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The final months of 2016 were challenging for Nathan Earle. The 28-year-old’s Drapac team was folding, he didn’t have a ride secured for the year ahead, and with a newborn child at home, retiring wasn’t an option. He also wasn’t ready to give up racing — he felt as if he had plenty more to give. But he was running out of options and running out of time.
Fast forward to January and things are much different for the Tasmanian. He’s found himself a contract, he’s had an impressive start to the year, and he’s genuinely excited about what 2017 might bring.
The search for a contract
When Earle last spoke to CyclingTips in November 2016, he was months into his search for a new ride and had made little headway. Having raced at the highest level of the sport with Team Sky, and then stepped down to Pro Continental with Drapac, Earle wasn’t keen to step down again to the Continental ranks — the sport’s third division.
But ultimately, that’s exactly what was required.
“In the end I decided ‘That’s what I’ve got to do to keep riding’,” Earle told CyclingTips at the Tour Down Under. “Whether that’s the level I end up staying at I don’t know. I basically wanted to keep riding and I was prepared to do that.
“So I was talking to a lot of small teams and they almost turned me away … they’re like ‘We can’t afford you’, or something, because I rode with Sky. And they’re like “You’re good, we can’t afford you”. And I’m like “Well, I don’t have a job — how much do you want to offer me?”
Earle’s former Genesys Wealth Advisors teammate Jai Crawford suggested Earle get in touch with Team Ukyo, a Japanese Continental team.
“[I] got in contact with Team Ukyo and talked to them and they weren’t too sure with their budget because it was so late and they’d already confirmed things,” Earle said. “But then they got back to me and said they were after a more aggressive, punchier rider with a bit of experience and stuff and we just got chatting.
“It was December that this was happening … and then it was just before Christmas that I signed the contract. They didn’t have much of a budget left but they gave me a spot and it was good enough to get through another year. It’s exciting.”
Established back in 2012, Team Ukyo is managed by and named after Japanese racing driver Ukyo Katayama. Earle is the only native English speaker on the team — the rest of the team are Japanese or Spanish — but the team language is English, something Earle is thankful for.
“Everyone speaks English, which makes life a hell of lot easier,” Earle said. “I think someone wrote something in Japanese [via a team group message] and the manager came back and said ‘English please’.”
It’s easy to be critical of Earle’s career trajectory — from the WorldTour through the Pro Continental ranks and back to Continental level in three years — but the Tasmanian has a more positive outlook.
“People say ‘How do you feel signing with a small team?’ But it’s like, it was that or nothing so I think it could be a blessing in disguise in a way,” Earle said. “I get to go back to my roots a bit more and obviously a smaller team means less stress, more opportunity. And from what I’ve seen so far they’re pretty dialled with everything — I’ve got everything I need, I’m riding a nice bike — I’ve actually got a bike!
“You can always think about something that could be better but it certainly could be a hell of a lot worse. I’m really excited.”
The Aussie summer of racing
Securing a contract for 2017 — albeit at the last minute — changed the complexion of the Australian summer of racing for Earle. He’d been training hard for the Road Nationals, thinking it would be his last chance of earning a contract. But by the time the Nationals rolled around he’d already secured a ride, reducing the pressure on him significantly.
“My goal originally was to have a good Nationals and to get onto this team [the UniSA-Australia national team at the Tour Down Under] to sort of salvage my career,” Earle said. “It wasn’t, in the end, as do or die as that because I signed a contract.”
Earle’s hard work in the off-season paid off. He rode strongly in the Nationals criterium, leading solo for much of the race, and then in the road race he impressed again, finishing a more-than-respectable fifth.
Those results were satisfying for Earle, not just because they showed he was back in good form, but because they went some way to repaying the faith others had shown in him.
“It was really nice to have a good showing at Nationals for myself, but also for my team as well and everyone else,” Earle said. “Because I’ve had such great support from everyone — messages and talking to people. They’ve all wished me well and hoped for the best. So to turn up to Nationals and have a good result …
“Ok I didn’t win — that was the goal — but I felt like I was right there and I had a crack and I had an aggressive race. It just felt so refreshing to be able to race like that again.”
With his ride at Nationals, Earle achieved the goal he’d set for himself — earning a place on the UniSA-Australia national team for the Tour Down Under. And he rode strongly at that event too.
On the stage 2 uphill finish to Paracombe, Earle was 11th on the stage, alongside the likes of Sergio Henao (Sky) and Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe). And on stage 5 to Willunga Hill, Earle rode to an impressive sixth, pushing him up to 10th overall. He’d ultimately slip down to 11th on the final day due to some impressive riding from Katusha-Alpecin’s Jhonatan Restrepo, but Earle left the season’s first WorldTour race feeling satisfied.
“[I’m] pretty happy with the form. I can’t be not happy, really,” Earle told CyclingTips on the final morning of the TDU. “I guess it’s natural, for me at least, but for most athletes — you always expect a bit more of yourself. You’re happy with your effort but you always look at the little things that could have been better along the way but that’s how you learn.
“I think I’m in good enough form to learn from all that and apply it all to the next race I do.”
The year from here
While his Ukyo team begins its season at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in Spain today, racing against 12 WorldTour teams, Earle is still in Australia, ready to line up at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
He’s again racing for the Australian National team and with a hilly parcours, Earle should have another chance to shine before he turns his attention to racing for his Japanese team.
He’s not sure exactly which races he’ll be doing this season, but he has a fair idea of where they’ll be.
“I think it will be a really good mix of local Japanese and Asian racing, that middle sort of 2.2, 2.1 and 1.1 racing in Asia and Azerbaijan and Korea and things like that,” Earle said. “And then also some Spanish racing … which I’m pretty excited about. Maybe [I’ll] go to Girona and hang out with some of the guys there for a bit in between.”
Earle believes the lower-level racing that will make up the bulk of his season is just what he needs to rediscover his form and, hopefully, earn him a place in a bigger team for 2018. After all, it was in Asia that Earle really established himself in 2012 and 2013, ultimately leading to a contract with Sky.
“Doing some of the smaller races will be good for just that more aggressive racing, less stress, aggressive racing which will I think will be good to take me back to my roots a little bit as well,” he said. “But then we’re going to have a mix of much better quality racing as well, higher category races.”
As he did last year, Earle will base himself at home in Tasmania in 2017. The combination of good training and being around his young family makes it a no-brainer.
“Obviously living at home back in Tassie is a bonus,” Earle said. “Yeah, I’ll do some long trips and things like that, but that worked quite well with Drapac last year I found. I’m pretty self-driven and motivated so being at home isn’t an issue for me at all. I just get the training done that I need to get done — I think it’s better really.”
And as for his goal for the year, it’s simple really.
“I need to just start winning again,” Earle said. “At whatever level race that might be, that’s the goal — to have strong performances, help the team in some races and things like that, but also win as well. And I’ve been speaking to the team and they’ve given me plenty of opportunities to do that.
“I think this year has sort of come together with my training and preparation and everything. I’m probably in the best form I’ve ever been in. And I think that’s an accumulation of things — the previous years coming together for the strength plus really good quality training I had before Nationals and mental side of things.
“I’m motivated — I was sort of motivated to try and salvage my career at this race [the Tour Down Under], and now I’ve got something as well so that’s taken that stress away. I’m in good form so I’m just in a pretty good place really and that all gels well for results.”