When Philip Deignan rolls down the start ramp on Friday’s opening stage of the Giro d’Italia, a dream 16 years in the making will become reality.
The Letterkenny man can pinpoint the moment he wanted to become a cyclist and compete alongside the world’s elite.
“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,” he laughs. “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 knew how to enjoy himself too, mind, and ask any of the lads who stayed with him on his first summer racing abroad in Belgium in the Sean Kelly Academy and the verdict is unanimous.
He was a frightening talent … and some craic.
Kelly, the toughest taskmaster of them all, often took a dim view of Deignan’s late-night antics while he was also a good man to keep the team car waiting after the race as he chatted to podium girls.
“Philip was the best I ever see,” said the team’s mechanic Freddy Bogaerts in broken English. “I’ve been here from the start and there’s been none like him. He see climb [as he points to the sky] and he attack. On his own. Win.
“And he like to celebrate with a little drink too sometime [as he grabs an imaginary pint]. I see him one time fight guy who came second over girl, he win that too,” Bogaerts adds before breaking down laughing.
Deignan was winning, giving the Academy a profile — and having the time of his life in the process.
He’s cooled a lot though, and if the Academy in Belgium was a sort of summer camp, then being with Team Sky must feel like a boarding school.
It doesn’t help that he lives in Europe’s capital of capitalist desire, Monaco, where the team has a base.
“I was a little bit worried how it was going to go because in Monaco you’re surrounded by a lot of other things that can be … distracting,” the Donegal man laughs, “but I’ve got a good group of friends here and I just don’t get involved in any of the other bullshit outside of the cycling world.
“I get up and do my training and I’ve settled in really well. It’s probably the happiest place I’ve lived outside of Ireland.”
Joining Team Sky came on the back of a brilliant 2013 season where he won races in America with his UnitedHealthCare team, competing in the sport’s second tier (ProContinental) behind the ProTour level.
But when the Dave Brailsford-led unit lost a talented climber in Rigoberto Uran to a rival team, they saw Deignan had the pedigree — having won a stage of the Vuelta A Espana in 2009 — and signed him up.
“It’s unbelievable how it has worked out,” he recalls. “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.
“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.
“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.”
The team’s plans for the race were turned upside down when Richie Porte — seen as a definite contender for the title — had to withdraw. Deignan was going to support him in the high mountains as best he could but after his withdrawal, the plan has changed.
“Obviously we won’t be outright favourites now but Sebastien 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.
“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.”
Maybe a piss up then? “I think it’s banned with most teams,” he laughs. “In the off-season riders have some down time but during the season I don’t do it at all … when I was younger I might have done it a little bit more, but I think I’m a little bit more settled down now and a bit more mature so … apart from a couple of glasses of wine with a meal, there’s no sessions. I couldn’t afford to go out on the piss here anyway!”