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It’s been a long time coming – a twisting and turning road rather than a direct route – but if things go to plan Lachlan Morton will make his Grand Tour debut in August.
He’s a rider who has long been regarded as immensely gifted, yet his individualism and offbeat approach saw him decide to exit the WorldTour in September 2014. Then 22 years of age, he took a big gamble by walking away from the Garmin-Sharp team he was with at the time.
He needed, he decided, time to find himself. To take a break. To work out if he still liked cycling enough to keep doing it.
Fortunately the answer was yes and, after two years racing at a lower level, he’s back to the WorldTour.
Strong performances in the Tour of Oman and the Amgen Tour of California this season showed he’s swimming rather than sinking and in two months’ time, he’ll line out in the first three-week race of his career.
“The plan is that I will head back to Colorado for July, and train and get ready for the Vuelta,” he tells CyclingTips. “That will be my first Grand Tour. I am really motivated and excited for that.
“I will just try to get myself as ready for that as possible, then come back over and race [the Vuelta a] Burgos, then do the Vuelta.”
Morton is a rider with huge natural ability; his former boss, Cannondale-Drapac CEO Jonathan Vaughters, told this website three years ago that Morton is a “one in a million talent.”
Still, he’s going to take things slowly. He doesn’t want to put pressure on himself with any rash predictions. In fact, he’s setting the bar at quite a modest level.
“I think I’ll play it by ear,” he says, asked about his expectations for the Spanish race. “I don’t think anyone riding their first Grand Tour can know what expect. But I’d obviously like to finish. That is obviously a big one.
“Beyond that, I don’t know … just see what happens. I am excited for it.”
“An enormous engine”
Morton gave an unmistakable sign of his ability in 2010. He was just 18 years of age but, on the final stage of the Tour of Utah, he was seventh at the summit finish of Snowbird. And although his age meant that he was racing on junior gears, he also took seventh overall.
Vaughters was clearly impressed, although he underestimated his age by a year.
Morton was with the American’s under-23 team at the time, Holowesko Partners. He remained with the structure for two more years, then stepped up to the WorldTour level in 2013. He initially fared well, netting results such as second on a stage and fifth overall in the USA Pro Challenge, but 2014 didn’t go well.
“It’s an up and down sport. I haven’t had too many highlights this season,” he told CyclingTips then. “I’ve had a really shitty season. Probably the worst season I’ve ever had.”
It was on the back of this that he announced he was taking a break from the WorldTour and wanted to find a team where he and his brother Gus Morton could compete together.
Vaughters was disappointed to lose him, yet remained complimentary. “He has got an enormous engine,” he said. “Could he be a Grand Tour contender? That is always hard to say at a young age, but we have already seen what Lachlan can do in week-long stage races last year.
“I always believed in his talent” he said. “So if he takes a year away, races for a smaller team and gets the fun and the love back and wants to come back into the WorldTour, I am totally open to that. Without question.”
Morton ultimately took double that period of time away. He raced in 2015 and 2016 with the Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis Continental team and soon found his mojo again. In the first year there he was fifth in the USA Pro Challenge; in his second season he won the Silver City’s Tour of the Gila and took two stages plus the overall in the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
That earned him an offer from Team Dimension Data and he decided it was time to return to the World Tour.
“It has been really good,” he says. “The team has been a good fit for me. Obviously coming back to the WorldTour could have gone one of two ways. But to be honest, I never thought I’d be racing back in Europe, so I am sort of taking it just as a bonus [laughs].
“With this team, when we are in the races it is all business, but they are a pretty relaxed group. I get on really well with everyone. It is a non-European team, so I think the South African mentality isn’t far from the Australian outlook on things. It’s not a traditional team, which suits me well.
“They kind of respect that I like to do things my way, and they give me my space. But then they also give me all the support I need. It has been really cool.”
Much has happened since Morton first joined the WorldTour. He’s done many races, racked up some strong results, gone through a career crisis, had the courage to walk away and then the strength to force his way back into the top level again.
Does he consider himself a very different person than he used to be?
“Yeah, for sure,” he answers. “I think anyone who is 25 and looks back on the person they were when they were 20, it is always different. You are more mature and you kind of understand a little bit more out of your life.
“I mean, I think you are lying if you say you know what you want out of your life … but I think you have a better idea.”
Seeing the big picture has been important for him. “I think just the balance of it all, it is a lot better this time around. I see it for what it is a bit more now. It is a really nice way to make a living. It is the exact lifestyle that I want to lead. That obviously involves putting your head down for races, but I think I am a lot more relaxed outside of racing now.
“I know how to prepare myself a bit better physically. I am still working that out, but I am better at it. But also mentally, I am a lot more consistent and stable [laughs], I guess.”
Putting the mental and physical together has, in turn, helped him progress as a rider.
