Philip Deignan's return to the WorldTour couldn’t have come at a better time for the Irishman. Back from injury, Deignan is preparing himself to ride the Giro d'Italia with Team Sky, which starts in Belfast this Friday.
This year’s Giro is Deignan's first Grand Tour since the 2011 edition of the race, where he finished 47th in the general classification. Deignan is from Letterkenny in Donegal, around 16 miles from the border with Northern Ireland. Sky goes into the race without a real contender for the general classification, after Richie Porte was pulled from the line-up at the beginning of April.
Less than a week before the race begins at the Titanic centre in Belfast, the 30-year-old is looking forward to getting onto the start ramp. "It'll definitely be special for me being in Ireland for the Giro and I'm sure it’s going to be hectic, maybe we won’t be able to enjoy it too much at the time but looking back, when we're finished, there'll be a lot of good memories I'm sure," he told the Irish Examiner.
"Obviously we won't be outright favourites now but Sebastián Henao and Pete Kennaugh can maybe do a top 10 and then we have guys like Ben Swift and Edvald Boasson Hagen who can go for stage wins as well."
Deignan has had very little in the way of racing days this season. He got the year off to a good start with a solid performance at the Tour Down Under, but had to sit out racing for over a month after he broke his right collarbone days before the Ruta del Sol in February. It was the second time in five months that the Sky rider had suffered the injury, after he broke his left one at the Tour of Britain the previous season. He has since ridden the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali and the Giro del Trentino, and is still hopeful that he can have an impact.
"Because I'm coming into the race with only five or six days of racing it'll be about trying to ride through the first week or 10 days and get up to speed. I'll have no pressure but maybe in the last week I can try to get in the break and maybe try to win a stage," said Deignan.
The last time a Grand Tour visited the Emerald Isle was the 1998 Tour de France, which was eventually won by Marco Pantani – who will be commemorated during the Giro d'Italia. The visit to Ireland holds a lot of significance for Deignan and his journey to becoming a professional cyclist.
"I took up cycling back in 1998 after I saw the Tour de France start in Dublin. It was funny. Four of us went down on the bus, which took four or five hours," said the Team Sky rider. "I was the only cycling fan, so the lads stayed inside smoking and playing pool on O'Connell Street while I stood out in the rain watching the race by myself. It was just this fascination I had with it. Now they're all into sport and keeping fit. They've gone through the period of going mad and now they're all settled down and they appreciate what I've achieved. But I could never have imagined then that I might get the chance to ride a Grand Tour in Ireland as a professional."
Deignan returned to the WorldTour with team Sky at the beginning of the season, after two years spent across the pond at the UnitedHealthcare team. He previously raced with Cervélo and RadioShack - he had shown a lot of promise, but his career began to stall in 2010 when his season was marred by illness. Deignan came to the attention of Sky last year with victory at the Tour of the Gila, and top 10 performances at the Tour of California and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
"It's unbelievable how it has worked out. I went to America a few years ago and didn't have any real plan or urge to come back to the ProTour. But the way it worked out to join Sky, all the stars just aligned," explained Deignan. "The team have been brilliant and I've definitely learned things, just small things with regard training and diet. It's great to be on the team and a lot of the others seem to copy what Sky are doing as a result of our success."