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It’s been nearly 18 months since Australian professional cyclists Lachlan and Gus Morton rode from Port Macquarie to Uluru on an adventure they called “Thereabouts”. That ride for them was all about getting back to basics; about focusing on the simple pleasure of riding a bike, away from the pressures of professional racing.
After moving to the US to race with the Jelly Belly team in 2015, the Morton brothers made plans for Thereabouts #2 – a five-day journey from their adopted home of Boulder, Colorado, to Moab in Utah. This time though, Lachlan and Gus weren’t alone – they were joined by Cameron Wurf, who’s currently on a one-year hiatus from the pro ranks, and Taylor Phinney, who’s still on the comeback trail after a much-publicised crash in early 2014.
In the following feature all four riders share their favourite (and not-so favourite) moments from what was a stunningly picturesque and inspiring adventure.
Introduction by Gus Morton
I first met Cam Wurf on about the 15th lap of the Aussie road titles earlier this year. Right when the shit was going down on Mt. Buninyong Cam rode up alongside me and said: “Imagine if we had have trained for this, mate? The win is there for the taking.” I thought :”Who the f&*k is this guy?!” I had been training for it — hard — and then this guy rolls up, takes one look at my arse and assumes I, like him, hadn’t touched the bike for a while and would appreciate his joke at the hardest part of the race.
I didn’t at the time, but I was intrigued as to who the hell he was. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when we were racing as teammates at the Herald Sun Tour that I learnt who he was. Over the course of the week I got to know the guy’s a god-damn robot on the bike, but also what lead him to cycling and what lead him to taking a year away from the bike.
After that Lach and I knew Cam was the guy we needed to bring along, but before we got the chance to ask him, he invited himself. Typical Cam.
I’d met Taylor Phinney a few times in Boulder but we’d never hung out. He’d struck me as a very charismatic but also very professional guy. The sort of guy that knew what he wanted and how he was going to get it.
When I arrived in Boulder this year, Taylor messaged me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to come hang out that arvo. “Ok, sure”, I thought. I was interested to see how he was doing after his well-publicised accident and subsequent recovery but I wasn’t sure what to expect.
3:45pm — that was when he said to come over. “That’s weird,” I thought, “Pretty specific”. “It’s probably to fit in with his intensive recovery regime,” I concluded and rode over. His place wasn’t at all like I’d expected. Giant unfinished canvases hung from every wall, records were spread out over a desk — no bikes in sight. It was the sort of chaos I could relate to. Suddenly 3:45pm made sense.
We spent the next couple of months riding and staying out way too late and the more I got to know him the more I realised, despite all the other things he had going on in his life, there was something he was still looking for. And the bike was still a big part of that. Lach and were planning our trip and I thought Taylor would get a lot out of it, so I asked him. He was into it straight away.
And so three became four.
The most worried and skeptical I was all trip was before we’d even left. There were bags, vehicles, people, maps, food, cameras, plans, ideas and expectations. People were wondering what to wear, what hashtag to use, what was sponsor-correct. I was worried for the guys we were bringing along — what would Cam and Taylor think of this thing we called ‘Thereabouts’? What did they want out of this ride? Could this trip provide it?
Rolling through familiar and beautiful terrain to begin our journey did nothing to calm my nerves and when we eventually stopped in Idaho Springs for something to eat it didn’t feel right. It all felt forced. I didn’t feel like I was on the free-spirited journey I’d planned. Maybe that was it; I’d planned on it.
We rolled out of Idaho Springs full of pizza and coffee. We’d managed to dodge the weather thus far and looked to have a clear and pretty straight forward 3-4 hours ahead of us. Sure there was a 12,000-foot pass to navigate but nothing out of our control. We decided to leave our support cars behind and hit the 10-20km of bike path from Georgetown up to the base of Loveland Pass. I was all for it.
Two kilometres later there was a small snow drift over the path; nothing we couldn’t handle with one foot still clipped in. But then the snow drifts began to increase in frequency over the next two kilometres until finally the path was covered. My nerves began to settle; the challenge had been set.
I looked at Cam, Gus and Taylor. I was sure someone would suggest the sensible option of backtracking and taking the main road. Silence. I smiled. As we walked on, the snow became deeper until it was well over our knees, stopping us dead on every third step, killing our momentum. It was Taylor who blazed the trail and I cringed every time he slipped or fell, remembering the injuries he seemed to have forgotten.
