to the last stage. We were all just enjoying racing. We had all come from a hard spring campaign in Europe, it was a different style of racing and we were enjoying it,” he explained, talking about the upbeat mood on the squad.

“You always suffer but when you suffer at the front it seems to be a lot easier than when you are hanging on. I actually enjoyed it, to be honest. I didn’t feel exhausted. It is almost like what Dan [Martin] was saying a couple of weeks ago…when you are on a really good day, it doesn’t really hurt as much.”

The net result was the first stage race of his pro career, something he had waited over eight years to achieve. He embraced the result, but also pointed out that there were bigger races ahead to aim for.

“It does feel good,” he said in the days after the race. “The standard is pretty high in America. For sure it isn’t an easy race to win, as there are no easy races, but I understand that it is not like winning a big European race. However it is obviously pretty important for me now with where we are at in the season to get the win.”

Turning the page after a difficult chapter:

Philip DeignanIn 2009 Deignan looked set for a very big future. He had ridden solidly in what had been his first season with the Cervélo Test Team and was appointed leader heading into the Vuelta a España. He seized the chance, going clear from a breakaway on stage 18 to Cuenca and then beating Roman Kreuziger to the line.

Kreuziger was the better known rider at the time but Deignan was far stronger in the finale, scooping Ireland’s first Grand Tour stage win in seventeen years. It also set him up for a strong overall finish. He took ninth overall in Madrid, and appeared poised for more the following year.

However things didn’t go to plan, with issues such as glandular fever, injuries and other niggles holding him back in the seasons after that performance. He’d ride well at times, but wasn’t able to sustain his form and to build up to a higher peak.

His best result in that period was second on stage three of the Tour of Beijing, a near miss to Nicolas Roche which would otherwise have been an important boost to his morale.

Asked if he felt like he was losing patience at any point with the sport, he plays down that thought. “Of course you go through periods when you get frustrated,” he said. “I think every cyclist has that. But I was more frustrated with myself, not with the sport.

“I did have had a good support network of people around to help keep me going, though. And I knew once I got everything right, and had no problems with illness, that the results would come.

“There was no major issues, really. The doctors put it down to some sort of a recurrent viral infection,” he continued. “A lot of my blood values were low due to whatever it was. It is hard to know if it was a combination of overtraining and being ill, but I don't want to focus on the negative. I think a lot of cyclists have problems [during their careers] – you just have to keep going.

“To be competitive in this sport, you need to be really 100 percent. Even if you have something small affecting you, you are not going to be able to be at the front. That is where I was at, really, in the last couple of years.”

California and beyond:

Philip DeignanPrior to the start of the Tour of California, Deignan said that he knew the race would be a level up. It would feature a much stronger field than the Tour of the Gila, was longer and was a more important target for the teams taking part.

However he also believed that his form was where it needed to be. “I feel that every week I have been getting stronger as well,” he said as the days ticked down to the start. “I feel that the four week block of altitude I had will stand to me. I am feeling pretty confident that I can do something and also that we are going to have a strong team there…we are all in a very positive frame of mind going into the race.”

Asked what he hoped to achieve, he said that a strong general classification ride was his primary target. “If something happens during the week and that goal doesn’t work out, then obviously the attention turns to going full gas for a stage win,” he said. “Trying to get in a break and doing something that way. Also we have Jake Keough there for the sprints. But the big aim is to go for a good GC.”

Thus far, that goal has played out perfectly. He rode solidly on day one, coping with the rolling terrain and the scorching heat. He was then in very good shape on stage two’s summit finish, striking out early 3.9 kilomeres from the line and sitting approximately ten seconds clear of the other GC riders most of the way up the steep, sweltering final climb.

The stage win was the goal but behind Acevedo, the rider he beat overall in Gila, and Tejay van Garderen were playing things well on the ascent. They gauged their effort until closer to the line and then surged clear, catching Deignan and pushing ahead to finish one-two on the stage.

He rolled in third, 27 seconds back, and ended the day in the same position and at the same deficit to Acevedo in the overall standings.

It was clear that he was going very well, but what about suggestions that he attacked too soon?

“It is always easier looking back saying ‘what if I had waited’ but at the time it felt like a good moment to go,” he answered today. “I think maybe if Tejay hadn’t had a team-mate there, things might have been different. But to be honest, it was so hot and there was a bit of a tailwind up the climb as well, it didn’t really make a huge difference going early. I felt like I ride better when I can go my own tempo and stay on my limit that way, rather than trying to react to other people’s accelerations.”

Deignan does accept that some feel that a modified tactic might have ended up with a different result, but he accepts things as they played out. “Looking back, it probably would have been better to have waited and stayed [in the group]. Things might have been different, but at the same time I am glad I did what I did,” he said. “We came into the stage, we wanted to be aggressive. We didn’t just want to sit back and wait for the ProTour guys to move. So I don’t have any regrets about going early.”

Deignan’s goal starting stage four was to get through it without problems. He duly did so, remaining third overall. He’ll aim to do the same on Thursday and then start Friday’s time trial with the best possible condition and motivation. Of course, if an opportunity presents itself on stage five to gain time he’ll seize it, but he’s relatively confident that if he’s third before the race against the clock that he can ride solidly there and then prominently on Saturday’s climatic stage to the top of Mount Diablo.

If that happens, he will be on course to achieve his goal of a podium finish. That would be an important moment for his career, but he’s keen to keep the momentum going afterwards.

More races, more opportunity:

“After California I’ll have a little break, and I’ll go back to Ireland,” he said. “Then I have the Tour de Beauce the week before the national championships. At the moment we are not sure of the programme – originally we were supposed to be doing the Tour of Slovenia and the Tour of Austria, but that looks to be uncertain in the moment.

“Anyway, I will come back over to Boulder a few weeks ahead of the Tour of Utah, the Tour of Colorado and the Tour of Britain.”

Deignan admits he had wanted the chance to do more events, but states that the programme is a little lighter than he and the team had expected. “I just have to make the most out of the races that I am doing,” he states.

His plan is to keep following the formula that he has followed this season. “Altitude seems to be working pretty well for me now,” he explained. “When I go to altitude and get acclimatised, I seem to get good form out of that. There are still plenty of big objectives to go before the end of the year.”

Those goals include a certain major one day race in Italy in September. “I’ll hopefully be at the worlds as well,” he said, confirming his interest in the Firenze champs. “It is still a long way away yet, but I definitely have the world championships on my mind at the end of the year.

“It is a hard circuit. We have two guys there that will be good; in Dan [Martin] we have a rider who I think is one of the main favourites for the race, and also with Nicolas Roche…we will see how he is going.”

In truth, if he can reach September in the same sort of shape he is in now, Deignan too could be a factor.

Whatever happens there, it’s already been a good year for Irish cycling. Apart from Deignan’s resurgence, Dan Martin has confirmed his step up to the top level with victories in the Volta a Catalunya and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Deignan gets on well with the younger rider, and is clear that he takes motivation from what Martin has been achieving.

“I am delighted to see him doing what he is doing,” he confirms, “it encourages everybody who sees him going so well.”

“I am 100 percent confident that Dan is doing it the right way, that he is a clean rider. When you can see a clean rider in those races it just shows you how things have changed. So it is definitely good for the sport. It is good for the rest of us, too."


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