Stars over Utah

Lachlan Morton strikes back on the Empire Pass

“To win any race you’ve got to be willing to lose it first,” said Lachlan Morton on the final day of the Tour of Utah.

Most believed that it was too late for this: that he had already lost it. Yet when he arrived at his team’s camper van in Park City on the morning of the final stage, the 24-year-old Australian, one of the great enigmas of professional cycling, quietly insisted that the race was not over, that there could be another twist.

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The previous day, on the climb to Snowbird at the end of the Queen Stage, Morton had surrendered the yellow jersey, succumbing to the might of the WorldTour armada.

This had seemed inevitable. Morton rides for Jelly Belly, one of the smallest teams in the race. They rode strongly to defend his lead for three days, but in the end the strength of the big teams would prove decisive – that’s the way the sport works.

True enough, the moment of reckoning came on Snowbird when Andrew Talansky of Cannondale and Darwin Atapuma of BMC surged and Morton and the revelation of the race, 18-year-old Adrien Costa, appeared to run up the white flag.

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At the summit, where Talansky won to take yellow, Morton and Costa came in together. Morton, looking dejected, did not stop, brushing aside reporters and marshals to ride through the finish area and across the car park of the ski resort, then back down the hill to the Jelly Belly camper. His dream was over. The race had slipped through his fingers.

Or had it? “It’s still to play for today,” said Morton the following morning. “I’m going to give it a try.”

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A short, furious stage awaited: 125km and two climbs, with Empire Pass as the final battleground of the 2016 Tour of Utah: a 12km ascent with an average gradient of 8%, as steep as 12% at the bottom. A twisting, perilous climb on rough, bumpy roads, which Morton said was the toughest of the seven-day race: “Like, 40, 45 minutes of really hard climbing,” he said in the morning, with ominous relish.

As soon as the flag dropped it was chaos: attacks, big groups going clear, dangerous counter-attacks. “Flat out all day; you couldn’t stop for a pee,” said one rider. But Morton was serene, sitting and watching the action unfold in front of him. Even when Talansky, in the yellow jersey, escaped in a powerful counter-attack with Costa and BMC’s Joey Rosskopf, Morton would not be drawn.

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“That was the moment of making a decision,” as Morton put it later. “But we had one plan today. And sometimes you have to stick to your guns.”

Morton had one bullet and it was for Empire Pass. As the road reared up he went for his gun, drew, and fired. Bang. He attacked hard. In and out of the saddle, this mercurial rider – as talented a climber on his day as any rider in the world – danced up the slope in pursuit of Larry Warbasse, the last survivor of the big breakaway.

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Warbassse glanced around, saw a figure approaching in a white jersey, and assumed it was Tao Geoghegan Hart, who had been in the break. “Woah,” thought Warbasse, “Tao’s going well.”

But it was Morton, who went past in a blur. “Man, Lachlan was flying,” Warbasse, still wide-eyed at the speed of Morton’s ascent, reflected later.

Talansky, shepherded by defending champion and Cannondale teammate Joe Dombrowski, endured a thousand agonies. He lost almost two minutes to Morton on the 12km climb. Or rather, Morton gained two minutes. And behind him, it was Costa, of the Axeon-Hagens development team, who emerged as his closest challenger.

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In Park City, at the top of Main Street, Morton won the stage and the race and Costa was second to seal second overall, as well as King of the Mountains. On the podium, Costa was presented with champagne and in the next breath had the bottle whisked from his hands. He is 18, too young for alcohol.

If he was a surprise champion then Morton was in some ways an appropriate winner of what is now America’s second biggest stage race, one held in the vast and mountainous state of Utah – an outdoors Mecca as spectacular as Colorado, if less well known.

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Scarred by the experience of racing in Europe at the highest level when he was just out of his teens, Morton has found refuge in the US, and with a team that epitomises a domestic scene that stumbles from one year to the next, losing races but producing talented riders – or nurturing wayward, maverick stars like Morton.

Jelly Belly has been going for 17 years, but they have never enjoyed a triumph like this, and the riders and staff were in no rush to leave Park City as the crowds dispersed and the finishing area was dismantled and the large Cannondale and BMC vehicles spluttered and roared out of the car park.

Around the open door of their modest camper, the Jelly Bellies, including Morton in his yellow jersey, lingered, drinking bottles of beer, toasting their leader and a success that might help him find a way back to Europe and the WorldTour – if that is what he wants.

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