Morton eyes California GC after Gila win

The Australian member of Jelly Belly – Maxxis said the Tour of California is his main goal of the season — and he thinks he can win.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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SAN DIEGO (VN) — Nowadays, Lachlan Morton might be better known for his “Thereabouts” adventures across the Australian Outback and American West than for his climbing prowess and pro cycling chops. But that could change this week.

The Jelly Belly – Maxxis rider has set his sights on a big result at the Amgen Tour of California. At 24, fresh off a win at the 30th Tour of the Gila, the Australian is hoping to carry his good form into his team’s biggest objective of the year and remind people of the talent that brought him a dramatic win on stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Utah as a member of the Garmin squad.

“This is the first time I’ve had the Tour of California as my big goal for the year,” Morton said. “I’m prepared for it and I know I’m in good form. At a race like this you have to have a bit of luck on your side, but we’re in with a chance for fighting for a GC position and that’s my goal.”

According to Morton, the 2016 course is more dynamic than in past years when the race often hinged more on a good time trial performance than pure climbing form. The Gibraltar climb on stage 3 and, yes, the time trial on stage 6, are the two stages where the race will be won.

“But it could be lost on some other days,” Morton said. “Stage 1 should be pretty straightforward, the final stage in Sacramento should be pretty straightforward, but there’s always the wind on some other stages or tricky little climbs near the end of stages. No one is talking about the Laguna Seca stage — after a long day, the racing will be aggressive and you’ll see some big separations there at the finish. But I like that, because I see it as more opportunities. This year they’ve picked a route where it’s going to be a fight right until the end. I’m looking forward to it.”

The laid back Morton hasn’t scanned the startlist for his biggest rivals and has taken a more pragmatic approach, knowing the race will be won on the road and not on paper. He points out that no one knew Julian Alaphilippe would come second or that Peter Sagan would have won last year’s race.

“You can go through the startlist and see a whole different bunch of scenarios, but people overcomplicate bike racing, Morton said. “You either have the legs or you don’t.”

While the course is more to his liking, his recent win in the Tour of the Gila in early May was also a milestone for Morton, who has been racing in the New Mexico race since he was 18.

“Winning there was something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” he said. “This was my fourth one and I finally cracked it. I went there wanting to win, and it’s the first time I’ve gone to a race with the intent on winning, where I would have been disappointed with anything else. That’s a new feeling — something I haven’t had since I was a junior, really. To go there and execute that, it was big. And for the team, it was big. It’s nice to have that under the belt.”

Morton’s career, though still in its early years, has taken a number of twists and turns. He raced with the Slipstream organization (both the development and WorldTour squads) from 2011 until 2014, basing himself in Europe and attempting to cope with the stresses of the UCI WorldTour. It didn’t click. His motivation slipped. His form followed. The young Morton was lost. Soon he found himself riding across the Outback of Australia with his brother Gus and trying to understand what he wanted to do on a bike. Ride? Race? Wander?

He signed with the Jelly Belly squad last year and proved he still had the talent to perform at the highest levels of professional racing, albeit under more relaxed circumstances. He was able to do it while still having fun. Having his brother by his side was something that made it all that much sweeter.

It brings us to the inevitable question: Does Morton aspire to make a return to the WorldTour?

“This is the first year that I’ve thought about it again,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I miss it, but I’ve still got aspirations of returning, and there are races I want to do and things I want to do at the highest level of cycling. I’d love to ride the Tour de France one day. I’d love to race against the world’s best consistently. But at the same time I’m having so much fun here — as I say, I don’t miss the WorldTour. But I think I’d know how to do it better now. I’d be able to set up an environment there where I could perform, and that’s one thing I haven’t done yet in cycling. I definitely wouldn’t rule it out given the right circumstance.”

But first, there’s the Tour of California. He has something yet to prove. He has goals he wants to reach. He has a bike race to race, where anything is possible.

“If I get the opportunity to race with the legs I know I’ve got, without any bad luck, that’d be a successful Tour of California,” he said. “I think I’ve got a good performance in me, and if I can get that out and show it then it’ll be a successful race. At this point, I’d be disappointed if I was outside the top 10. If the stars align, I think I’ve got the form to get on the podium. But it’s bike racing, so I’ve got to go out there and do it.”

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