As Irishman Philip Deignan enters his eighth professional season, now with the UnitedHealthcare squad, he is looking to overcome a string of sub-optimal years fraught with illness and injury and regain the form that helped him win a stage and take ninth overall in the 2009 Vuelta a España.
After his break-out season with the Cervélo TestTeam, Deignan (pronounced DIE-gnan) wasn't able to follow up with similar performances in 2010 because of self-admitted impatience with recovery from an early-season injury, but he isn't going to make the same mistake twice.
"In 2010 I had a knee injury at the start of the year so I missed four to five weeks extra off the bike, so I tried to rush back a bit too quick, and I think I overdid it," the 28-year-old told Cyclingnews at the UnitedHealthcare team camp in Palm Springs in January.
"I started getting sick every two to three weeks. I'd come back again too early and I suppose, looking back, it was avoidable if I had taken the proper rest and built back slowly up again. I think a lot of times when you get injured you start to panic and you try to make up for lost time, but it's always a recipe for disaster."
His less-than-stellar 2010 meant that when Cervélo folded and the some riders were taken along with the bike sponsor to the Garmin team, Deignan wasn't among them. RadioShack boss Johan Bruyneel plucked him out of the unemployment line, but after one year, that team, too, was folded into another organisation, leaving no space for an unproven quantity.
"A lot of things happened last winter, but that's cycling," Deignan said of the RadioShack/Leopard Trek merger. "We found out pretty late on - it's kind of unfair that the riders don't know what's going on - a lot of the time the guys find out on the internet - on Cyclingnews - guys get interviewed and they don't know what's happening.
"But I had a good year with them, I'm just grateful to Johan for giving me a chance to race with them for the year."
Luckily, Deignan had spoken with UnitedHealthcare manager Mike Tamayo while at the Tour of Utah, and found the project to be enticing. The team wanted to race more in Europe, and a focus on the major non-WorldTour races like the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge in Colorado meant Deignan would not only have more opportunities to race, but could race as a leader rather than a helper.
"For me, the biggest goal will be California and Colorado," he said, fully aware that by targeting those races he would put himself up against two of his former teammates as defending champions: Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer.
"It will be pretty tough opposition, really. I learned a lot from those guys last year, and it was a great experience, especially with Levi leading the race in Utah and Colorado, and riding for them.
"It's a big ask to beat them. but who knows. I'll try - I'm not saying I can win, but we'll go into the race with me, Rory [Sutherland] and Marc De Maar on the team, so we have three guys who can do well. Between the three of us we can try something."
In order to ensure top form for his target races, Deignan has been working closely with Iñigo San Millán, the team's trainer and the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at University of Colorado Hospital's Sports Medicine Clinic.
San Millán, who also worked with the Garmin team, is a proponent of customizing training plans based upon careful examination of an athlete's physiology, and he carefully monitors several parameters to make sure riders are getting the most out of their training without overdoing it.
"This will be the first year we're monitoring things so closely, and we've seen in the past that my values would go up and down because I've been overtraining a lot of the time. We're going to keep a close eye on that this year and try and prevent that happening. It's going to be exciting, Iñigo is an intelligent guy and I'm looking forward to working with him this year."
So far, Deignan has seen only minor changes in his base training over the winter, with a reduction in volume coupled with a increase in quality of training.
"Before I was doing a lot of miles, but I don't think it was the best thing for me. This year we're adding a bit more rest and when I go training I go a little harder but a little shorter. I feel really good, I feel healthy and I feel fresh when I go out on the bike. In the past I might have gone out and sort of plugged away for 5-6 hours and not really achieve anything.
"At the start I felt like I was going too fast, like I shouldn't be going that hard. It was still high-end endurance, but that's probably been the hardest thing, just going out with constant pressure on the pedals, whereas before you're just going out rolling around and getting up the miles, but not really achieving much."
While Deignan's first race will be the Volta ao Algarve and his schedule will have him heading back and forth between the USA and Europe, he will still maintain his home base in Ireland, where he says he can get away from cycling and relax.
"The training [in Ireland] is interesting. The weather is unpredictable, but I found living in Girona there were too many racers. I got on with the guys who lived there, but it felt like when I got back from a race that I was still at a race or a training camp because there are so many cyclists around.
"It's nice to get back home and just relax and unplug from it. I still train hard and have the lifestyle of a cyclist, but I enjoy just relaxing with my friends and family."
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