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Q&A: Lachlan Morton on joining EF and racing gravel

We sat down with Lachlan Morton to discuss his return to the Education First team, racing on gravel, and a tough 2018 season.

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After two years at Dimension Data, Australian Lachlan Morton will join the EF Education First-Drapac team on a two-year contract, as announced by the team Thursday. Morton spent many of his formative years on the team — at that time it was known by several other names, including Garmin-Sharp, and under Slipstream Sports ownership.

The 26-year-old Australian is known as much for his talents on the road — he won the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah in 2016 — as he is for his adventurous off-season excursions captured in the “Thereabouts” film series. Morton will find new freedom to explore non-traditional races at EF, as the team announced it will partake in some gravel, fixed-gear, and long-distance amateur events in addition to a full WorldTour schedule.

We caught up with Morton to discuss his 2018 season, the excitement he feels for next season, and what it is like to be reuniting with a squad with whom he has a checkered past.

VeloNews: How would you assess the 2018 season for you?

Lachlan Morton: It was a tough season. I was kind of behind the eight ball from the beginning, from racing late into the year in China and then starting again in January at Tour Down Under, with a training camp in between. From the start of the season, I never felt like I had rested or trained enough. I’m someone who kind of builds slowly for things, and [Tour of] California was the big goal for me this year, which we just missed the mark. Leading up to it I just kept feeling like I was two weeks behind where I needed to be. The team has commitments at certain races so you can’t just take a month and go train somewhere and get ready. I understand that, but it’s frustrating to not be ready for your goals.

Then I broke my arm not long after that, after getting hit by a car in the Netherlands. I was happy to walk away with just a broken arm, because it could have been quite a bit worse. I was off the bike for a month, and that’s hard for the motivation when you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing next week, or prepare for something specific. I guess there are only so many guys in the WorldTour that have the liberty to prepare for races. From an athlete’s perspective, it’s always nice to have concrete goals to work toward.

VN: It seems the whole team had a tough year.

LM: It was a very different atmosphere than the year before. Last year we had the mates-on-the-road mentality. Still a great group of people, but there was always that feeling, “F—k, we need to crack a result and get some runs on the board.”

VN: So you’re heading back to an organization with which you had some difficult moments.

LM: I didn’t leave on great terms, for sure. The opportunity arose, and because of my relationship with Rapha and their perspective on where the sport’s at and where it needs to go, our ideals aligned quite similarly. We’ve been speaking throughout the year, and then their sponsorship with EF materialized, so it allows the vision we have to sort of take place next year. It’s a really exciting project to be a part of. It’s a change that I feel sort of needs to happen within the sport and the structure of the sport, from a sponsor’s perspective and the audience perspective.

VN: And you’re talking specifically about their interest in non-traditional forms of racing?

LM: Yes, exactly. The idea is that we can go and chase after different events that regularly a WorldTour team has no interest in, but that I think the majority of the cycling audience is starting to have a really big interest in — gravel events, the really big ultra-endurance events, even the fixed-gear stuff is a really exciting thing that is going on in the sport that doesn’t touch the top levels. There’s also the crossover with the stuff [my brother] Gus and I have done with the Thereabouts films and trips. I haven’t been able to do that in the last two years because of the full WorldTour commitment. I miss that stuff and I also think it has a lot of value … to me personally, of course, because I love doing that stuff, but also as I think about my contribution to the sport, I think I can have a bigger impact than just racing 80 days a year on the WorldTour. So it’s twofold: for me, it’s what I want to be doing, and for Rapha it’s what they want to pursue within the sport. It was an ideal opportunity that I don’t think would come along twice. Of course, it’s all combined with a WorldTour calendar, which is really exciting for me because I think those big professional races are also amazing. This is about trying to bridge that gap between those two worlds.

VN: It sounds very exciting — the best of both worlds, in a sense.

LM: Yeah, it is. Now it’s just up to us to prove this idea will work. I think a sponsor can get a lot out of it. From a rider perspective, it’s refreshing, motivating. And from a fan’s perspective, it’s something totally different — something fresh, which the sport needs right now.

VN: Which non-traditional races capture your imagination, and which do you want to do most?

LM: We have a long list, of course, but then there’s the reality of what you can actually fit into a year with a real calendar. But Dirty Kanza, Leadville, which is a cool crossover between road and mountain, and then even Trans-Continental, or Race Across America, that’s something that captures my imagination because it’s so far removed from what I normally do. But something like Dirty Kanza makes a lot of sense because it’s big now, and if you look at the gravel scene, it’s blowing up, whereas the road scene is dropping off. It’s like, “Well, maybe this is the future of cycling here.”

Then there’s the Red Hook crit series, which it remains to be seen what that will look like next year, but the atmosphere is just different. It’s just a cool event. And in all of these races I’m sure I’ll be out of my depths in a lot of ways, but just being a part of it and combining that with a WorldTour calendar is very motivating and exciting for me personally.

VN: Well let me know if you need any tips on racing Dirty Kanza. I’ve done it twice now.

LM: [Laughs] Absolutely, I’ll probably be scrambling in the three-week run-up to the race. Like, “Shit, we need to get ready for this race!” I’ll probably send you 10 emails for advice. “What size tires do I need? What pressure?!”

Another thing about these events is that I think having the professional guys do them sort of validates what they’ve done. Obviously you don’t want them to become professional races in the same way. But if you look at the future of the sport, these [non-traditional] races definitely have a big place in where it’s going.

VN: Do you think people will be receptive to you, and Education First riders generally, being at these races? Do you think there could be some backlash against you because you’re bringing a pro vibe to their grassroots race?

LM: That’s obviously the tightrope you walk. It’s not as if we want to come and just dominate all these races. It’s more about just being involved in these races. I’ve got to know that in eight out of 10 races I’m going to get my ass kicked by people who are better than me at this discipline than I am. It’s not about the results, it’s about the sport and an exploration about where the sport is going. It’s not about turning Dirty Kanza into a WorldTour race, or going and smashing the record at Leadville. That’s not the point. It’s more about looking at the season as a whole and it being an exploration of the sport. And then have the ability to share that with anyone who is willing to watch. In that way, the hope is you get people more interested in all levels of the sport. Maybe people who just watch the WorldTour will become more in tune with these other types of races. If we do it right, it’s a win-win for everyone.

VN: It must be asked: You didn’t leave this team on great terms. Did you have any reservations about returning to it?

LM: No, no. As soon as this project entered the works with Rapha and I realized who I’d be working with, with EF, that was an initial reservation, but JV [general manager Jonathan Vaughters] and I sat down straight away in Boulder. The issues we had in the past I think were kind of 50-50 if you look at it from both ways. I was young at that time and didn’t really know my way in the sport. So I probably wasn’t doing a lot of things to help myself. But we cleared that air immediately. He’s excited about this project. When you’re working on a project like this, it kind of trumps any history you might have. I’m more passionate about this project than I am about holding a grudge. Cycling is way too small of a sport to hold any grudges.