He looks like any other fit MAMIL, pedalling out of Hilderstone village and into the Staffordshire lanes. Still trim at 54-years-old, there’s precious little to hint at Martin Earley’s prowess on a bike, albeit over 20 years ago.
But followers of the 1980s pro scene will recognise the chrome-rimmed prescription glasses and, on the odd sunny day, the steel Concorde team issue PDM team bike that remains one of the few ways that Earley enjoys rekindling a memory or two from his 11 year pro career.
That’s not to say he isn’t proud of the Tour de France (1989) and Giro d’Italia (1986) stage wins, as well as top ten finishes in Liège-Bastogne-Liège (1988, 1990) and the Tour of Lombardy (1989), plus a gritty seventh place in one of the toughest world championships in recent times, at the Chambéry circuit in 1989.
It’s just that Earley is one of those lucky and level-headed former riders who has made a success of his post-pro life, avoiding the pitfalls of the car crash divorce, the failed ventures and the health scares. He looks back with satisfaction on “an amazing cycling journey” but feels no need to live in the past.
“I’m focussed now on what I do. I’ve got really good memories but I don’t go back over it. I knew it wouldn’t last forever and was just a part of my life. It took a lot of hard work, sacrifice and commitment.”
Married to former Olympic cyclist Catherine Swinnerton and with three children now all in their twenties, Earley moved from Dublin to Catherine’s home county of Staffordshire when he was still racing and today is a much sought-after sports therapist and bike fitter working from home near Stoke-on-Trent.
Quietly spoken – the Irish accent still there but delivered with English reserve – Earley warms modestly to colourful tales from a golden era of versatile champions and epic races.
None more so than that 1989 Worlds around the Chambéry circuit in France’s Savoie region which included a punishing 21 times up the Côte de Motagnole. Greg LeMond, then the recent winner of the closest Tour in history, outgunned Sean Kelly in a spray-soaked drag to the line, relegating Kelly to a bitterly disappointing third.
Generally considered one of the finest ever elite world championship road races, it came in a season which also included Miguel Indurain’s Paris-Nice win, Kelly’s second Liège, and Laurent Fignon’s Milan-San Remo and Giro victories. 1989 was also the first time that cyclists from the Soviet Union were permitted to ride as professionals, on the Alfa Lum team.
“I was at my strongest in 1989,” says Earley, thinking back to the worlds, his final kilometre solo Tour win on stage eight into Pau and ninth in Lombardy.
“It was my peak year, I didn’t get any stronger after that. I did feel good at the worlds but I didn’t have to do a lot for Kelly because the weather was so bad and riders were eliminated on the climb.”
It’s like a bubble… and you’re inside it
Turning pro in 1985 for Fagor, most of Earley’s time was spent with the formidable Dutch PDM team. His career coincided with that of countryman Stephen Roche but it was riding as Kelly’s wingman on PDM that he spent much of his career.
“We got on quite well,” he recalls. “He wanted me there and he knew I would not get into trouble in the bedroom, playing music late at night and such.”
Following Kelly to the new Festina outfit in 1991 and staying there until 1993, at 31 Earley quit the continent and returned to the UK to ride mountain bikes for Raleigh until he retired after the 1996 MTB race at the Atlanta Games.
“I wanted a change,” he says of the switch to fat tyres. “I’d had enough of the European scene. I wanted to travel less and had a young family. Also I had spent a few years not getting any better, I was pretty stagnant.
He admits it wasn’t easy to make the break from pro cycling: “People don’t realise how difficult it is; it’s like a bubble and you’re inside it.”
These days Earley rides for fun, avoiding local chain gangs and foul weather but looking forward to an annual spring cycling holiday in Majorca with son Joseph and a few mates. While he isn’t one to dwell on the past, he recognises his was a different era.
“When I turned pro you had toe clips and straps; the Tour in the mid 1980s had not changed since the 1970s. I rode the Tour in my first year, 1985, and we slept in dormitories with partitions between the teams.
“Looking back I was over-raced. They know how to train now with power, but you can’t look back, it was what it was. It’s different now and that’s great.”
Martin Earley sports therapy and bike fitting: 07964 801346