On the day Lachlan Morton had prepared for, worked toward, and circled on the calendar back in October, riders were already on the course at the Amgen Tour of California, the crucial time trial stage that would ultimately decide the race winner.
Focused as well as was possible due to a mid-race concussion two days earlier, Morton was attacking his targets of the moment: the spinach greens, chicken slices and the occasional walnut of his lunchtime salad. He was seated at a window table of a restaurant in Folsom, just steps from the finish line, wearing not an aero Jelly Belly skinsuit but jeans and a hoodie, the telltale outfit of a man whose race had ended prematurely, marked by the sport’s three scarlet letters, the ones no rider wants to see next to his name.
DNF. Did not finish.
The result was hauntingly familiar for the 24-year-old Australian, seen three years earlier as one of the sport’s brightest future stars, a Grand Tour contender-in-the-making. His breakout performances in the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge in 2013 had suggested nothing less. Time spent in leader’s jerseys. Best young rider in both. A stage win in Utah. Three other top-10 finishes and fifth overall in Colorado.
Then came a fall from grace more devastating than his rise had been swift.
Beginning with the subsequent Tour of Alberta in 2013, and continuing over the remainder of that season and all of the next in Europe, Morton did not finish in 12 of his final 15 starts for the Garmin-Sharp WorldTour team. Disillusioned and drifting because, by his own admission, “my head fell off,” he left the team at the end of 2014, another promising flameout. He retreated to the North American Continental team Jelly Belly-Maxxis for the 2015 season, and had no wins.
And so it would have seemed little surprise to find him out of yet another race, sitting in a diner chair and not on his bike, explaining why yet again he had disappointed his team, himself.
Except that would be wrong — too easy, too superficial and at odds with the picture Lachlan Morton was presenting: smiling, laughing, that of a young man who, despite the ludicrousness of his immediate surroundings, was wholly at ease. One who admits that yes, he would like to return to the top level of the sport, to Europe, to the expectations that so many saw in him years earlier.
This time, he said, he’s infinitely more prepared, particularly in maturity. He’s older, married (to Rachel, an illustrator), living near parents who moved from Australia to Boulder, Colorado, and riding on the same team as his older brother by two years, Angus, or Gus.
He has put in the mental base miles as well as the physical.
“I think if this had happened a couple of years ago I would have taken it a lot differently. I probably would have not looked at my bike for a few weeks,” he said. “It’s just experience, I guess. I mean, I’m 24 now. Two years ago I was 22. If this had happened then? I probably would have just closed off, shut down.”
“This” came on the Tour of California’s fourth stage, from Morro Bay to Monterey’s Laguna Seca Raceway. One stage earlier, Morton had animated the final climb of the day on Gibraltar Road by attacking; he was in the lead group with less than 3 kilometres to go and ultimately finished seventh. He began the next day seventh overall, 45 seconds behind race leader and ultimate winner Julian Alaphilippe.
With about 14km to go on Stage 4, the Jelly Belly riders were in the select group at the front of the race. They were about to make a left turn to begin the climb of Category 2 Laureles Grade, hoping to leap-frog their leader up the classification.
“All the guys were with him. We were in the prime position for the last climb. The prime position,” said team director Danny Van Haute. Morton, he said, got “a front flat coming off that hill, and right before the turn he fell. He said he almost held it up. But he couldn’t.”
Morton went down, hard. His head bounced off the asphalt. He climbed off the deck, grabbed his head, and waited for a new bike. The lead group rode away.
“Initially I thought we could get back. It was the worst possible moment for a crash,” Morton said. “We tried for a few Ks coming back initially, but the peloton was sort of blowing up, and we were going through guys, going through guys, when we got to the top of that Cat 2 it was pretty clear we weren’t going to get on. At that point we sat up.”
Morton lost more than 10 minutes on the GC. He started the next day, 210 kilometres of a long, grueling climb from Lodi to Lake Tahoe, but after about an hour sat up again, this time for good. He couldn’t shake the concussion.
“It’s cycling. You’ve got to have some luck. He didn’t,” Van Haute said. “Everything was going so right with him, and the team. We were where we wanted to be, where we thought we could be. We had a plan.”
The plan was for a breakout second season for Morton and the team. He had stumbled a bit a the Redlands Classic in April, losing more than two minutes on the final stage to drop from third to 10th overall.
But two weeks before his Monterey crash he won the opening stage of the Tour of the Gila on the Category 1 climb to Mogollon, New Mexico. It was his first victory in 33 months. Four days later he finished a sixth on the final stage to win the overall by more than a minute, only his second GC win, and the first since the Tour de l’Abitibi juniors race as an 18-year-old in 2010.
“Coming into Gila, I knew I was riding well … but you never know until you get into a race,” Morton said. “But as soon as we started the first day there, it’s the first time I’ve started a race where I knew I was going to win.”
Gila had been the culmination of a well-sketched road map that began in the hot summer down under after the 2013 road season. Gus rode as a pro for the Drapac-Porsche Pro from 2008-2010, but had quit the sport and been off the bike since. On a bit more than a whim, the brothers decided to spend two weeks riding from the family hometown of Port Macquarie — on the east coast, midway between Sydney and Brisbane — to Uluru, smack in the center of the continent. Their 2,500 kilometer, 12-day journey of discovery was turned into a documentary film, “Thereabouts.”
They didn’t talk a whole lot on their ride. Then again, their relationship has always been beyond words.
