The return of Lachlan Morton to the WorldTour has plenty of people licking their lips in anticipation, but no more so than the 25-year-old himself. The Tour Down Under will be Morton's first World Tour race in Dimension Data colours and second of the new year after animating the Australian national championships last week.
"To be honest, I had no idea where I was at. I hadn't raced since the Tour of Hokkaido, so there is always that unknown factor," Morton told Cyclingnews of his appearance at the national championships, where his presence in the breakaway helped set up teammate Nathan Haas for the bronze medal.
"I have been training pretty well back in Port Macquarie but I hadn't really done any hard riding, so to get out there in the first race with the team, and we executed the plan we had, which was cool and I felt good."
Overall wins at the Tour of Gila and Tour of Utah last year with Continental team Jelly Belly-Maxxis helped secure a second berth in the WorldTour for Morton after a two-year stint on the books of the Garmin squad. A ride through the Australian outback in 2014 with brother Gus, chronicled in "Thereabouts," put the fire back in the belly of the then 22-year-old after a brief dalliance with the idea of retirement.
Morton's Utah win was the highlight of his two-year stint with Jelly Belly alongside Gus, and having put in the long training hours since his move to Dimension Data was announced, he is ready to rock'n'roll for 2017. And not just for the Australian summer races.
"I am just really motivated for this season as a whole. I am really excited to get into all the racing, which is different from years gone by," said Morton. "Last time I did this race, I remember thinking it was like a pain the arse. The Australian summer, I'd rather be hanging out at home, but now I am really excited to be here. I always find that when I go back to Port Macquarie in the summer and ride there it is really easy to do really good training, and I am usually done just after lunchtime so I can go to the beach and hang out. It is really mentally refreshing despite you putting in a really good training block and that always sets me up for the year."
Rooming with first-year neo-pro Ben O'Connor at the Tour Down Under has Morton feeling like "I am on my first year as a pro" and full of enthusiasm. With the race route arguably the best yet for the climbers in Tour Down Under history - there are stage finishes at Paracombe and Willunga Hill - the race is suited to Morton's capabilities. However, he and the team will be working to support the ambitions of Nathan Haas as Morton looks to the longer climbs of Europe and America later in the year.
"We rode that finish yesterday and it is a longer climb, but I think that gorge section is still going to be really fast. I think for a guy like Haasy, it is a perfect finish," Morton said of the Paracombe parcours. "I think there will be a mix of guys like Woods, Gerro, maybe a Chaves and Henao, but it is a really explosive finish. Personally, it is not really my style of a finish but they are hard stages and I think you will see the best guys at the front most days."
At the team's November training camp, Morton sat down with management to plan his racing and training schedule and plot the formula for his success both on and off the bike. For the season, the Tour of California and Vuelta a Espana are Morton's two main objectives, and he is confident in the approach he and the team have decided upon to ensure he arrives at his target races in peak condition.
"We sat down in camp and I know better now how I need to prepare which always involves good training blocks. All the races I do are together and then I'll have a month training in Colorado or somewhere and then go back and do another big block of racing," said Morton, who will be basing himself in Colorado for the season.
"A hard race like this early in the year is good to see what you need to work on. It is kind of like a reality check I guess. You get into the race and you realise what the demands of it all are. I usually find that is a motivating factor."
To subscribe to the Cyclingnews YouTube channel, click here