Our cleats and our toes were totally frozen, but that didn’t matter much as there was no longer any rideable terrain. Still silence. These guys were getting it. I smiled to myself, afraid of ruining the moment by laughing.
What must have been an hour later, Taylor and I were side-by-side in a maze of snow that had no foreseeable end. With no idea if we were above, next to or nowhere near the bike path we had set out on, we started laughing, throwing our bikes forward then crawling the three meters to reach them. We repeated this process, sure it was the most effective method of crossing the now waist-deep snow without sinking. We continued, but now that our pace had dropped to less than 2km/h we knew we’d never make Breckenridge by nightfall.
With the distant sound of the freeway making its way through the trees we all decided it was time to try and hike it out to the main road. It was probably less than a mile as the crow flew and it seemed easy enough. However, the reality on the ground was a dense pine forest and a nice mountain stream separating us and the I-70. But again, we trudged on, no questions asked. The river wasn’t that deep, and I thought it would be best to cross without shoes. So did Taylor, but he was wise enough to remove his socks.
We pushed through the river and scaled a small dirt cliff up to the I-70. Not one mention of turning back, not one complaint, not one face without a smile. Why did we just do that? There was no finish line. No one to see what we were doing.
As we sat in the shoulder, digging out our cleats, and drying our socks, my fears from that morning were gone. “Yeah, these guys get it.” Three of my best mates, bikes, no restrictions, no rules — that freedom I hadn’t felt since Uluru. With three hours still to cover we headed for Loveland Pass, all a little more certain of why we were headed to Moab. It didn’t matter that our motives were different.
“A siren sounded from a local county police car — we’d been nabbed for speeding!”
I arrived in Boulder at 2:30am, perhaps not the most appropriate time to arrive given we were meant to be rolling out at 9am that morning, but knowing the type of journey we were about to undertake it seemed perfectly fitting.
Out on the road, it didn’t take long for the small talk to die down and for the first competitive encounter to take place. As we reached the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, Taylor decided it was time to light the fuse and attack like he was shot out of a cannon. He flew over a roller and bombed onto the decent and from that moment on it was boogie time.
As expected the descent was absolutely balls to the wall and at 3,000m it felt like I was breathing through a straw. Just as we made contact with the flying Phinney a siren sounded from a local county police car — we’d been nabbed for speeding! Well, not all of us; just me as I was the one leading the chase. It turned out Taylor was doing the speed limit but as we were chasing him down we were going faster. Fortunately the friendly police officer simply gave me a warning. It was the perfect way for Thereabouts to begin.
The competitive juices were flowing again on day two with a seemingly inevitable showdown on Independence Pass. A TTT to the bottom was followed by a restrained-but-not-all-that-enjoyable tempo. And as we took a sweeping left-hander to begin the steepest slopes of the final 5km, it started teaming with snow. This was going to be memorable.
Immediately, the most credentialed cyclist of us all, Taylor, seized the upper hand and went to the front setting as searing a pace as is possible into a headwind, teaming snow, and aboard a cyclocross bike. Lachlan and I had pride at stake and stuck to Taylor’s wheel like glue as he churned over his compact crankset with Phinney fury.
I slipped into mountain TT mode and began to think of those images of Andy Hampsten climbing through the snow and winning the 1988 Giro d’Italia. I dreamed of what it must have been like to be wearing completely inappropriate clothing for the conditions whilst going on to become one of the greatest cyclists ever.
While I may have been wearing baggy shorts and a Geelong Football Club jumper, and Andy was riding his way towards one of the most prestigious leaders jersey’s in cycling, for those couple of kilometres I thought I was actually on the Gavia Pass.
All four of us are facing an interesting period in our lives as professional cyclists and being with these three guys really helped give me perspective on some of the things that I’ve struggled with during my career. I was reminded of the fact that it doesn’t matter how you get the job done as long as you get it done.
There are always going to be plenty of difficult and challenging days but that makes the successful days all the more enjoyable. It’s about finding what helps you to deal with those hard times and how you learn from them and become a better athlete in the process.
Riding with these boys reminded me that I love riding my bike, I love riding it as hard as I can and I love, above all, the friendships and camaraderie cycling has allowed me to enjoy over the years.
“I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d all just become caught up in looking cool.”
People have ridden further, longer, faster, over harsher terrain, in more distant lands and with less support than us, and all before we began this thing we call Thereabouts. We never set out to break any records, so what was it that we did set out to do? Was it to do something original, to somehow explore ‘the other side of the sport’? Or are we really just making a video selfie crossed with an American Apparel catalogue?
