Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) took one step closer toward winning the Tour of the Gila on Thursday, coming fourth in the sprint on the second stage to Fort Bayard and holding on to his lead over Rally's Rob Britton, the defending champion. Wearing the red leader's jersey after taking a commanding victory on the summit finish at Mogollon, Morton admitted that getting results does make him consider a return to the WorldTour, but right now he's not thinking that far ahead.
"Last year it was nice to come back and sort of take it a bit easier for a year and get settled down here. This year I wanted to come out and get some results, so I've been training hard. [Tour of the Gila] is a big goal for us this week, and then Tour of California. It's definitely nice to be back winning races. It does maybe make you think what's possible for the future. For the moment I'm pretty happy and I don't think too far ahead."
In 2012, Morton was a 20-year-old full of promise and ambition, having earned a trainee spot and then a two-year deal with the Garmin-Sharp squad fresh out of the Continental ranks on Garmin's development team. The next year, he confirmed his promise with an emphatic attack on Mt. Nebo in the Tour of Utah, winning the stage and taking the race lead. In the USA Pro Challenge that same month, he wore the race leader's jersey for two stages and won the best young rider jersey.
The performance led team manager Jonathan Vaughters to declare that he would one day win the Tour de France.
But the next year, visa issues made it impossible to race the American programme he had come to enjoy, and a year flogging himself in races in Europe dampened his mood and he began to question his choice of career.
"I was pretty young when I went there. I was 20 or 21 when I went to the WorldTour. So I just wasn't ready for that adjustment of moving my whole life over [to Europe]. I was by myself and it was a huge culture shock. I didn't enjoy being away from my family and my girlfriend. It's a tough transition and I wasn't ready to do it. I wouldn't change it, it was a great experience, but I knew I had to change something at the end of those two years to start enjoying the sport. I didn't want to give that away."
At the end of his contract, he was disillusioned, and looking for a way to rekindle his love for the sport. So he and his brother Angus (Gus) decided to take a journey across Australia, from their home outside of Sydney to the middle of the Outback, some 2500 kilometeres away - riding just for the love of riding the bike, without goals or ambitions..
"Gus and I rode to the middle of Australia, and it was a big realisation that it wasn't the sport I wasn't enjoying, it was just my situation in the sport at that time. I knew I wanted to keep racing and keep riding, because that's what I love to do the most on any day. That was a big changing point for me, and obviously for Gus, coming back into the sport after leaving for a few years. It was an amazing trip."
The brothers signed together with Jelly Belly, with Gus coming back after four year hiatus, in 2015. After a few months of ramping up, Lachlan Morton came out swinging at the USA Pro Challenge, coming fifth overall and putting on a particularly aggressive display of racing. His victory in the Tour of the Gila this season is just another step on a clearly upward trajectory.
"It's been a blast," he said of his time with the Jelly Belly. But when asked if he had changed enough through his experiences of the past two years to revisit his WorldTour ambitions, if he was a different person after his journey, his marriage, and more stable situation, he was cautious in his reply.
"If I went back now I would know how to enjoy it, and how to create an environment where I was enjoying it. I still enjoy racing here, but I do miss the really big races sometimes. I could see that happening at some point, but at the moment I'm not looking too far into the future. I'm just taking each race as it comes and enjoying it."