Lachlan Morton. Jelly bean jumps to Dimension Data

Morton at Tour of California. photo twisted spoke

Morton at Tour of California. photo twisted spoke

After two years at US Continental squad Jelly Belly, Aussie Lachlan Morton has signed a 2017 contract for WorldTour team Dimension Data. It’s back to the big leagues. Morton has a fascinating story and this is the one we wrote about Morton for Cycle Sport magazine back in May after the Tour of California.

Lachlan Morton. A return to WorldTour?

Lachlan Morton, former Garmin prodigy and current podium dark-horse, stands stiffly at attention, like a man in front of a firing squad. His face is expressionless, long hair disheveled, eyes dead, entire left side of his body road-rashed from shoulder to ankle. Two clueless fans, unaware of his injuries, get their smartphone shot as a depressed Morton manages a weak smile that looks like a grimace.

It’s been a bad day at the office.

He’s just spent twenty minutes having his wounds cleaned after a crash on stage four of the Tour of California on a descent before the run up to the famous motorsport track of Laguna Seca. He lost ten minutes, all hope of a high GC finish and practically any chance Jelly Belly, his small budget Continental squad, will make an impact in the race.

He might also have put a obvious rip in his plan to return to a WorldTour squad after two years of self-imposed exile. Meanwhile, just around the corner from the medical tent, journalists interview a beaming Julian Alaphilippe, the eventual winner of the race.

While the Frenchman, the BMC duo of Rohan Dennis and Brent Bookwalter and Cannondale captains Andrew Talansky and Lawson Craddock will battle to the penultimate day, Morton’s fortunes took a different turn.

Coming into California, every light was green. A talented pure climber, Morton had just won the overall at the challenging Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, his entire squad raising their game as he showed his strength and confidence in the mountains.

He’d been working hard at his home base in Boulder, Colorado with his coach, former pro Ben Day. He was locked in, happy racing his bike again and re-inspired to climb higher. “This is the big opportunity for my team and for myself. This is our world championship, this is as big as it gets.”

The fact is, he’s no longer the Garmin kid with all the physical talents but someone who struggled with the grind of living and racing in Europe – the bad weather and narrow roads, the endless pressure and loneliness.

That transformation began on a long, desolate Outback road. Burned out and missing his girlfriend and family, he left Garmin in 2013, convinced he was finished. Then his brother Angus, himself a former pro cyclist, proposed an audacious two-wheeled vision quest. A 2500 kilometer journey from their seaside home in Port Macquarie to Uluru, the desolate center of Australia.

The journey turned into a 45 minute video documentary called Thereabouts and somewhere in that scorched landscape, he realized he wanted to race again, only with more joy, minimal stress and with his brother beside him. Life, they decided, was an “experiment” and Jelly Belly was the next test ground.

Jelly Belly is an anomaly in the boom and bust financial model of pro cycling sponsorship. Sixteen years and still candy sweet, it’s been a home for pros like Keil Reijen (Trek-SegaFredo), Phil Gaimon (Cannondale) and Carter Jones (Giant Alpecin).

Team DS Danny Van Haute could play Clint Eastwood’s deputy in a cowboy Western. The longtime DS has a handsomely grizzled face and the easy laugh of a man who has seen it all in this crazy sport.

California is the big show and Van Haute built the squad around Morton, the best climber he has ever had. No sprinters, no stage hunters, it’s all-in for Lachlan. It’s a rare shot at the kind of media attention BMC, Sky, Trek and Cannondale generate.

Morton is their trump card. “He’s a good reader of the peloton and the race, how its formulating, when the attacks will come, he as the ability to see that. And he has great bike handling skills so he can move around like Cavendish does — and BOOM, he’s there.”

The burning question is whether Morton has resolved his previous issues with the sport. The loneliness, hyper focus on results and the immense sacrifices required to ride at that elevation. “I’m a bit more mature — I know what I would do differently. A good result here would go a long way to convincing myself,” says Morton by way of explanation. “But at the same time I’m not putting pressure on myself to do it. I’m in a good place right now with this team.’

Years back, Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters put an inadvertent curse on Morton, tipping him as a future Tour de France winner. Now, California is his Grand Départ. Just how well the Australian will perform is difficult to predict. “If I have the legs I had last week at Gila or the legs I can have, a top five would not be out of the question,” said Morton. Then, with prophetic irony, he adds, “but there’s so much that can happen in a race like this.”

San Diego, the opening day and sprint stage goes to perfection. Morton breezes though safely and Jelly Belly places not one but two riders in the break. The following afternoon, Ben King of Cannondale steals a magical breakaway into Santa Clarita and Morton readies for the main event, a summit finish on Gibraltar road, a brutal 12 kilometer climb that averages 8% in grade.