That’s the sort of thought that manifests itself when you’re tired, when things aren’t going exactly the way you planned them. I stood on the side of the road chewing, with mindless exhaustion, on a piece of wild asparagus — a gift from a young, stoned farmhand we’d just run into.
Four days ago I was so confident this group had a story worth talking about; a story that needed telling. But as I listened to Cam talk about getting our documentary on TV, and watched Taylor ask our photographer to get another shot of him standing in the road — this time at a lower angle and a different pose — I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d all just become caught up in looking cool.
After Uluru I thought I knew what we were in for. I trusted in the landscape, the effort, the teamwork and the strangers to draw something out in us. I wanted these guys to feel the same way I did when I rolled into Uluru. Yet standing there on the side of the road outside of Hotchkiss, Colorado I couldn’t see the forest from the trees.
This thing we were making couldn’t have felt less personal. We were just parading around in front of the cameras as if we were changing the game but we were just on a glorified training ride, supported, from town to town. Was it different this time? Or has Thereabouts always been like this and I’ve just been drinking the Kool-Aid I mixed for everyone else?
I finished my stalk of asparagus, the guys snapped off a couple more photos and as we pushed off towards the town of Delta I was sure I had my answer. Sorry fellas, sorry sponsors, sorry punters. I have to shut this thing down. No film, no photos, no stories, no life-changing journeys and existential lessons. We’re gonna pretend it never happened.
Then we turned right instead of left. A little dirt road instead of the main highway. Literally, the road less travelled.
Eventually the car had to turn back and we had no choice but to walk. We’d entered the Adobe Badlands and for the first time in a week we didn’t have any cameras on us, no Instagram and no documentary to think about.
“I wondered if anyone was going to snap; to tell everyone else to f&*k off.”
We began to separate on the trail, our patience fraying as we started to get fed up with each other’s unavoidable misfortunes. I wondered if anyone was going to snap; to tell everyone else to f&*k off. As my exhaustion began to further manifest into cynicism, I found myself hoping for it. We emerged from the trail several hours later, Cam riding an irreparable flat tyre, my camera broken, and all of us a little frayed around the edges. But somehow we were still together as a group.
Sitting at a bar in Delta after more than several unorthodox attempts to repair Cam’s tyre, and with 70km still to ride, Taylor began the call for Cam to hop off. It wasn’t long before I joined Taylor and the two of us tried to selfishly convince Cam to pack it in so we could get on the road and finish the ride before dark.
Cam, although showing rare signs of frustration, resisted and threw his leg over, pedalling off. Somewhere inside I guess we all knew that Cam would never quit like the rest of us would have. We were gonna have to ride the last miles into the fading light together, regardless of how slow that was.
The start was slow — real slow — with Taylor and I pulling on the front whilst Lach took up pushing duties at the back. We were all dead quiet. About 25km in we stopped so Cam could remove the inner tube from his now completely decimated tyre (like that would make a difference). He punched two Cokes and the rest of us just sat and stared as if dazed meditation would provide a fix that’d give us an extra 5km/h. It was a grim scene.
We hadn’t even reached the halfway point and the fraying that had started in the badlands was becoming a tear in the fabric. I’m sure the only reason we didn’t just leave Cam to fend for himself was because no one wanted to be the first one to say it. I know I thought about it.
Upon resuming and without a word Lach and I fell in behind Cam and began to push. We began to gain speed and as Taylor fell into formation and the three of us began to push our speed notched up above 45km/h.
It’s hard to express the change that occurred in those first 500m after we pushed off. I was ready to write off the whole trip; I was finished. But as we all fell in line together without a word and with our cohesion boosting us forward, all of that washed away.
I was then and am still now embarrassed for even thinking the things I had about three of my closest mates. I was choosing to ignore the snow, the mountains, the river crossings, the burritos, the badlands and the people we’d met in the past week. I was trying to predict what the adventure was going to be, trying to force it to happen instead of letting myself be part of it. A huge smile broke out across my face as I felt Lach’s hand on my back, I then put my hand on Cam’s back, my head down and we all pedalled on.
As we finally took the pressure off the pedals and slowed on the outskirts of Grand Junction, I looked at the others and their smiles said the same. We had all been a part of a strange and unconventional victory; a victory to the better halves of ourselves.
I know the stakes weren’t life or death and there wasn’t anything really on the line except our friendships, but sticking it out together and triumphing against that busted-arse tyre was the kind of bizarre experience that I’ve only ever had on the road from Delta. It’s the type of thing you need to experience for yourself before you’ll understand.
