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For much of the professional peloton, the end of the season brings with it that dreaded game of musical chairs. Everyone’s trying to earn themselves a contract for the season ahead; to secure their future before the music stops.
The closure of several teams means there are fewer chairs available in 2017 than normal, and competition for the remaining spots has been fierce. Many riders have been left without a contract, including Tasmanian pro and former Sky rider Nathan Earle.
Earle caught up with CyclingTips’ Australian editor Matt de Neef to chat about his 2016 season and the challenges he’s faced in finding a team for next year.
When Nathan Earle signed with Drapac for the 2016 season, it seemed, from the outside at least, like something of a step backwards. The Tasmanian had impressed at the Continental level in 2013, earning himself a spot in the WorldTour through wins in Asia and in Australia’s National Road Series. He then spent two years with Team Sky, working tirelessly in the service of others, foregoing any chances of personal success in the process.
Ultimately, Sky chose not to renew his contract and Earle moved home in 2016 to ride for Australia’s only Pro Continental team, Drapac.
At the time, Earle was buoyed by the opportunities ahead — to ride for his own chances of victory, rather than for those of his teammates. He told CyclingTips in late 2015: “The role I will get in a smaller team like [Drapac] will be a much better one and I’ll get a lot more chances with team support”.
A year on, as his time with Drapac comes to a close, Earle is honest in his appraisal of the past season.
Looking back at 2016
“I definitely did have more opportunities than at Sky, that’s for sure, but I probably didn’t go as well as I was hoping [laughs],” Earle told CyclingTips. “I think it took me just a little bit longer than I realised to come back from Sky and get my head back in the game, like: ‘I’m racing to win, not just racing to a point on the road to get someone to win’, if that makes sense.”
While Earle had opportunities to race for himself, he still did his first share of working for his teammates, just as he did at Sky.
“There was a lot of times where the team plan was maybe for teams GC at the Tour Down Under, or Brendan Canty at [Tour of] Oman, or BJ [Brenton Jones] for sprints,” he said. “So I was still doing a lot of domestique work which, I mean, I was happy to do.
“Obviously in hindsight it would have been nice to maybe just have every single opportunity to try and win something, to help get a contract. But at the time I was quite happy with the mix of responsibilities I was given, like go for the win or whatever it may be.”
The result was, in Earle’s own words, a “lean” year. He had a bunch of top 20 finishes, including 10th overall at the UCI 2.1 Tour de Taiwan and a seventh and third on stages of the UCI 2.1 Tour of Portugal. But he wasn’t able to add a win to his palmares.
“I was thereabouts but I guess I was in the same sort of boat as Adam Phelan — pretty consistent, always reliable, always there, but not really just winning,” Earle said, referring to his newly retired Drapac teammate. “And at the end of the day people just want winners [laughs].”
An imperfect storm
Earle’s lack of victories was compounded by a lack of racing in the latter part of the season. In fact, his last race was the Tour of Portugal in early August.
“It would have been nice to do a few more races because obviously if you haven’t signed for a team, races later in the year are like … they’re job interviews,” Earle explained. “You’re putting yourself out there and showing yourself to other teams, getting some exposure, trying to get yourself another contract.
“Having my last race end in early August didn’t really do me any favours.”
And with Drapac leaving it until mid-September to let Earle know he didn’t have a spot on the combined Cannondale-Drapac WorldTour team for 2017, the 28-year-old’s options were fast running out.
“Drapac told a lot of the guys early on that they just wouldn’t be in with a shot at having a spot on the new merger team,” Earle said. “Obviously that’s disappointing but that was mid-year or whatever and they just went off and sorted themselves out with other teams, or figured out their next move, whatever they wanted to do.
“Whereas I was left quite late when I was told it’d be a ‘no’, and Adam [Phelan] was a couple weeks later than me.”
Earle has been speaking with many of the sport’s Pro Continental teams — “so many teams it’s just ridiculous” — but with team rosters all but finalised, finding a team with space has proven challenging. So he started looking further afield.
“Then I sort of talked to Continental teams — there’s either no budget there to pay riders, or pay me,” Earle said. “A couple of teams were looking pretty promising, sort of Asian teams, and then they have some sort of budget problems and then it all went to shit really.”
While many riders spend the early part of their career racing for little or no money on small Continental teams, doing what is necessary to take that next step up, that’s not a viable strategy in the long term. And with his wife due to give birth to their first child next month, riding for free is no longer an option for Nathan Earle.