“It’s not often I get nervous before a bike race but I was nervous. It’s been so long since I’ve had legs to win. There’s a whole new responsibility that comes with that,” said Morton. “I’m looking forward to it but I’m not as relaxed.”

The Aussie hits Gibraltar in excellent position and with four kilometers to the summit of the Heavenly ski resort, his instincts shout go. “It was a big group and your job as a climber is to whittle it down. I attacked and Pete Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) came with me. He didn’t really want to ride, he sat on, then attacked. That probably ended up costing him the stage because if we had worked together it could have been a different story. That’s his loss — my loss as well.”

Julian Alaphilippe blasts past Stetina as Morton hangs on for seventh against the big WorldTour guys. Slumped on the roadside past the finish, Morton mixes second-guessing with that’s-bike-racing philosophy “I took a risk. In hindsight, I could have waited but that’s the way I race. BMC had three guys. Cannondale still had two,” said Morton. “ If I don’t go, there’s 15 guys coming into that last k and I’ve got less of a shot.”

It wasn’t dream ride but his GC mission remains on track. With the big mountain done, the clock is just a few days ahead — a flat 20k time trial around Folsom — and perhaps the final barrier between Morton, a WorldTour contract and taking Jelly Belly higher than they’ve ever gone.

Expectations are pretty high – he’s been racing well against the clock and Van Haute’s secret hope is even with the likes of Rohan Dennis and Taylor Phinney, his guy can knock out a top 10 placing. The only hitch is Lachlan never makes to the stage six sign-in at Folsom.

Three day before, on a descent heading into Laguna Seca, Morton blows a front wheel, crashes and loses those ten minutes. With two teammates, he mounts a furious chase but to no avail. The next day on the road to Lake Tahoe, his injuries and the after effects of a concussion end his Tour of California.

“My head wasn’t right. I couldn’t function properly in the bunch. At that point you’re a danger to everyone,” said Morton. “I jumped in the sag wagon – I hadn’t been in one in a long time. That sucked a bit.”

The team battles on but with no plan B, the odds are astronomical. His brother Angus rides well but fades was the week progresses. Young Ben Wolfe clocks a top 30 in the Folsom time trial and another ex-Garmin rider Jacob Rathe, still coming back from surgery on the iliac artery of his left leg, infiltrates a break or two.

Van Haute knows what happens to underdogs who take a big hit. “Honestly, what can we do? We’re not expecting much from our guys right now,” he says. “It’s a learning curve. For our guys who race in the US, if you don’t have those WorldTour type of races in your legs, it’s a shock to the body.”

California delivers an incomplete answer on Morton’s prospects on a return to the World Tour. However, he’s clear on his priorities, motivations and why the second time in Europe will go far better.

“The biggest thing is creating that environment, being happy living where you’re living and surrounding yourself with positive people,” says Morton. “Before I would just lock myself away in my apartment and train. Being older, you realize that’s your life. It has to be a sustainable thing you’re doing.”

He has learned plenty about himself over the last few years. “As far as training, I know my body now way better than I used to. I know what I can handle, what I need to get ready to compete at that level,” says Morton. “Before I didn’t have that confidence – I’d rely on other people to steer me.”

While maturity plays a big part, it’s a shift in perspective that’s his strongest argument. “I’ve realized I’m pretty lucky to have the ability to be able to race a bike. It’s a privilege. I really want to go over there and do those big races,” says Morton. “Even following the Giro, I have that desire and that requires you to go race the WorldTour.”

Despite the thoughtful statements, some people will still wonder if Morton is all-in. His former Garmin DS Charlie Wegelius is a big fan but not without questions. “He’s got the talent. Does he want to live in Europe and live in that box? There’s quit a few hoops you have to jump through to work in a WorldTour team,” says Wegelius. “How much does he really want to do it?”

Is a dangerous corkscrew Giro descent on rain slick roads now at the top of his bucket list? “The whole idea of going back to that level is you want to perform. That means more sacrifices and I think I’d enjoy that challenge. I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do. You don’t just decide you want to risk your life in shitty weather in Italy. It might take time to get used to it again. But wanting to do it is a big thing.”

According to Jelly Belly’s Van Haute, his star rider is already out the door. “Realistically, the way he’s riding right now, if it continues the whole summer, he’ll be gone. He’s that good.”

Maybe, in the twists and turns from Garmin WorldTour squad to Thereabouts adventure to Jelly Belly and California, Morton has come full circle. He’s a more mature and confident version of the 20 year old phenom who once said “I’m happy to pay my dues, and eat dirt in the gutter, suffering it out. I’m happy to do that, and I’m happy that that’s what I need to progress.”

Lachlan Morton is still just 24 years old — plenty of time to eat fresh dirt, suffer it out happily this time and pay those back dues.

 

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