Ask philip deignan if he is joining the best cycling team in the world and it doesn’t take long for him to answer with an unequivocal yes.
Dave Brailsford might not have found a way to turn Team Sky into an unstoppable force — yet — but they are a dominant one.
And they want to get even better. Not content to rest on their laurels after winning the Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in successive seasons, Sky have set their sights on more glory in 2014.
That’s where Deignan comes in.
You may remember him; you should. In 2009 the Letterkenny native wrote himself into the record books when he rode away to win a stage of the Vuelta a Espana, Ireland’s first at a Grand Tour since Stephen Roche 17 years earlier.
He went on to finish ninth in the general classification, the perfect gift a few weeks after his 26th birthday. The future seemed very bright indeed.
But Deignan is 30 now and the years in between have not been too kind. A series of injuries and illnesses wrote off huge chunks of seasons, months at a time. On top of that, in two successive years the team he was riding for folded, leaving him to scramble for new employers.
“I wasn’t thinking that I was never going to get back to the Pro Tour again,” he says as he looks back on the decision to drop down from cycling’s top level and sign for UnitedHealthcare, a US-based ProContinental team, in 2012.
A lot of people said that to me but I always knew that if I got a solid year in, I could show what I could do and get back there again anyway. You’re still on a good team that’s racing against Pro Tour teams so you’re still going to be in the shop window.
The move was a risk, particularly at an age when his career should have been going in the other direction, but it was the step back which ultimately led to two steps forward.
Celebrating at the Vuelta in 2009 (INPHO/Getty Images)
This season he proved that he can still mix it with cycling’s elite. In May he won the five-day Tour of the Gila and also had a string of top-10 finishes across the US.
All the while Sky were keeping tabs on his progress and staying in touch with his agent Andrew McQuaid, son of former UCI President Pat. Once he showed a return to form, they wasted no time pushing the button on a two-year deal.
Dave [Brailsford] knows that I have quite a lot of potential as a bike rider and that maybe I haven’t fulfilled that potential and there’s a lot more to get out of me.
Being a big fish at UnitedHealthcare seemed to suit Deignan but he faces a very different scenario at Sky where he will slot in as just one part of a star-studded roster.
It is by no means a new challenge. When he rode the Giro in 2009 Carlos Sastre, winner of the previous year’s Tour de France, was his team leader at Cervelo TestTeam.
But the move means that his opportunities will be greatly diminished, if they do not disappear entirely. The days for individual glory have been and gone and Deignan knows that his professional satisfaction and sense of achievement will come in other ways now.
“At 23, 24, 25, you’re progressing the whole time. You get to a level then where you’re really good but you’re never going to win the Tour or be a big champion.
For me I get more satisfaction out of helping whoever it may be next year, Richie Porte or Chris Froome or Bradley Wiggins, to win a race rather than me trying to scramble a top 10 or top 15 myself.
It’s not quite how he dreamt the future as youngster watching the Tour de France roll through Dublin, or as an eager twenty-something who abandoned university and moved to join a cycling club in France without telling his parents.
But Deignan is a realist. When all is said and done he’s thrilled to be opening a new chapter in the career he loves.
“The sport’s too hard to do it if you don’t love it or you don’t enjoy it. It’s too hard to just do as a pay cheque. You won’t survive if that’s your attitude.”