Nathan Earle begins his 13th season as an elite cyclist firmly convinced his best days in the saddle are still ahead of him.
He rode alongside Richie Porte at Team Sky but while his fellow Tasmanian has gone on to win a succession of major races and establish himself as a perennial Tour de France contender, Earle has become the embodiment of a journeyman workhorse, invariably sacrificing his own ambitions for his team’s.
After six seasons with Andrew Christie-Johnston’s Hobart-based outfit, he has ridden with four different teams at all three levels of the sport.
Last season alone, in the space of nine months Earle competed in Australia (four times), Italy (three times), The Netherlands, Norway (three times), Switzerland, Austria (twice), Spain (three times), Portugal, Germany, France, Canada (twice) and China.
It sounds a glamorous existence, circling the globe doing the sport he loves, but with a wife and young daughter a world away back in Glenorchy, the middle of a tightly-bunched peloton can be a lonely existence.
Reflecting on the 40-plus countries in his passport, the 30-year-old is content with his roller-coaster cycling career which has featured highlights in such diverse locations as Indonesia, New Zealand, Belgium, Borneo, Japan and Devonport but has been blighted by injuries, crashes and contractual frustrations.
“Cycling to date has afforded my family a good lifestyle and the luxury of me taking my time to think about my next career path and what I actually want to do instead of being forced to rush into a job for the money," he said.
“It’s tough at times. My wife has to do everything when I’m not around. But there’s good and bad. I’m not working 9 to 5, I work my own hours when I’m home and have a better quality of life.
"But when I’m at work I’m gone 24/7 for months on end and do something unsustainable because you can only race for so long. This is a career that’s eventually got a time limit on it.”
Like several other Tasmanians including Porte, Will Clarke and Scott Bowden, it is a career that owes much to Christie-Johnston.
Goulbourn-born Earle’s family moved to the North-West Coast when his father worked for Burnie City Council and then on to Hobart.
The student of Calvin Christian School, St Virgil's, Marist, Elizabeth and Rosny colleges dabbled in numerous sports before shin splints got him into cycling.
He rode the Tasmanian mountain bike circuit, plus the national championships on his doorstep at Tolosa Park against the likes of triple Olympian Daniel McConnell, before joining the Tasmanian Institute of Sport in 2006 and Christie-Johnston’s Praties in 2007.
After early signs of success at the under-19 nationals, Mersey Valley Tour and Victoria’s Baw Baw Classic, an accident in training forced Earle off the bike for 18 months following knee surgery.
“ACJ was really good to me,” he recalled. “Helping me with a bike and even paying some of my medical bills and things like new tyres on my car. He did a lot of guys a lot of favours. There are endless stories like that. I owe him everything. He kept me on the team in 2008 even though I did not ride and when most people had forgotten about me.”
The Baw Baw Classic, whose honour role features such distinguished names as Dave McKenzie, Simon Gerrans and Simon Clarke, added the name Earle in 2009, ’10 and ’12.
But a season on the Italian amateur circuit in 2011 was curtailed by another accident and subsequent ankle reconstruction as Earle watched a succession of teammates like Porte, Clarke, Nathan Haas, Jack Haig and Steele von Hoff leaving to turn pro.
“It was frustrating because I knew I was good enough to do the same but circumstances were not helping,” he said.
His career finally started to take off with successes in Tasmania, Borneo, New Zealand, Toowoomba, Perth, Taiwan and Japan.
Earle shared the same manager (Andrew McQuaid) as Porte and when Sky were looking for a first-year pro, a recommendation from one of their top performers earned another Tasmanian a two-year WorldTour contract.
“It was great, a really good two years of learning,” Earle said. “I did some good races and did not feel out of my depth. I was just a workhorse for all the other guys which was fine, but I was in only one breakaway in two years. I was actually in two others but got called back to the group. Things like that were a little bit frustrating.”
A hectic schedule included twice contesting the Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic before dropping to Pro-Continental level with Drapac in 2016 and then Continental with UKYO in 2017.
“I was told I was doing a good job at Sky but come contract time they weren’t interested. That’s just the way it goes.
“It got me excited to get back to a lot of those races and hopefully this year I will.”
Overall victory at the Tour de Lombok, a mountains classification at the Tour of Thailand, second place at the Tour of Japan and eye-catching fifth at road nationals, top-10 at Herald Sun Tour and 11th at Tour Down Under earned Earle his current two-year deal with Israel Cycling Academy.
“For me that was a bigger signing than Sky because I had gone back to Pro-Continental then Continental then almost no contract at all. So from that bottom level, I got back to a two-year deal with a Pro-Continental team when it looked like my career was heading downhill.
“I knuckled down and made it happen which was very satisfying when a lot of guys at Drapac decided to pull the pin. I thought if I want to do the good stuff, I’ve got to do the groundwork.”
Earle is genuinely excited by his future with ICA.
“It’s a young team with a good budget and big ambitions, doing a lot of big races. This year we should do the Giro (d’Italia) again and hopefully the Vuelta (a Espana), Liege (Bastogne), Amstel (Gold) and the team wants to do the Tour (de France) in 2020 which is why they have signed a lot of French riders.
“Hopefully I will be at the Giro if all goes well and maybe the Tour de Yorkshire. I did that in 2015 and would love to go back.”
Another untimely crash, while training in Hobart in mid-January, left Earle with a smashed helmet, injured knee and badly bruised knuckle.
But after a fortnight off the bike he is back up to 30-hour training weeks, closing in on his race weight of 67 kilograms and ready to head back to his European base in the Spanish city of Girona via the Tour of Taiwan.
“My goals now have changed,” he said. “If I have a good year and a WorldTour team offered a ride I would consider it but but not jump all over it because I need to make a living and money is a big factor.
“I’m getting paid more at Pro-Continental level than I was at WorldTour and I could go to the WorldTour and not do any Grand Tours.
“I think I’d stay with ICA if they had a Tour de France spot for next year because the salary is good and with this team there’s a good balance of racing and opportunities and higher chance of doing a Grand Tour.
“I want to go to the team with the best race program. I could happily ride for this team for years to come. The budgets for smaller teams have really grown. We’ve got everything that Sky had just not to the same quality.”
Looking ahead from the home he shares with wife Kat and two-year-old daughter Bonnie, Earle has given plenty of thought to life beyond the sport that has dominated his adulthood.
“I’m planning for life after cycling. It might have been different if I had turned pro seven years before I did and without all the ups and downs.
“I’ve still got an interest in the outdoors from my school days and firefighting interests me, that could branch into search and rescue.
“Or maybe I’ll open a small cafe, something low-key with some cycling memorabilia. As long as the cyclists don’t put their sweaty helmets on the tables because that really annoys me.”