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SILVER CITY, N.M. (VN) — At the start of the final day of Silver City’s Tour of the Gila, UnitedHealthcare’s Philip Deignan sat third overall — only 21 seconds behind race leader Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman). Deignan was a bit of an unknown quantity. Before this year’s Tour of the Gila, the 29-year-old had never won a stage race during his professional career.
“You just have to have confidence in yourself, and the team’s been really good all week and you know, they’ve been telling me that that I could do this, you know, and it’s been so long since I won a race,” said Deignan. “I feel like I’ve forgotten how to win a race. So this week was brilliant for that, getting the confidence on.”
Deignan started out his Tour of the Gila campaign by placing fourth with the same time as his teammate Lucas Euser on the opening day’s Mogollon stage. That put the pair within striking distance of the race lead, and after the first stage, they both trailed Acevedo by 24 seconds.
The following day, both UnitedHealthcare riders finished safely in the field behind the three-rider breakaway that contested the stage victory. The overall standings remained unchanged ahead of the Tyrone time trial.
The time trial stage moved Deignan closer to Acevedo’s race lead. The Irish rider finished fifth on the stage and moved up to third overall. His day on the time trial bike put him 13 seconds closer to the red jersey of race leader, and Deignan picked up six seconds on second-placed Chris Baldwin (Bissell).
Because Saturday’s criterium did not change the general classification, the top three riders started the Gila Monster stage only 21 seconds apart. Acevedo led Baldwin by four seconds and Deignan by 21 seconds.
From the start of Sunday’s finale, UnitedHealthcare wanted a hard race to whittle away at Acevedo’s team. Both Ben Day and Lucas Euser rode breakaway efforts, though neither move was allowed to go too far up the road by Jamis-Hagens Berman.
“We had a 100 percent plan for the day. Our original plan was to get Lucas up the road, and the boys did that exactly,” UnitedHealthcare director Mike Tamayo said. “We wanted more of a gap on the breakaway, but Jamis was really smart. [They] didn’t let that breakaway go far enough, which we were bummed out about.”
Still, UnitedHealthcare stuck with its plan. On the steep climb up from the Cliff Dwellings National Monument, Johnny Clarke attacked in a setup move for Deignan. The Irishman tried his hand, but his escape was foiled by some hard riding by Francisco Mancebo, who was chasing the stage victory.
“I had Phil off the front winning the race, and Mancebo went full gas,” Tamayo said. “He’s one of the world’s best and he rode really hard and the rest of us had to just hold on a couple times and wait for the big engine to go.”
In the race’s final 10 kilometers, Deignan used Mancebo’s strength to his own advantage. When Bissell’s Philip Gaimon went up the road solo, Deignan waited. Sure enough, Mancebo proved a useful ally on the road.
The two riders had a confluence of interests: Mancebo needed to chase down Gaimon for the stage victory, while Deignan wanted the overall. It was a classic tactical alliance between a stage-hunter and a general classification rider.
“When I saw Mancebo go, I followed. He can just keep going. We worked really well coming all the way to the finish,” Deignan said.
Behind, Acevedo suffered alone after the day’s constant attacking wore down his team. Acevedo crushed Gila’s opening day Mogollon stage, but suffered in the more tactical Gila Monster.
“Everybody in the team did 100 percent. But after the KOM, the category one, he was by himself and every team has two or three guys,” Jamis-Hagens Berman director Sebastian Alexander said. “From there on, the pressure was on his shoulders and it was a long way.”
Before this week’s victory, Deignan’s biggest result was a stage win from a breakaway at the Vuelta a España. The stage climbed to finish inside the walled city of Avila. Deignan won that stage in 2009 as part of the Cervélo TestTeam. Until Sunday, he had not won another race since.
Deignan’s only previous stage race victory came in the under 23 ranks in 2004 when he won the Ronde de l’Isard d’Ariège. He also finished third that year on the Terminillo climb at the Baby Giro.
In 2010, illness and injury derailed Deignan’s season and prevented him from following up on his Vuelta success. Then at the end of that season, Cervélo TestTeam folded. Deignan, with no results that season, was one of the riders left without a seat when the music stopped. He spent the following year at RadioShack-Leopard before signing with UnitedHealthcare in 2011. He says the team suits him, and has made it possible to put his troubled seasons behind him.
“It’s not one thing in particular. It’s just looking after myself and training right and staying healthy and doing the right training. In years previous, there’s always been … to be at the top, you have to be 100 percent,” Deignan said. “If there’s anything, if you have any problems, you can’t really compete. It’s not what I’ve done, it’s just that I haven’t had any problems.”
Deignan has also found a good fit at UnitedHealthcare. The team’s support during his week in Silver City gave him the confidence boost he felt he needed.
“We’ve got such a good spirit. I know it’s a bit corny, everybody says that,” he said. “But we do have a good group of guys and we all get on well and that transfers on to the bike when we’re racing.”
Deignan will next ride in the Amgen Tour of California. He heads to San Diego this week for some recovery time before hitting the race’s opening stage in Escondido on Sunday.
“I’m going to fly to San Diego [Monday]. I’m going to have some rest,” he said, smiling. “It’s only a week. [I’m] just going to take it easy and have a few coffee rides.”