“I think I am a better athlete. I am stronger,” he says. “I think it comes through just getting to know your body a lot more, knowing what you need. When you are at this level, there are a lot of people giving you advice, telling you what you should be doing.
“Everyone has their idea of what is good. Everyone from the mechanic to the swannie to the DS to the actual coach. Everyone has their idea of how you should be doing it. When you are young, I think you are really impressionable. Because you are still working it out, you don’t trust your understanding of yourself as much. Now I know myself what I need to do.
“I have been working with the same coach, Ben Day, for three or four years. We understand each other pretty well and I understand myself better. I guess I just trust in my own preparation a lot more than I used to.”
“If my head is right, I will work harder than a lot of guys”
As anyone who has watched the Thereabouts films can attest, Morton and his brother Gus are free spirits. The videos show them taking periods of time heading into remote locations on their bikes, often riding without standard cycling kit, in order to disconnect from pro racing and reconnect with nature.
Indeed the Thereabouts adventures are likely a big part of why, and how, he rediscovered his enthusiasm and remained in the sport.
Some riders embrace the monastic, one-dimensional existence of elite sport: for Morton, such a monochromatic approach is stifling. He needs the colour of life outside the peloton. Switching off, then switching on again is, he believes, the best way for him to remain enthusiastic.
Fortunately, Day seems to agree.
“Working with Ben is great,” says Morton of the former pro. “He lives in Boulder, which is where I live. He is Australian. I have never been the most coachable, but we have kind of got to a stage where he understands me as a person and as an athlete.
“If there is training I really need to be doing, he really makes sure that I understand that I need to do that. But also he understands that if I need my own time for a couple of weeks, then I just go do what I have got to do. He doesn’t stress it too much.
“He knows that as long as my head is right, I will work harder than a lot of guys. I am happy to do the hard work then.”
Morton began his season in Australia, riding the national road race championships, the Santos Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean road race. His results were relatively modest in each of those, but laid the foundations for a strong eighth overall in the Tour of Oman.
While the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco were unremarkable, he was in fine form in the Amgen Tour of California. He was fourth on the second stage, seventh in Mount Baldy, fourth into Pasadena and seventh overall. He would likely have fared better had he not lost time in the stage six time trial due to a chain issue.
“To be honest, if I look back at it now purely from a results perspective, I think it went a lot better than I thought it would,” he says. “At the start of the year I kind of said to myself and to the team that I think it is going to take me this season to get used to the level of WorldTour racing.
“I think there are certain athletes who can step into this racing and do well straight away, but there are not many. Especially for the sort of rider I am, it takes you some seasons of doing this just to get your body used to it.”
Because of that, his initial expectations were quite pessimistic. “I basically prepared myself to get my head kicked in for the whole year. But thankfully that has only happened in a couple of races, not every race.
“I always feel like I should at least feel able to help the team or to be part of the racing. To be honest, for the two seasons when I was in the WorldTour before, it never felt like I was actually in the race. I was surviving, but I wasn’t ever any sort of influence in the race.
“I think I have seen more of the front this time around than I ever did in those two seasons. That being said, I am still sort of being realistic with it and just taking it slowly. But so far, so good.”
As for California specifically, he is encouraged by what he was able to do there. “Apart from the mechanical I had, I would have been sniffing around up there towards the podium, which was the goal there. And even that is a step up, because in that race I’d never been anywhere near that pointy end.
“I am still sort of going forward and improving in each race. That’s motivating. So I think the team were happy with it. That was kind of the first race I was really targeting.”
He says that the decision of the team to have him lead the squad was a big thing for him, and something that he was never going to take lightly.
“Those opportunities don’t come around very often,” he reasons, “so you have to grab them with both hands and do what you can. So we tried to do that.”
And while his performance in the recent Tour de Suisse was more modest, being in top shape for the Vuelta a España is the big target. Riding a three-week race for the first time is a big step, and something he will work hard towards.
He knows that it is a big opportunity, both as a goal within itself and also in light of how the physical and psychological load should help him develop and strengthen for the future.
It’s clear that when Morton lines out in Nimes on August 19, he will have a lot to think about. One of those things will be the circuitous route he has taken to get there.
Other riders have joined the WorldTour young and remained there year after year, following a steady line of progress. They have not had the same interruptions he has had, and their momentum has been more constant.
However Morton is convinced he did the right thing.
“To be honest, I think if I hadn’t taken the time to go back to the US and race there for a couple of years, I don’t think I would still be racing,” he says. “I think it was the perfect decision. And even if I was still racing, I don’t think I would be enjoying it as much as I am now.
“In some ways I feel like I am fully starting again, physically. I still have a lot of work to do. But I am doing it for my own reasons now, which makes it a lot easier and a lot more fun.”