Philip Deignan homing in on Giro d'Italia joy
Published 06/05/2014 | 12:17
Think of Team Sky in cycling and Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome spring to mind.
None of the above, however, are in Belfast this week for the 'Big Start' of the Giro d'Italia.
On the up side Philip Deignan is, representing Ulster and Ireland as well as Team Sky.
And the 30-year-old is savouring the prospect of competing on the same roads he raced on as a teenager when moving through the amateur ranks.
The affable character from Letterkenny in county Donegal, now 10 years a professional, has come a long way.
More recently the Monaco based rider has come back to action from a broken collarbone.
"It was a race against time trying to return for the Giro because I had a broken collarbone after getting knocked down by a car in Monaco on February. That took a while to heal and my form is building now," says Deignan.
"I'll probably be starting the race a little bit behind from where ideally I would like to be but that could help me in the last week of race.
"Two weeks in a lot of the boys will probably be getting tired and I will still be feeling fresh having not raced as much in the early part of the season."
Deignan is the first Irishman to ride for Team Sky. For non cycling devotees, and there will be thousands of them coming out to watch the Giro in Northern Ireland on Friday, Saturday and Sunday before it makes its way to the Republic en route to Italy, the Sky logo will be one of the few on show that they will be able to identify with.
The team's most recognisable faces may be missing, but expectancy levels will still be, well, sky high.
Deignan explains the team's strategy: "The whole objective of the team has been changed drastically with the Australian rider Richie Porte pulling out. It was all going to be about getting him a good overall classification.
"He would have been one of the favourites for the race but now we have a younger team looking for opportunity and experiences. We have a good blend and the whole team will be motivated to try and get a few stage wins.
"For me I will have more of a helping role for the first half of the race trying to get others like Ben Swift or Edvald Boasson Hagen up for stage wins and then in the second half of the race when I'm feeling better I can hopefully go for breakaways and try to get a stage win myself.
"I've only been on the team the last few months, but everyone is very helpful which makes racing a lot easier."
Deignan, renowned as an accomplished mountain road racer, adds: "The first three days are massive being in Ireland but I can't get too carried away with that because the race lasts for another three weeks and it will be in the last week with a lot of the big mountains in the Alps when people can look out for me."
Talk to Deignan about one of the biggest sporting events in the world spending three days here and his eyes light up.
"It is going to be huge," he says. "The Giro is a massive world event and this is a chance for Ireland, north and south, to show itself off. There will be over 180 countries watching on television so at the start of the race it's a great chance to show off the sights of Northern Ireland."
As a kid Deignan has happy memories of family holidays on the Antrim coast and visiting the Giant's Causeway.
The Aston Villa fan, who represented Ireland in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, says: "They are my favourite spots in Northern Ireland so it'll be special riding along the Antrim coast. When I was a teenager in my junior days most of my racing was in the north because I was from Donegal and that was the closest place where I could compete.
"To be honest it's going to be bizarre and a little surreal racing in the Grand Tour on roads that I used to race on as a junior when I was 15 or 16 in little local events.
"This year's Giro offers a chance for my friends and family back home in Donegal to come and watch me. I know there is a bus load coming from Letterkenny so I'll be on the look out for some familiar faces on the route."
Cycling success academic for Philip
If Philip Deignan's life had taken a different path he could be a quantity surveyor right now.
That's what he was studying at university in Liverpool before making a snap decision to give professional cycling a shot.
For the last decade the native of County Donegal has been riding on roads all over the world living his dream.
It's a gruelling sport which takes his mind and body to the limit, but Ulsterman Deignan knows he made the right choice.
Unlike football or rugby, when kids have a ball at their feet or in their hands from the moment they can walk, cycling allows for late developers to come through and excel.
Northern Ireland's two greatest competitors Martyn Irvine and Wendy Houvenaghel are examples of that.
Deignan is another. He didn't get his first 'proper bike' until he was 14.
"Originally I wanted a scrambler when I was young, but my parents thought it was too fast and I had to settle for a mountain bike," he recalls.
"I'd no family history in the sport. Then one year I got involved in a charity cycle for Cancer Research from Sligo to Letterkenny and even though I was only 14 and didn't really know what I was doing, I performed well. Some of the boys took me to one side after the race and told me I had a knack for it.
"There were a few really good local guys who looked after me, took me to races, gave me a training programme and sorted me out with equipment and if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be where I am today. I'm very thankful to them.
"I did local races and was successful and moved on to national races and won quite a bit. That helped me to get selected by the national.
"Then came an offer from a French team who were a feeder team for the pro outfits. That was a dilemma for me though because at the time I also had a University place in Liverpool.
"Originally I went to University where I was studying Quantity Surveying, but a few months later I decided that cycling was really what I wanted to do and hopped on a plane to France.
"I told my parents to give me two years and if I hadn't made it I would go back to college. Two years later I signed pro and haven't looked back."
Now based in Monaco and friendly with fellow resident, Northern Ireland motorcycling star Eugene Laverty, Deignan rarely gets a chance to come home, hence the reason why he can't wait for this year's Giro.
On moving to Monaco he says: "It's a bit of a change from Donegal, but it wasn't how I expected it to be.
"You hear about it being a bubble and there is that aspect to it, but there are a lot of well grounded people here too who I get along with which makes living away from home a lot easier."