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Morton wins stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Utah

Australian youngster rides a bold solo move to victory and the overall lead on the Utah tour's first day in the Wasatch

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Lachlan Morton won stage 3 of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah on Thursday in Payson. Morton (Garmin-Sharp) launched a bold solo effort atop the Wasatch mountains on Mount Nebo to take victory in the 191-kilometer leg from Richfield.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) was second, at 33 seconds, and Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) was third.

With the victory, Morton pulled the overall lead from Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).

The Tour of Utah continues Friday night with the 54km circuit race in Salt Lake City.

Into the Wasatch for the Utah peloton

The Tour of Utah opened with two rolling stages across southern Utah. Thursday’s third leg finally took the riders into the alpine Wasatch, with a long, flat profile leading into the Cat. 1 Mount Nebo and a fast, technical descent to the finish.

After two days of two-man breakaways, Thursday’s stage saw 20 riders cut loose early in the day: Ben King (RadioShack-Leopard); Francisco Mancebo and James Stemper (5-hour Energy-Kenda); Carter Jones and Pat McCarty (Bissell); Larry Warbasse (BMC Racing); Joey Rosskopf and Andy Baker (Hincapie Sportswear Development); Alex Diniz Correia, Bulgareli Otavio, and Magno Prado Nazaret (Funvic BrasilInviest Sao José Dos Campos); Wesley Sulzberger and Baden Cooke (Orica-GreenEdge); Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp); Luis Enrique Davila and Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly-Kenda); Lawson Craddock (Bontrager); Jonathan Clarke (UnitedHealthcare); and Michael Friedman and Eric Young (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies).

The escape pushed out to a maximum advantage of just over four minutes, but the gap began to fall with 130km to go. Still, they pressed on and, with a lead of three minutes, a few of the escapees got jumpy, launching attacks on the low-grade ramp out of Fountain Green, with inside 90km to go.

“It was probably the least cooperative breakaway I have ever been in,” Warbasse said in a team press release. “I think a lot of the bigger pro teams were told that they shouldn’t work. So a lot of guys were sitting on. So the Continental teams were doing most of the pulling.”

The early moves failed, and Stemper drove the group into the base of Mount Nebo. Mancebo won the 2009 tour when it hit the highest mountain in the Wasatch Range, but on that occasion, the Spaniard and Co. climbed the north side to a mountaintop finish. Thursday’s stage climbed the south side of Nebo and finished with a long descent to Payson.

Stemper’s acceleration began to thin the breakaway low on the approach to the climb’s early steep ramps. The grinding pace set up Mancebo, who pushed hard when the escape completely came apart with 16km left to the summit.

The Spaniard couldn’t hold the pace, however, and, with 1:45 on the peloton, three Americans rode clear at the front: King, Jones, and Craddock. The peloton collected the remainder of the escapees, and Craddock lost contact with his compatriots 12km from the summit.

As the kilometers ticked on, so did the two leaders, King following Jones.

Back in the bunch, Ben Day carried the pace for UnitedHealthcare and Chris Horner (RadioShack) patrolled the front, talking to the riders. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) was there as well.

Lachlan launches the attack

Hesjedal’s teammate, Morton, attacked the peloton, followed by Horner’s mate, Tiago Machado, as they arrived to the more moderate, rolling upper reaches of the climb.

“Ryder sort of put the pace down early and started to split the field up,” said Morton. “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. The pair bridged across to Craddock, who was hanging 35 seconds behind the leaders. Morton was the strongest of the trio, though, and he was soon on his own, closing on Jones and King.

“We tried to close the gap with Michi [Schär] and Jakub [Novak] and Yannick [Eijssen], but for me it was a hard moment,” said Van Avermaet. “I think everyone was at their limit. Then it was only downhill to the finish.”

With 44km to go, Morton made contact with the leaders and immediately went to the front. The new leading trio climbed through the aspen forest toward the summit, the peloton trailing at 1:30.

Meanwhile, the peloton was coming undone on the climb, shrinking to roughly 20 riders high on the climb. Horner and Machado were there, as were Garmin teammates Tom Danielson, Peter Stetina, and Dennis, stage 1 winner Greg Van Avermaet and teammate Michael Schär (BMC Racing), Day and his UnitedHealthcare teammates Philip Deignan and Lucas Euser, Tsgabu Gebremaryam Grmay (MTN-Qhubeka), Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Sutter Home), and KOM leader Michael Torckler (Bissell).

With 40km to go, Morton had a crack and dropped Jones and King. At the same moment, Mancebo came unhitched at the back of the peloton. Morton stood on the pedals and threw his bike from side to side. The bunch chased at 1:20.

With 38km to go, the gap was 1:30. The chasers failed to put more than a handful of seconds into Morton on the rolling terrain at the top of the climb.

“No one wanted to help (with the chase),” BMC Racing director Jackson Stewart said in a press release. “For sure, we all knew at the top of the climb — where it wasn’t climbing or descending — that we had to close a minute. And we weren’t going to do it on the downhill. Michael Schär and Jakub Novak gave everything they could to bring him back, but it wasn’t enough.”

Morton cleared the top of the climb and quickly began pushing his advantage out on the descent. Jones and King eventually dropped back to the chase group.

“When I first went I could see the group for a while; I’d ridden up that climb before but it was a few years ago, I couldn’t really remember,” said Morton. “I knew I was going fast because I caught Mancebo and dropped him — that’s always a good marker. 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.”

With 18km to go, the Australian leader held 1:10 over the 21-rider chase.

Two UnitedHealthcare riders — including Euser — overshot a corner with 15km to go, but were able to stay upright.

“It was crazy,” said Euser. “I was one of the guys that went off the road halfway down. I luckily had some local intel from [teammate] Jeff Louder; he tried to give us a few heads up. You just had to watch out for gravel; there were a lot of tight corners that turned in on themselves. It was ripping fast. When I went off the road it was just because some guys did in front of me. It was a tricky descent, super fast.”

The chase began to swell as it approached the sinuous lower portion of the descent. With five riders in the chase, RadioShack led the effort, but couldn’t make any progress against the solo leader.

“It wasn’t until about 500 meters to go that I realized I could win,” said Morton. “Chann [McRae], my director, came up to me around 10km to go and said, ‘You’ve got a pretty good chance of maybe holding onto this.’ [laughs] So I still wasn’t sure so I just rode as hard as I could.”

Morton pushed all the way to the finish, though he said he was focused on the win and not the jersey ahead of the race’s final three mountainous days.

“I wasn’t thinking about that at all really,” he said. “I was just trying to get a win, and the yellow jersey is a nice bonus. But we’ve still got other cards to play on our team. It puts me in a good position, and it puts other guys [on the team] in a good position, so it’s an ideal scenario for us.”

Schär led the chase group into the finish straight, taking a half minute out of Morton in the final 2km. Van Avermaet rode off the Swiss champion’s wheel and sprinted to second, giving him a win and two runner-up results in the race’s opening three days. Euser edged Horner for third.

“Second is great, but it’s disappointing because we knew we had a good chance of winning again,” said Stewart. “When Greg commits and digs as deep as he did to get over a climb like this, he deserves to win.”