One last crack
As things stand, Earle doesn’t have a contract for the 2017 season. And it’s been a stressful few months trying to find one; something his Drapac teammate Adam Phelan described in a recent post on CyclingTips.
“Obviously after Adam’s article, everything he said in that — the anxiety, the stress, the not-knowing, it’s all the same for me,” Earle said. “At the end of the day it’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just the way cycling goes, the way sport goes I guess.
“[But] It’s not nice — it’s quite horrible not knowing what you’re going to do and not knowing if you’re going to ride for another year.”
But while it’s been tough going, Earle’s not giving up yet.
“I’m going to do my [Australian Road] Nationals prep as I normally would, go to Nationals as I normally would, try and get a Tour Down Under spot [in the UniSA-Australia national team – ed.] and just try and have one real last hit-out at it for the summer season of racing in Australia,” Earle said. “And if nothing comes of that I guess I’ll retire in February.”
But that’s a last resort. Earle still feels like he’s got plenty to give.
“I’m certainly not in a position where I’m content with retiring from cycling,” he said. “I still feel I’m good enough to ride at a high level and I feel like I can potentially still win races. So if I stop riding, I won’t be happy with it.”
Support from those around him
While Nathan Earle might currently be without a contract for 2017, he certainly won’t be without support from those who have long been in his camp. Andrew Christie-Johnston, owner of the Praties/Genesys/Huon-Genesys/Avanti setup which Earle spent six years with, has offered Earle assistance for the early part of next season.
“He said ‘If you don’t have anything by the end of the year, don’t stress. Flights, accommodation, a bike, everything you need, race support at Nationals … I’m going to give it to you’, Earle said. “To take money and equipment from a very modest team budget like his and give it to me; to give me one last chance and potentially save my career as a cyclist, and probably, well, money out of his own pocket for all I know … it’s pretty special people like that sticking their neck out for you.”
Earle is also quick to pay tribute to the support he’s received from other former members of the Praties/Genesys/Avanti setup.
“I’ve good mates and ex-teammates like Steele von Hoff and Jai Crawford digging into their resources with people they know and teams they know, to try and help me as well,” Earle said. “So I guess it’s nice knowing that those friends and people still believe in you and know your ability and they’re willing to use their name or their contacts to help you.
“You sort of learn who your true friends are when things like this happen.”
Perceptions on stepping down
Nathan Earle is aware of what some people will say about his career trajectory in recent years — that his promotion to the WorldTour was perhaps premature; that he wasn’t up to the rigours of racing at that level.
“I do wonder what people think,” he admits. “I went to the top and I’m just working my way back down. What happens if I go to a Continental team now – am I going to retire the year after that?”
And it’s not just an issue of perception.
“As an athlete riding at a high level, you want to continue being at that high level and sure, you can go back to a Conti team or do some Asian racing, and that’s great, but part of the reason I’m riding is I want to constantly challenge myself,” Earle said. “Stepping back to a lower level — not saying there’s anything wrong with that — it’s not really what I want to do. But at the same time, beggars can’t be choosers.
“So if it takes me going to a very small team on a very lean salary to try and get back to the top again, then I’m willing to do that. Because I’m just not willing to stop.”
Ultimately, Nathan Earle considers himself fortunate to be making a living riding his bike. To that end he’s trying to focus on the positives.
“I know my ability as a rider,“ the 28-year-old said. “Who knows — maybe Team Sky was too big a step for me to take, or it was just the wrong team to go to — I was in such a domestique role there.
“I just need to look at what’s important to me and first and foremost it’s riding my bike. That’s where it all began. And that’s why I ever [began] to do it, because I enjoyed riding my bike. So I’m trying to keep that enjoyment of riding my bike there, and I think it’s still there. So I’ve just got to focus on why I’m doing it.
“At the end of the day I’m still making a career out of sport. It might not be a lucrative, super-famous career, but I’m still riding my bike, I’m getting paid. In my mind that’s pretty good.”
While Earle will continue looking for a team in the weeks and months ahead, it’s perhaps in the Australian summer of cycling that his best chance of a contract now lie. He’ll be pushing hard for a strong result at the Australian Road Nationals in January and hoping to book himself a place in the national team for Tour Down Under.
From there, who knows what might be possible. One thing is clear: Nathan Earle certainly isn’t ready to retire.