• Last stop, Utah. Next stop, Europe? (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Rather than wait too long then rue what might've been, to fully realise his enormous potential Lachlan Morton, now older and wiser, should get himself back to where he began as a professional, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
24 Aug 2016 - 10:53 PM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2016 - 11:10 PM

I wonder if Lachlan Morton is keeping an eye on the Vuelta a España.

Because if he is, he will have noticed that BMC Racing's Darwin Atapuma, the guy he beat by almost two minutes a fortnight ago at the Tour of Utah, is leading the race.

A Frenchman in Spain wins again
Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) launched a daring solo attack on the foot of the final climb in stage 4 of the Vuelta a Espana to grab the first major win of his professional career. Calmejane's win follows fellow Frenchman Alexandre Geniez's victory in yesterday's stage. BMC's Darwin Atapuma now wears the red leader's jersey.

I wonder if Lachlan is thinking if that could be him.

Actually, it's not so much a question of whether it could be him, because Morton is a guy Jonathan Vaughters, his former boss at Garmin-Sharp (now Cannondale-Drapac), said could one day win the Tour de France. How often do you hear a team manager say that?

Vaughters said as much three years ago, when Morton was just 21 years young.

Again, it was at the Tour of Utah; his first time at the race. On the third stage that traversed Mount Nebo, the highest mountain in the State's Wasatch Range, the neo-pro was being set up by none other than the previous year's winner of the Giro d'Italia, Ryder Hesjedal. Morton, a relative unknown, picked his moment to jump out of the peloton, bridged to the duo out front, decided to drop them, then rode the next 40 kilometres on his own. He won the stage and took the race lead, but had an off day on the penultimate stage to Snowbird mountain. Nonetheless, he came away with the young riders' jersey as the best-placed rider under 23 years old.

"I still enjoy racing here (in the United States), but I do miss the really big races sometimes. I could see that happening at some point."

Two weeks later, fifth overall at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge behind winner Tejay van Garderen. The 2014 season promised much but this is how it went: DNFs at the Tour Down Under, Critérium International, Tour de Romandie, Critérium du Dauphiné, Tour of Austria, Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian, Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen, Il Lombardia, and Tour of Beijing.

That year in Europe, Morton completed just three races. He didn't want to be there. "I just wasn't ready for that adjustment of moving my whole life over there," he told Cyclingnews in May this year during the Tour of Gila, a few days before he won the overall title. "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 (enjoyment) away."

End of contract. End of WorldTour racing. But not end of career.

The summer of 2014/15, he and brother Angus (Gus) decided to ride their bikes from their New South Wales family home in Port Macquarie to the middle of Australia, a 12-day, 2,500 kilometre journey they chronicled in the film Thereabouts. "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."

Riding to the Red Centre rekindled his passion. He (and his brother) signed for Jelly Belly for the 2015 season, moved to America, and didn't travel or race in Europe. He loved it. Tenth at Utah, fifth again at the USA Pro Challenge the highlights. Nothing exceptional. But most notably, no DNFs.

This season's been a good one. The win at Gila; in June, fourth overall at the Tour de Beauce. (The anomaly was his exit at the Tour of California, in between Gila and Beauce.) Then, earlier this month, a breathtaking odds-completely-stacked-against-him-come-from-behind victory at Utah, where, on the final climb of the final stage, he left the peloton containing overnight leader Andrew Talansky (who displaced him the previous day) in his wake and soloed into Park City as both the stage and overall race winner. "We had one card to play today, and that was to go all in on the last climb. To win any race you have to be willing to lose it first," he said, echoing the words of Michael Rogers after he won the sixteenth stage to Bagnères-de-Luchon at the 2014 Tour de France.

Back in May, when asked about a potential revisit to Europe and the WorldTour, Morton said: "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 (in the United States), 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."

He doesn't need to look too far ahead. But if he is to seize the opportunity his preternatural ability offers him, it must surely be now. While obvious he feels a lot more comfortable in America than Europe, isn't life best lived when leaving your comfort zone? Casual and fun as it might be in the States, as far as his cycling career is concerned, his immense talent and capability quite clearly lie well beyond that. In retrospect, Chris Horner, also scarred by a lonely experience as a neo-pro, waited too long to make a return to Europe, though nevertheless went on to win the Vuelta in 2013, at 41 the oldest winner of a Grand Tour.

Morton is a man in search of new adventures. Big adventures. He should at least give Europe another crack. At 24, he has little to lose, and so much to gain. Besides, he can always go back to the U.S., at which point The Donald or Hillary will be President.