There's obviously something about Mt. Nebo that Lachlan Morton really likes. The 24-year-old Australian, who rides for American Continental team Jelly Belly-Maxxis, has won the Mt. Nebo stage at the Tour of Utah the past two times it's been included in the race.
He took his first win on the Richfield to Payson route in 2013 while riding for Garmin-Sharp. He also seized the overall race lead that day and held it until the Queen stage that ends with the climbs of Guardsman Pass and Little Cottonwood Canyon. On Wednesday, Morton repeated his performance, beating breakaway companion Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) and Adrien Costa (Axeon Hagens Berman) at the finish line in Payson.
"If you're a domestic rider this is as big as it gets, so everyone's just motivated," Morton said in the post-stage press conference. "I won this stage last time so I know it really well. Then this morning we had a good plan for today, and it all worked out pretty much how we wanted it to, which rarely happens."
Morton's team kept him sheltered for the first 131km of the 192km stage, then put the talented climber into position at the bottom of the climb to do what he does best. Morton delivered.
He jumped away from the bunch on the early slopes, then watched Talansky and Costa bridge to him. The trio powered away as Giro d'Italia stage winner Darwin Atapuma (BMC Racing) and Rob Britton (Rally Cycling) struggled to get on terms. The chasers never made contact, and the lead trio headed down the descent toward the finish with a gap of more than a minute.
Morton attacked his breakaway companions inside the final 2km, opening up enough of a gap to win by three seconds. He now leads Costa in the overall by seven seconds and Talansky by nine. Atapuma is fourth, 1:32 back.
Morton's previous knowledge of the Mt. Nebo climb obviously paid off on Wednesday, and he also has experience defending yellow in Utah, although he admitted in Wednesday's press conference that it didn't work out so well in 2013.
"Last time I took the jersey I had an incredible team behind me – a lot of guys who had been top 10 in the Tour de France and that sort of thing," he said. "But that didn't really work out for me. [Former Garmin teammate Tom Danielson] tore my legs off on Guardsman Pass and basically went and raced for himself."
Indeed Danielson took the race lead from Morton on the Queen stage in 2013, then went on to win the overall that year and again in 2014. Morton said being on a small team that is 100 percent committed to him may actually put him in a better position this year.
"I think it may play into my favour because we've all got one goal here this time," he said. "So, yeah, I mean we've already achieved a big goal today, so the race could finish now and we'd be pretty happy.
"We raced well at Tour of the Gila this year and we defended the jersey the whole way," Morton said of his win at the American UCI 2.2 race in May. "It's a different level of competition, for sure, but it's the same principle. Yeah, we're going to try and do it, but it won't be the end of the world if we don't win now.
"But I'm confident in the guys and we came here with one big goal: to help me out. And so far everyone has ridden above themselves, and they always do. It should be exciting."