Finally able to make the most of his ability after several seasons hampered by illness and injury, Philip Deignan today ended a 17-year wait since Irish cycling last took a Grand Tour stage win.
Almost two decades after Stephen Roche triumphed on the La Bourboule stage of the 1992 Tour de France, the 26-year-old Cervélo Test Team member raced to victory in Ávila, decisively outsprinting breakaway companion Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) on the uphill rise to the line at the end of stage 18 in the Vuelta a España.
It also moved him from 18th to ninth in the general classification, just seven minutes and 49 seconds behind ongoing race leader Alejandro Valverde.
"I was really nervous," the Cervélo Test Team competitor admitted afterwards. "I don't go into those situations too often. It was really slippery heading to the finish - a couple of times on the roundabouts, my wheels were sliding about a little bit, and I had to back off.
"I was sure he [Kreuziger] was going to attack me on the cobblestone part heading into Ávila. He never did, so I guess he must not have been able to. Then I just kept watching him until near the finish, when I started the sprint. I thought he was stronger than me, I thought he would come by, but he didn't have the legs."
Earlier today, Cyclingnews spoke to Deignan at the race start in Talavera de la Reina, and he seemed noticeably fresher than other days. "I do feel better," he said. "Those two easier days gave me a bit of a chance to recover. We'll see how things go today."
Things went well indeed, with the Irishman thriving in wet, cold conditions more typical of his native Donegal than Spain. He went clear in a 16-man move approximately 40 kilometres after the start, and rode well to get up to various breaks that were trying to form.
He then showed his strong form in netting second at the top of the category two El Herradón climb and taking the prime at the summit of the final categorised ascent of the day, the Alto de Boquerón. On the descent, he and Kreuziger moved clear and, despite his rival forcing him to do a little more of the work, he had enough left in the tank to take a fine victory.
"At the team meeting this morning, the directeur sportif [team manager] said that I should try to go in a move that went on the first category climb, as I was probably far enough back in the general classification that the other favourites might not automatically close the break down. The goal was to try to get into a group if it was possible, and it worked out perfectly."
Deignan had a very strong amateur career with VC La Pomme in France, and won the Tour du Doubs in his first year as a professional. However since then he's not been able to have a consistent run at racing, suffocating his natural talent. This year, despite five crashes in the Giro d'Italia, he's finally got back on track.
"My first season in 2005 was pretty good, I won a race. Since then I have had problems with knee injuries and glandular fever and things like that," he said. "I actually wasn't sure if it was possible any more but now, with this win, it is a very important day for my self confidence and belief."
Deignan will start tomorrow's final mountain stage ninth overall, nearly three minutes ahead of 10th-placed Juan José Cobo (Fuji Servetto). He'd take huge satisfaction out of finishing so high up in the race, but all will depend on how his legs are after what was a long day in the break. Either way, he has already moved his career on to a new level, and also given the profile of the sport back home a huge boost.
"Obviously it is a big day, both for me and for Irish cycling," he said. "We had myself and Dan [Martin] at the start of the Vuelta here, and Nicolas Roche has had a really good season. It has been a very good year, and today has just capped it off."