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Hold the judgements: this is a move that can only be assessed once sufficient time has passed.
Two years after Nathan Earle turned neo-pro with Team Sky, the Australian is stepping back a level and will compete with the Pro Continental Drapac Pro Cycling in 2016.
By his own admission, there will be a varied reaction to the news. Earle’s move from arguably the world’s biggest team to a smaller squad operating on a fraction of the budget will, he accepts, be regarded by some as a setback.
A glance at his results in his final year with the Huon Salmon – Genesys Wealth Advisers and comparing the haul of points to those secured with Team Sky also appears to tell a story.
However, scratch beneath the surface and there is a logic to what happened. Earle is far from the first rider to have such an experience. Josh Edmondson, a promising young climber who turned pro with the team in 2012, is just one other who has a similar story, going from Sky to the An Post Chainreaction Team once those two years were up. There are many more too.
It boils down to this: Team Sky is packed with leaders and highly experienced riders who are proven winners. Riding for those leaves little room for personal results, meaning that while plenty of sweat and effort was produced by Earle, his palmares simply doesn’t reflect that.
Well, not yet anyway. He’s still just 27 years of age and it’s far from game over for him. In fact, over time, his career path may yet show that taking a step back is sometimes the best way forward.
Pressure to progress
Hailing from Tasmania and showing ability early on, Earle worked hard in cycling and made his breakthrough during the 2013 season.
He was racing with Huon Salmon – Genesys Wealth Advisers and clocked up a stream of important results, including overall victories in the New Zealand Cycle Classic, the Tour of Toowoomba and the Santos North West Tour, plus stage victories in each of those.
He also won stages in the Tours of Taiwan and Japan, and amassed a spate of UCI points.
That momentum plus his ambitious nature saw him put pressure on himself to keep delivering once he turned pro. He wanted to keep building, even if team tactics limited his personal chances.
“Last year I thought to myself that if I go back a level, I am going to see that as a failure,” he admits, reflecting on what has happened. “Even though it is always the second signing that is the hardest one, I wanted to stay WorldTour to prove that I deserved the first two years.
“If I don’t do that I thought I was going to see myself as a bit of a failure. I also thought that everyone else would see it as ‘ah, he couldn’t cut the mustard, he wasn’t good enough to stay there.’”
A year and a half on from that, his perspective has changed. “As time went on, I saw that there were a lot of good riders going to Pro Conti teams,” he explains. Indeed, at the time of writing, no less a rider than Mark Cavendish is going to a squad in that division.
“For a rider like myself, the role I will get in a smaller team like that will be a much better one and I’ll get a lot more chances with team support and things like that.
“I started viewing it as a positive instead of a negative or a failure.”
Armchair critics might regard this as spin, but hear him out. His role with the team was one of support. His instructions were not to hit the finish line first, but to assist others in doing precisely that.
When others were saving energy early on, he was told to do the opposite.
“I was laughing about it the other day with someone,” he said, telling a story that sums everything up. “There was one race I was doing where I was working on the front from the beginning. And every time when the TV helicopter came to do the live coverage, I would just get dropped or peel off or stop working a kilometre before the helicopter arrived overhead.
“So as I am going back through the peloton, you see the helicopter come up. You are like, ‘nooooo…’
“Again and again, every time you get dropped the helicopter comes. Then you get a message from someone afterwards saying, ‘hey, I didn’t see you in the race,’ or something like that.
“Well, that is because I was doing the first 100 kilometres on the front.”
He says that this work was appreciated by the team, which would complement him on his effort. Other teams also noticed it occasionally, with Earle saying he sometimes got a thumbs up sign from directors with other teams as they drove past.
But, with TV coverage generally missing the early part of the race and with final results not reflecting his effort, he understands how a distorted assessment can be made.
“I read an article somewhere about my two years with Sky. They mentioned how many DNFs I had, how many races they said I failed to complete. I think for me it was 11 or something like that,” he states.
“I think that is a real misleading statistic because, at the end of the day, if I had to finish those races I could have finished all of them. But there wasn’t a need to finish.
“Either the team says ‘don’t finish, because you have got another tour where you have to ride the front coming up,’ or ‘you don’t need to finish because you have done that much that we are going to get our result or whatever. You just pull the pin and save yourself.’
“So I think that sort of statistic is not so important. Certainly for a rider like me anyway.”
Earle admits that he expected more opportunities. He’s not complaining; just acknowledging that what he anticipated and the reality for a neo pro in his position were somewhat different.