“That’s one thing that I think surprises people is that we don’t need to talk a lot. We just are sort of happy in our own silence and comfortable with each other,” Gus said. “I guess when you grow up with someone and know someone really well, you can enjoy the silence as much as you can enjoy the conversation.”
Even now, Lachlan said, “we’ll go training for five or six hours and might say 10 words to each other.”
The year that followed, 2014, was pivotal. Lachlan was struggling in Europe, not living up to his hype. As the DNFs piled up, so did the doubt.
“I think the biggest thing was I didn’t have the self-confidence,” he said. “Everyone was saying I had talent, that I was going to be the next big thing, but I didn’t believe that myself. Or I wasn’t sure I had that ability.
“So it wasn’t like I had to go and do all these things [and] I was worried that everyone was wrong. Maybe they were expecting something that I wasn’t capable of.”
Half a world away in Australia, Gus had been jonesing for more time on the bike. The timing was right for the brothers to make a break toward each other.
“A bit of a light bulb went off,” Lachlan said. “We know each other well enough to know. I knew he wasn’t happy; he knew I wasn’t happy. I’d gone so far one way; he’d gone so far the other way. … So then we sort of met in the middle, so to speak.”
Until their outback trip, Gus said, “I hadn’t ridden my bike for about three and a half years. I didn’t even own a bike. But I had started riding again and rediscovered the joy of it. I held a mirror up to the way I was living my life at the time and what I really wanted. We thought, ‘If we can do this together, let’s do it.’ At one point it was not even racing, it was maybe riding around the world, just something fun that we could do together.”
The ultimate answer, cemented in their minds in August of 2014, appeared simple.
“Gus had decided he wanted to come back, and I decided I was going to leave Europe. And we were like, why don’t we try to get on a team together?” Lachlan said. “It seemed obvious, but a long shot to be sure.”
They settled on America. Lachlan’s new agent, Michael Rutherford, reached out to Van Haute, who agreed to the deal: Two brothers, for two seasons.
“When he came knocking on our door to be on our team last year, I think in his own mind and I think in my mind, too, it was a two-year project,” Van Haute said. “Last year I think he just wanted to get the feel of it again.”
The results were solid if not stellar, a good re-laying of a foundation. Tenth overall in Utah. Fifth overall in Colorado. Third in the mountains points at the Amgen Tour of California. And perhaps most importantly, no DNFs. After the season, the brothers, Van Haute, and assistant director Matt Rice talked strategy and the ultimate goal — Lachlan’s return to the World Tour.
“We asked him, ‘What do you want to do next? Because if you want to go back to Europe, you’re going to have to start winning some races. That’s it,’” Van Haute recalled. “’Not Gila, not Redlands — well, yeah, we want to win those races, of course — but to get noticed, you’re going to have to win or top three at Amgen and top three at Utah. That’s a must.’ And he said, ‘That’s what I want to do. But I want to win Redlands, too, and Gila,’ which he did. He was ready.”
That made the crash, the concussion, and the subsequent withdrawal so ill-timed. And yet it was not, Morton says, enough to resurrect the old doubts.
“I sat down with Danny and Matty [in Tahoe],” Morton said. “They were obviously as equally as disappointed as I was. We’ve all put in a lot of work. I think we all believed I could do a big result here. But straightaway, we were already talking about Utah and how we’re going to prepare for that and the races coming up.
“I’m trying not to dwell on it. It’s hard when you’re still here and you’re watching everyone else get ready for the race I should be doing, but there’s a bigger picture now, starting to build again for the rest of the year.”
And beyond. Van Haute thinks if Morton can find the right fit in a top-level European team, success will come.
“He’s good to go, in my mind,” Van Haute said. “Everyone wants to know if he’s good to go to the Tour de France. Maybe not yet. But if he gets this chance to go to a [WorldTour] team, it’s probably going to [be] just like this, baby steps. It won’t take him that long to get ready, but he’s going to have to prove himself again in Europe.”
He’ll have to convince any skeptics that, two years older and wiser, he has put in enough of those mental base miles to withstand the scrutiny again. And there’s the rub: as the winner of the Tour of the Gila, at such a young age, the interest should be automatic.
“If I hadn’t had the history I’ve had in the sport already, if this was my first year on the scene and I came out and won Gila, there’d probably be more interest, I guess,” Morton said. “I’m sure a lot of teams are thinking, ‘Oh, well he’s going well now, but what if his head falls off again and he gets over there and he’s useless again?’
“There are a lot of guys who also probably deserve to be on the World Tour. I’m sure a lot of them think, ‘You’ve had your crack at it and you kind of snuffed it up.’ Which is what I did, more or less. But that being said, it’s up to a team to make that decision. If I never got back there I wouldn’t be devastated. I wouldn’t ruin my life. But I would like to have one more shot at it.
“I guess the difference is, I don’t need the results sheet to tell me that I feel good. I see my wife later today, and I spoke to her after I crashed the other day and she didn’t even know. And it doesn’t mean any different. The day before I was riding well and it wasn’t different. … It’s nice to have good results so everyone can recognize that you’re doing well, but I don’t need that anymore to know that I’m doing well.”
And with that, the salad done and the point made, Morton rose from the table, ready for the next stage. Tomorrow, the Amgen Tour would be in Santa Rosa. Morton, his wife, and his parents would be sightseeing elsewhere, before heading back to Colorado.
The race’s overall standings would show a DNF for Lachlan Morton. The next chapter of his career was yet to begin.