Philip Deignan Q&A: Back in the high life

The Irishman talks about returning to the European peloton with Sky and more

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MADRID (VN) — Ireland has enjoyed a renaissance of late with success that rivals the glory days of Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly in the 1980s.

This year alone, Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a stage at the Tour de France, while Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) won a stage at the Vuelta a España and came close to the final podium with a grand tour career-best fifth overall.

One rider who came up alongside this latest wave of Irish talent was Philip Deignan. In fact, he won a grand tour stage before any of his peers, with a breakaway stage win and ninth overall at the 2009 Vuelta a España.

But as the fortunes of Roche and Martin continued to climb, Deignan was dogged by injuries and health problems. After Cervélo closed down in 2010, Deignan moved to RadioShack in 2011, but he didn’t quite fit in with the team.

In 2012, he joined UnitedHealthcare as one of the team’s GC leaders, but once again, he was hampered by health issues and couldn’t perform to expectations.

This year, everything clicked again for Deignan, and he was back at his once-promising level, winning the SRAM Tour of the Gila and riding into the top 10 at the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.

Those results put him back on the radar screens for the European teams, and he’s poised to join Sky for 2014.

Deignan recently took a break from assembling furniture in his new apartment in Monaco to chat with VeloNews via telephone. Here’s what he had to say ….

VeloNews: First off, on considering where to live for 2014, why Monaco?
Philip Deignan: Sky is building a good base for the team here. Close to a dozen riders from the team live around here. There’s even a small service course, with mechanics. I’ve been here in the past. I know the training is good. It’s good weather, good roads, close to an airport. It will make it a lot easier to train than facing the weather of an Irish winter.

VN: That’s a big move from the U.S. scene back to Europe with the world’s top team at Sky. How did that unfold?
PD: We already started talking in June. By the end of July, we had worked out a deal. I was really happy at UnitedHealthcare. They are a great team. I wasn’t going to leave until it was the perfect team. I’ve learned from the past that if you’re not on the right team, in the right position, it’s better to be on a smaller team. You get looked after better, and you get more chances. Sky’s the biggest and best team. I’ve always wanted to ride with them. It wasn’t that hard of a decision to make.

VN: Of course, with riders such as Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, and Richie Porte, you can expect to be on domestique duty, correct?
PD: I know I will be a domestique, but that’s fine. I am really looking forward to helping those guys out. We haven’t looked at the race program yet. That will come in some team meetings in the next few weeks. I’d love to ride the Giro. It’s starting in Ireland, so that would be one of my big objectives. Even though it starts in Northern Ireland and I live in the Republic, it’s still not far from where I grew up. Id love to be there.

VN: Things didn’t go well for you at RadioShack in 2011; how did you make the move to UnitedHealthcare two years ago?
PD: I didn’t feel like it was a step down at the time to move from Europe to racing in the United States. What attracted me was that I was going to be one of the leaders of the team, along with Rory Sutherland, who was there at the time. I wanted to be a GC leader for races that suited me. That was an exciting prospect, rather than being on a Pro Tour team, and just being rider number 20 out of a 30-rider roster. It was a good change at the time. I needed that extra motivation at that moment of my career. I was at a bit of a crossroads. I had two great seasons with the team.

VN: You were not quite firing on all cylinders in 2012, what happened in your first year with UnitedHealthcare?
PH: I had some health issues. Nothing serious, but it was just a continuation of some minor health problems that hampered me throughout the whole year. It prevented me from performing at my usual level. In cycling, if you’re not at 100 percent, you’re not going to be there, and that’s true in the U.S., in Europe, anywhere. It took the whole [2012] season to get everything right again.

VN: Things obviously turned around this year, with some big rides in the major U.S. races. How important was that?
PD: At the start of this year, I sat down with my coach, and we wanted consistency, from the Tour de San Luís all the way through the worlds. I had a good racing program that wasn’t too heavy. I had good periods of recovery and training between the major goals. It worked out great, even though the Tour of Britain and the worlds went a bit pear-shaped at the end. The rest of the year went smoothly. It was that consistency that was a big breakthrough for me.

VN: What are the biggest differences between the U.S. scene and Europe?
PD: In terms of positioning, it’s a lot less stressful in the States. The roads are bigger, the peloton is smaller, so you can move up a lot easier. In Europe, you need to position yourself for the climbs very early. In the U.S., you can wait longer and move up at the last minute before a climb. The weather is much better in the United States, that’s a big bonus. Despite being from Ireland, I seem to do really well in extreme heat. The hotter it is, the better it is for me.

VN: What will you not miss from racing a lot in the U.S.?
PD: Those trans-Atlantic flights. Going from the different time zones was the only downside. With our racing program split between Europe and the U.S., I made that flight seven or eight times during the racing season. Some riders adjust to it pretty quickly. It took me four or five days for my body clock to adjust.

VN: Was returning to Europe always on your agenda?
PD: I was playing it year by year. At the start of this year, I didn’t have a goal of returning to Europe. I was happy at UHC. They’re good guys, and we had a good racing schedule. My main objective this year was to get back to 100 percent and back to the level where I know I can race. I didn’t go out at the start of the season with the idea of coming back to the Pro Tour.

VN: How will you make the adjustment from leading at UnitedHealthcare to domestique duty at Sky?
PD: It’s going to be very exciting. I am looking forward to it. I knew coming to Sky what the offer would be. With such great riders on their team, I knew it would be a case of me helping them. I get huge satisfaction to help someone else win, especially in a big race like a grand tour, rather than me to scramble to a top 10. I would get a lot more satisfaction from helping one of the guys to win a grand tour.

VN: How hard do you expect it to be to fight for a spot for some of the major races on Sky?
PD: You don’t take anything for granted, that’s for sure. Coming into the team, I know I need to work hard and prove myself. I am not coming to the team expecting anything else. I need to show myself and show them what I am capable of doing.

VN: What are your expectations of working with Sky? They have the reputation as being the world’s best team.
PD: Everyone knows they’re on the cutting edge of everything, from training, to coaching, to material, nutrition. I’ve suffered in the past from doing the wrong training and eating the wrong foods. There’s big room for improvement as a rider, so I am hoping to see the benefits of being on Sky.

VN: You have a two-year deal with Sky, does that give you a sense of security, at least coming into 2014?
PD: I am not going to be relaxed or complacent because I have a two-year contract. I am 30. Every year is going to be important from here on. I need to take advantage of however how many years I have left. Believe me, I am not coming into this season relaxed because I have two years. Quite the opposite. I want to go out and prove myself.

VN: You’re part of a new generation of Irish riders who are stepping up. What’s it been like watching their success while you’ve struggled the past few years?
PD: It’s been a fantastic three or four years for Irish cycling. Dan and Nico have done some wonderful things. I am realistic. They’re on a different level from me right now. I know it’s a big difference from where I was racing in 2013 to returning to the WorldTour. I know I have a long way to go before I can compare myself to those guys. It was funny. I was in Boulder that morning when we were watching Liège, and I knew from 50km out that Dan was going to be there in the final. I’ve been racing with him a long time. I know what kind of an amazing engine he has. There is going to be a lot more coming from Dan.

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