He said that he did get some chances in smaller races, but by then said he was fried from the grunt work he had been putting in during other events. Crashes also complicated things.
The benefits of racing for Team Sky
Earle stresses repeatedly that he is not complaining about his period with the team. Things didn’t work out as he hoped, but he accepts that there were plusses.
“I was put into quite a heavy domestique role for the whole two years. That is obviously not so good for trying to get results but, at the same time, I guess I learned a lot that way. I also worked with some of the best guys in the sport, which was quite an amazing thing to do.
“Helping Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins was important. I was part of the team when Bradley won the Tour of California. We did a really good team effort there. I felt like I rode super strong and played a really important role.
“Sometimes you do a job, yet they probably would have won anyway if you weren’t there. But that is one of those ones where they probably wouldn’t have won without the riding, so that was satisfying.”
He also feels the same way about helping Pete Kennaugh take the 2014 Tour of Austria.
Earle also takes satisfaction from other rides; in 2014 he was 70th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, just over five minutes behind the winner Simon Gerrans. In fact, he was the team’s sole finisher on that day.
“It is not really a result at all, but it was just a highlight, it was an exciting race to be in,” he reflects. “It was the first time I had ever done that race and that is the one that is amazing to watch. To be racing in that is pretty exciting and special.”
Results aside, he also benefited from riding alongside some of the top names in the sport.
“I knew Richie [Porte] quite well already. He was just the same old Richie I knew, angry little bugger! Richie is Richie, you just get what you see with him. We get on quite well,” he states.
“Chris Froome is a really nice guy. Although he’s the best in the world, he is easy to talk to, funny and just normal. He’s thankful when you do a job for him. Just a nice guy.
“He is not complicated or hard to be around. So that was a nice surprise, spending a bit of time with him.
“Bradley Wiggins, on the other hand, he has got a bit more character. He is a pretty funny guy. Riding the Tour of California with him last year, he always keeps you laughing with the impersonations he can do and jokes that I won’t repeat [laughs].
“There were really good guys on the team. Those superstars on the team were nice guys.”
New start and fresh goals
Earle admits that the lack of opportunity meant that he struggled with motivation at times. He also said it was tough being away from his wife, who lives and works back in Australia. They spent long periods of time apart and this was a factor in deciding to ride for Drapac.
“Having an option to ride Pro Conti, live in Australia and still race internationally sounded like a pretty good deal,” he says, talking about the contract his manager Andrew McQuaid secured for him. “I don’t want to lose my marriage over a professional contract or living in Europe.
“Maybe circumstances change in the future, maybe she will want to move over or something like that, but this is the current situation.
“It all fell into place. It was a well-balanced decision with lifestyle…my wife involved and cycling as well. It all just made sense at the time.”
Earle said that he has raced against Drapac for years and knows the team quite well. He also realises he should have a lot more opportunity in those ranks.
Others also seem to recognise that too.
“I wondered what the reaction would be,” he admits, once again thinking about how the move would be perceived. “Would it be a case of people saying, ‘he wasn’t good enough, that is why he is coming back, I told you..?’ But I have had really positive feedback from everyone. Drapac is a really well-respected team and people see it as a good place to be.
“Everyone has had nice things to say and they are looking forward to me having a bit more opportunity to show what I can do. It is good.”
Earle plans to take a little more time off, then to start knuckling down again. He doesn’t yet have his programme for next year, but early targets are known. If all goes well, he’ll make a good impression early on and use that momentum as the season unfolds.
“At the moment I am just focussing on our nationals in January. That is quite important. Obviously now being on an Australian Pro Conti team, having the national jersey in the team would be huge. You are the Australian team but you are racing overseas, so it would be a massive thing to have that.
“I think that course suits me quite well and I have always done reasonably well there in the past. So that’s my first goal. Then from there I assume that we might be doing the Herald Sun Tour and the Tour Down Under, so hopefully I make those squads. I just want to be at my best for that early January, February part of the year. Hit the ground running there, start on a high and that will keep the confidence going for the year.”
Having ridden in a diesel role for the past two years, Earle knows that he needs to tweak his training and racing to be good at the business end of races. Still, he knows that his engine should be a lot bigger from his time with Sky and, once he gets his sharpness back, the results could come rolling back in.
“I will have to adapt my training and my mindset a little bit, but I don’t think I am going to have any issue in getting back to my winning ways,” he says.
“It will be a bit of a challenge but I am looking forward to it.
“I guess the only pressure is now I have got to perform. But it is good to have that sort of pressure.”