Irish pro Philip Deignan will begin the first of the Ardennes Classics tomorrow knowing that he has a chance to show the Cervélo Test Team that he is coming into good shape. The Letterkenny rider had a difficult start to the year due to illness and injury, but tenth and twelfth on stages of the recent Circuit de la Sarthe was a good sign.
“I rode la Sarthe last week and I started feeling a little bit better,” he told Cyclingnews. “Then I did Flèche Brabançonne on Wednesday – it was a pretty hard race, but I feel like I am getting better every few days. So I am looking forward to Amstel, Flèche and Liege.”
Deignan said that Xavier Florencio and Xavier Tondo are probably the riders most likely to do well, but that there was no clear leader. “We don’t have really, really top favourites,” he said, suggesting that there could be scope for personal ambition of someone else feels good. “We have a couple of different cards to play, so we will just play it by ear in the race and see how it works out. We’ll see who has the legs in the last 50 kilometres.”
The 26-year-old took his best career result last September when he won a stage and finished ninth overall in the Vuelta a España. The 2009 season in general was a strong one for him, confirming his ability after a few frustrating years. Moving to Cervélo helped him find his focus once again and his Vuelta ride showed that he could have a big future ahead.
That big autumn contrasted with a quiet spring; a knee injury over the winter meant that he went to the team training camp with very few kilometres in his legs, and then things continued to be more complicated than he would have liked.
“I got pretty badly sick just before the start of Catalunya. I had gone to Grand Canaria for eight days after Murcia and trained really hard there,” he explained. “I got sick, though…I didn’t have a fever or anything, but it was like a really bad cold. I was completely dead on the bike. It took a long time to get over it.
“Anyway, I just managed to get around the first few stages of Catalunya and then stopped on the second-last stage. It took me a week to feel right after that. I’ve been feeling gradually better since then, so hopefully these races will go well.”
Deignan is a less punchy rider than others out there – for example his compatriot Nicolas Roche - and so tomorrow’s race may not suit him as well as next Sunday’s. “For me, I think Liège will probably be best,” he said. “It has longer climbs. Amstel is pretty explosive, it has short, steep hills, so that might not be as good for me.”
If Deignan can ride well in support of his teammates tomorrow and then log a decent result in Liège, that will continue the progression he has shown of late. After that, he is scheduled to ride the Tour of California and then the Dauphiné Libéré, two races which will determine if he will get the nod for his first Tour de France.
Riders such as Thor Hushovd, Carlos Sastre and Heinrich Haussler will be sure bets for the Tour squad, providing they are in form and – in the case of Sastre, who remains undecided – want to take part. The other places on the team will be finalised closer to July.
Deignan said that he hadn’t been given an outline of what specific results he would have to achieve to get a slot. “You just have to be going well enough to get a place,” he stated.
The Ardennes Classics ultimately won’t guarantee any rider a place, with California and the Dauphiné certain to carry greater weight due to their proximity to the Tour. However a good ride over the next eight days would certainly be a decent start