Nathan Earle started the summer out of work, facing the stark reality of a premature retirement from the sport. The New Year saw a change in fortune for the 28-year-old Australian, signing with the Continental Team Ukyo squad, and securing a place on the national teams at the Tour Down Under and Herald Sun Tour.
Earle's start to the season was a reminder of his characteristics and ability that saw Team Sky sign him back in 2013.
"I didn't go out and win anything but I would say I had a pretty successful start to the year proving that I am still there," Earle told Cyclingnews.
"The nationals performance, eleventh in the end at Tour Down Under and then Sun Tour... it would have been nice to do a little better but at the same time, top ten with four other guys confirmed the Tour Down Under result wasn't any sort of a fluke. I think all in all, it wasn't the make or break that it was going to be because I got the contract with Team Ukyo, which was fantastic and eased the pressure. The form was there and I felt a bit more relaxed about everything and everything fell into place."
At the national championships in early-January, Earle announced he was in "career best form". Fifth in the road race suggested he wasn't bluffing with his TDU (11th on GC) and Sun Tour (8th on GC) results that followed evidence of his claim. While some saw it as a 'breakout' block of racing, Earle explained that things simply fell his way following a dedicated off-season of training.
"The whole summer really was reassuring. I think it surprised a lot of people. I had a lot of people saying, 'wow, you're going so well and looking so fit' and things like that. For me, it was not so surprising because I know what I can do if everything goes well with training and health and a bit of luck. I wasn't riding above my ability thinking 'holy shit'. That's what I thought I could do and it's what I did, so to me it wasn't a surprise," he said.
"It opened a few eyes but whether it opens a few doors in the future, I don't know but I think I did everything I could."
In 2013, Earle signed for Team Sky and moved up to the WorldTour ranks. His contract came off the back of several strong seasons with Australian Continental team Huon Genesys where he was a regular winner. Earle explained that over the summer he feels he has recovered his 'winning mentality' and is mentally prepared for the challenges ahead in 2017 with Team Ukyo.
"All of that has put me in a good mindset for the rest of the year and given me a lot of confidence even though no podium came of any of it," he said of the summer which included the birth of his first child. "I think the only thing that could have gone better was winning something."
Created by former Japanese F1 driver Ukyo Katayama in 2012, Earle makes his debut for Team Ukyo at this week's Tour de Filipinas and the Tour of Thailand in April. The team recently rode a handful of Spanish races and Earle is hoping for a return to European racing to balance and complement his Asian racing program.
"Tour of Japan, Tour of Kumano, Japan Cup and all the other small races in between," he said of the Asian races he'll target this season. "I would say it's a mix of European stuff, some 2.1 races, and Japan Cup which will be a target of mine. There should be a nice mixed bag of racing which I think I need this year to be a bit aggressive and try some stuff."
While the possibility of a mid-season transfer to Pro-Continental or WorldTour level exists, Earle isn't looking to cut and run and use Ukyo to ascend the ranks. Instead, Earle is focused on repaying the faith placed in him by the team, focusing on having fun while racing and raising his arms in triumph for the first time since the 2013 Tour of Japan.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself or go ditching anyone or anything like that. It's only two months ago that I didn't have a job at all and I thought I was going to unwillingly retire from cycling. To have a contract with Team Ukyo and having a great performance in the summer of cycling in Australia, I am 100 per cent grateful for that and I'll definitely ride it out so to speak with Ukyo this year," Earle said.
"I am certainly not planning or looking to go anywhere else. I just want to ride with them and thank them for throwing me a lifeline and hopefully something better can come in 2018. Whether it's with them on a better contract or somewhere else, I don't know. I am keeping all the doors open. I just want to ride and race and win some stuff."