Lachlan Morton’s 30-kilometer raid across Mount Nebo in stage 3 of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah was confirmation of the talent that observers had seen bubbling in the lithe legs of the Australian climber for years.
For nearly 100 miles, the peloton rolled along, content to let the day’s breakaway wilt in the midday sun before tackling the monster climb atop the Wasatch range.
Morton’s teammate Christian Vande Velde told him, at the bottom of the Nebo climb, to wait until there were fewer guys in the ravaged peloton. Another teammate, Ryder Hesjedal, attacked first, and thinned the group immediately. As soon as Hesjedal started to slow, there was a steep pitch, and it was the ideal launch pad for the 6-foot, 135-pound Morton.
“I wasn’t the guy everyone was expecting to go. If you can get that first 20 seconds, they’re the hardest to get. I just had to punch through that first five minutes of being away and establish a good gap,” he said. “And when you’ve got a guy who won the Giro last year sort of setting you up, it’s pretty incredible. When you have an opportunity like that, especially as a young rider, you’ve just gotta take it, and I did. I just sort of put my head down and focused on the finish line.”
The 21-year-old Australian was not tipped as a pre-race favorite, and the move drew little response from the GC contenders. Morton bridged across, then quickly through, the remains of the day’s breakaway. He was on his own, and it would stay that way.
“I knew I was going fast because I caught [Francisco] Mancebo and dropped him — that’s always a good marker,” Morton said. “When I picked up the last two guys I figured I wanted to get rid of them before the top, so I just went as hard as I could before the KOM. And then there were a few more rollers that were really difficult. It was a lot longer than I thought to the finish, but what are you going to do? You’re a minute off the front, you just got to put your head down and ride, and that’s what I did.”
Meanwhile, the peloton was coming undone on the climb, shrinking to roughly 20 riders high on the slopes of Nebo. Among them were some of the sport’s greatest climbers, including Chris Horner and Tiago Machado (RadioShack-Leopard), Morton’s Garmin teammates Tom Danielson, Peter Stetina, and Rohan Dennis, as well as Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman). The chasers failed to put more than a handful of seconds into Morton on the rolling terrain at the top of the climb. Morton quickly began pushing his advantage on the descent.
With 10km to go, Morton’s team director, Chann McRae, told him he had a good chance of holding on to win the stage. “He said, ‘You’ve got a pretty good chance of maybe holding onto this.’ I still wasn’t sure, so I just rode as hard as I could.”
It was enough to sail across the line, one arm raised, one finger pointed toward the sky. Victory, and the race leader’s jersey, were his.