I don’t regret thinking those things about my mates; to me that is the beauty of cycling. It forces you to think things, to feel things and to confront things. It challenges you in the most uncomfortable ways and sometimes that’s exactly what you need to appreciate what’s right in front of you.
We were freshly caffeinated and the Rocky Mountains were nearly behind us. Mt. Sopris stood majestic to our left; McClure Pass, the last mountain pass of our journey, lay directly in our path. We rotated in four, opting for long pulls at the front which meant more time at the back to think, more time to dream.
Cam in his baggy mountain bike shorts took the longest and hardest pulls. The group poked fun at him, calling him a robot because he was so strong. “At the front. Engage.” Not much else was said. This was Day 3, Aspen to Hotchkiss, and frankly, after already 15 hours in the saddle over days 1 and 2, we didn’t have much more to say to one another.
As the boys all passed me I was struck by the contrast between the dark grey road and the lush surrounding Colorado greenery left over after an abnormally wet spring. I was overcome with a sense of clarity that I can only describe as therapeutic.
Surrounded by three close friends, my companions on this journey, I briefly became merely an observer of life. I took in the colours, and the scents. I felt the warmth in the air and the dull pain in my legs from our daylong paceline speed which fit somewhere perfectly in between comfortable and uncomfortable.
“This fleeting sense of clarity was a feeling that people search for in everything they do.”
I mused that this fleeting sense of clarity was a feeling that people search for in everything they do. This type of journey was the sort often taken by the troubled, the depressed, the alcoholics, and the drug addicts. I, we, and they, journey to escape ourselves and our day-to-day routines. The purpose of a journey is to clear your mind and reset yourself in space.
On the road your struggle is very real and clear. Life is simple; life is lived point A to point B, food becomes fuel for travel, and a bed and roof provide shelter and much-needed rest. Everything you normally take for granted in comfortable, day-to-day life gains more meaning and, in turn, your daily efforts as a human gain more meaning.
You revel in the gift of sunlight and shiver with misery in the cold and the rain. A sense of accomplishment takes hold at the end of every day; every day that slowly begins to separate itself from being a weekday or day of the weekend. Time begins to lose meaning; daylight begins to signify a time in which things are done and achieved, and the night time becomes a time for resting and preparing for the day ahead.
McClure Pass loomed in front of us. As it was the shortest of all the passes we were to attack on this journey it proved to be my best shot at a little victory. I took off early and my knee clicked all the way to the top where it began to snow. As I rummaged around for my jacket in the follow car, the snow thickened, and I tried not to dwell on what that meant for us on the road ahead.
We rolled off and were quickly greeted by a blinding sleet. Lachy stopped alone to adjust his hood; Cam, to everyone’s amazement, still had only shorts on; and Gus was ever-quiet as he had been the previous days, preoccupied with all of the details of directing the documentary while taking part in it. The snow that had turned to sleet eventually turned to rain and finally stopped by the bottom of the descent. With the cold and wet, our happy place had quickly turned miserable.
Minutes prior I had felt on top of the world, clear-minded and content — now we were cold and wet and facing a headwind that cut deep through each layer of clothing.
In an attempt to keep warm we resumed our pace line, but the water from the road sprayed in my face whenever I was in the wheel. We took long pulls rolling down a valley, cold and wet, with none of us really sure how far from our destination of Hotchkiss we really were. We made our final pit stop at the top of a small rise and checked the map, discovering we still had about 30 kilometres to go.
“My level of appreciation for comfort had deepened immensely.”
Stiff legs greeted me as I hopped back on my bike but as we got going again the sun poked out of the clouds and the road began to dry up. We popped out of our valley to a vast and green Western Colorado landscape. The view was overwhelmingly beautiful. The mountains were grey and snow-capped and sat atop a postcard-green base. The sky in front of us appeared endless with storms dotting the horizon, much like the storm we had just endured.
For the second time that day I allowed myself just to observe; to observe all of the gifts of this moment; the gift of sunlight, of dry roads, of a tailwind, of a gentle downhill road and of good company. Our clothes slowly dried in the warm breeze and I couldn’t help but remark on how happy I had been before the storm but how much happier I was after the storm, even though the surroundings hadn’t much changed.
My level of appreciation for comfort had deepened immensely and I lived in this moment of gratitude as presently as I could, knowing that this moment, like every moment in our lives, is fleeting.