Lachlan Morton says that his return to WorldTour cycling feels like his first time at the top tier after spending two years away. After a strong 2016 campaign, Morton penned a contract with Dimension Data and is set to make his debut at the Tour Down Under in two months' time.
"That has been the goal for the last year, to get back to the top level. It was pretty much 12 months ago that I found that drive and decided what I wanted to do," Morton told Cyclingnews from the Dimension Data training camp in Cape Town, South Africa. "To realise that and be here at a training camp and getting ready to do a WorldTour season, in a lot of ways it feels like the first time."
Three years ago, with a good WorldTour contract under his belt, Morton fell out of love with cycling. As a 10-year-old, he knew that he wanted to be a professional bike rider, making his way quickly through the ranks towards his first professional contract at the age of 20. Now that he had made it, he was no longer sure if it was what he even wanted anymore.
He came close to calling it quits but stuck it out for another year before finally stepping away from the WorldTour at the end of 2014. The off-season was spent riding through the Australian outback with his elder brother Angus, who had made his departure from racing the year before. The pair then made the call to give professional racing a chance, signing up for the US Continental team Jelly Belly.
After a year of soul-searching, Morton had rediscovered the passion that had driven him towards the professional ranks in the first place. The 2016 season was met with much more vigour than previous years and saw him take victory at the Tour of the Gila and at the Tour of Utah. Morton is now in South Africa for the first pre-season training camp with his new team Dimension Data. Four years down the line from his first shot at WorldTour, he’s better prepared and keener than he ever was.
"I think I'm definitely more prepared physically, but I'm also hungrier and more motivated," said Morton. "When I became WorldTour with Garmin, I knew more or less two years before with the development team that I was going to be in the WorldTour. Then I was a stagiaire, so it was a very slow transition. In those two years, a lot of my motivation had waned so by the time that I got there it wasn't even really exciting I guess.
"I decided when I was 10 years old that I really wanted to become a bike rider but what do you know when you're 10 years old? So, its good to come to that decision when you’re older and be sure about it."
When Morton quit WorldTour racing in 2014, he said that he had become "out of touch." Cycling is often a lonely endeavour, putting in the hard miles for hours on end, every day. Morton told Cyclingnews that his time racing in the United States taught him that he wasn't able to achieve his dream alone.
"I think that being back at that level where the sport is simplified a little bit and creating that environment where I was surrounded by family and my wife, I realised that I couldn't do it by myself," he explained. "Having that learning process and coming to the end of the year and realising that I wanted to be a bike rider because this is what I love doing."
Converting promise into performance
Although he has ridden for a WorldTour team once before, jumping two levels from Continental to WorldTour will be a bit of a shock to the system. Almost all of Morton's racing in the past two seasons has been based in North America, aside from a trip to Australia and his 2016 season closer at the Tour de Hokkaido in Japan. Next year will see him test his wits against the world's best and there is an element of nerves for the Australian, but he's trying to harness them for good.
"I think anyone who is coming from a Continental team into the WorldTour would be lying if they said that there weren't apprehensive," he told Cyclingnews. "Even a new team, there is always nerves. I think that the difference for me this time is that it's all positive nerves. I know that I've got a lot of learning to do, but I really want to do it.
"I think nerves are a good thing; they show that it means something to you."
Morton will begin his breaking-in process on home turf at the Australian nationals, followed by his WorldTour return at the Tour Down Under at the end of January. He has fairly modest expectations for 2017, with personal growth and consistency as his central aim.
"The team is taking a longer-term approach, which is nice, and as a professional bike rider, you have goals and motivation. To do my first Grand Tour and to see if that's where my potential lies, that for me is exciting this year," he said.
"I think that the Tour of California is going to be a good opportunity for me as a real goal, but before that, I have a few WorldTour tours, which I think will be for experience and getting back into the swing of racing at that level. Coming back into it, you have to take them one at a time and then probably the Vuelta a España at the end of the year will be my introduction to Grand Tour racing. That's a big goal and a really big motivation for me. I think, if I was going to pick out two races then it would be California and the Vuelta."