Irishman on life at UnitedHealthcare
Stage 18 of the 2009 Vuelta and Roman Krueziger has been pipped to the line by Letterkenny born Philip Deignan. It's a major result for the Irishman, who would go onto finish 9th overall at the race. Even on that gloomy day in Avila, as the clouds loomed overhead, it looked as though Deignan's career was about to shine through and that more wins were just around the corner.
Up until that point he'd suffered with glandular fever and persistent knee problems but despite having shown glimpses of early promise he had stuttered through his early professional years. The 2009 Vuelta was meant to herald in a phase of success, but three years have passed and Deignan is still searching for that level of form to return.
Since Cervelo TestTeam disbanded Deignan has moved from RadioShack - where he showed flashes of his talent - to UnitedHealthcare, where he his currently half-way through a two-year deal. At 29, it's a crucial period for the softly-spoken rider, as he looks to find a level of consistency.
So far in 2013 the signs are promising with a top 20 finish on the first mountain stage at the Tour de San Luis under his belt. It may not sound earth-shattering to some but having not raced since last August, it's certainly a positive step.
"I had a pretty solid winter. I finished up quite early in August and was able to take a long break before building up nice and steady and slow. I've built up some decent endurance, so I'm really just missing that top end level but most people are at the moment," a relaxed Deignan told Cyclingnews before the start of the stage.
The reason for Deignan's early finish to his 2012 season came after his father became sick. The team understandably released him from his duties, allowing him to travel home to his family in Ireland.
"I was racing in America doing Utah and Colorado but my father got sick just before the start of Colorado so I decided to go home. I was originally going to do the Tour of Britain after that but the team were going well and I was in hospital for most of that week for my father as well so the team gave me a pass and just told me to focus on next year. I really appreciated that the team were so understanding."
The set up that UnitedHealthcare's manager Mike Tamayo has built at the American squad lends itself to Deignan's character. There are no super-stars within the Pro Continental outfit: instead Tamayo has assembled a collection of talented riders with either a point to prove having been dropped from the top echelons or riders on the cusp of breaking through. It's an environment that perhaps lends itself to what Deignan is looking for in 2013.
"The team has been really good. I'll be honest, I wasn't able to perform at the level I wanted to or to the level that I know can. That was disappointing but in terms of the team it's been a great experience. I know it's an American team but I've raced mostly in Europe apart from a few blocks in the US. There's been a good balance."
This year, Deignan will flip between racing in Europe and the US. The American sponsors demand success on their home stage and Deignan may profit from the team's programme - using the European races to hone his form before heading to the Tours of Colorado, Utah and California.
"Every year is important but I just want to show the team what i can do this year, especially after having a bad year in 2012."
What's held Deignan back has been his fragility. The problems with his knee, the glandular fever, and the scattered form have all been factors. A year at RadioShack was a last resort after Cervélo imploded and perhaps wasn't the right environment for a rider looking for a gentle style of management and support.
"That was a really frustrating year, he says. "I don't know why, but i just felt tired all the time. Maybe I was training too much. I was super strong in the beginning with the winter training but once the racing started, I felt like I was missing that little bit and was jaded for most of the year. Towards the second half of the year, I started to turn things around and I went well in the two Canadian WorldTour races and Colorado.
"I wish there was one single answer to the question over why I’ve stalled since the Vuelta. The main thing seems to be my health. It's been a big issue. For some reason, I'm pretty fragile and I get sick easily. It's frustrating when you do this hard block of racing or training and then you get sick. We go to doctors, we do the test and it always seems to be down to me recovering from a viral infection or having a low white blood cell count. Obviously that's been so frustrating but I'm still motivated to get back to that level again. It's not like I've given up. I know that potential is there.
"To be a bike rider you have to be prepared to get over set backs and ups and downs. I want to go as far as I can in the sport so I'll keep on pushing and move forward. I’m not obsessed or totally single-minded but I put the work in."
While the Tour de San Luis is only part of Deignan's journey back to success it nevertheless is a crucial step. If he can back up stage three's finish with more of the same and creep towards a respectable finish overall he can carry that much needed confidence into the Volta ao Algarve – his next race – before May's Tour of California.
"I want a season without health problems and then the results will come after that. The team have the goals with the American races and they're important for me to but I'll try and get up there in some of the European races too."
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