Dominance, diversity and avoiding the rabbit hole: Lachlan Morton on the changing face of gravel

The Australian rider discusses his work with Team Amani and his new mindset when it comes to chasing results

Lachlan Morton wants to take things back to basics. The EF Education-EasyPost rider has just finished the opening race in the LifeTime Grand Prix Series, the Sea Otter Classic, and as he sits sipping an iced coffee, his face is still shadowed with dust. Morton finished the 67-mile mountain bike event ten minutes faster than the year before, but he still only ended up in 17th place – a sign of a fast-developing and evolving sport. Broadly, Morton views this as a positive thing, but personally, it’s making it trickier for the Australian to reconcile with his own ambitions when it comes to racing.

“I'm glad to see it grow like this and I think cycling needs it. I wanted to see this event become what it is,” Morton explains. “But gravel racing is now at the point of where road racing was when I left. It’s not as crazy as the WorldTour is now, but it’s going down that route. I don't feel bad about that and I think it’s needed, but my position in it is like, okay, what am I trying to achieve here? I love getting out there and racing, but there's only so far I'm willing to go down the rabbit hole, because I've been down the rabbit hole before and I don't want to go back to that place, ever.”

It’s true that the riders who are now winning the world’s biggest gravel events, namely Keegan Swenson who won last year’s LifeTime Grand Prix and finished fifth at the UCI Gravel World Championships in 2023, are taking on the same – if not more – training load than WorldTour professionals. Swenson has dominated the gravel racing scene in the US for the last two years, something that Morton says can be put down to the American rider’s meticulous preparation.

“Physically, these races suit him a lot and he has a really good technical background from World Cup mountain bike racing. He's had opportunities to race in the WorldTour, but he’s like no, [gravel racing] is my WorldTour. That’s his mindset,” Morton says. “I've had some insight into why he approaches races and he does prepare in a way that I think is a level above anyone else. It’s not that other people aren't trying but he thinks about everything. He shows up even more ready than anyone else which is why he’s so dominant. I have a lot of respect for what he's doing.”

Morton argues that having a rider of Swenson’s quality taking gravel racing seriously is helping to lift the gravel discipline, encouraging others to try and reach the level of the American super talent. He also adds that Swenson has often beaten road professionals who come to race gravel and assume they will be a “shoo in” for victory, proving the quality of racing in the United States. For the Australian himself, however, he points out that he has little desire to search for every marginal gain in order to challenge riders like Swenson.

“It seems like the industry has this obsession with performance at the moment. If you look up cycling online now, there's so much information. Like, you need these gels and this many grams per hour and this aero equipment. It's so wild. I’m like, damn, if you were just getting into cycling now, you would think you need all this stuff just to do it, but you don't. I've got a strong need to get back to basics in a non-competitive way, so I can just enjoy riding my bike,” Morton says.

In order to rediscover the enjoyment that Morton has found lacking in his current racing, he plans to go back to his roots and enjoy riding in its simplest form. In 2014, Morton and his brother Gus, rode across the outback from Port McQuarie inland to Urulu in Australia. The 12-day, 2,500km trek was chronicled in a short film titled "Thereabouts", depicting the simple joy the brothers experienced while riding together into the wilderness, pushing each other physically and talking with the locals they met in the small towns along the way. Morton took that trip in order to try and reinvigorate his passion for the road season ahead and now, ten years later, he’s looking to find that same inspiration in the Australian countryside.

“I feel a strong pull to go and do something back in Australia and do something in some sort of ultra format there. I haven't done a big ride there in a while and I have realised that there's so much in Australia I haven't seen yet,” Morton says.

It’s not only in his own riding that Morton is finding more fulfilment in cycling. He recently partnered with Jordan Schleck of Team Amani to race the Cape Epic as a pair. Morton is heavily involved with the Amani project, which aims to build the sport of cycling in East Africa, and is able to pass on the invaluable knowledge he has picked up racing road and gravel over the years to the riders on the Amani project.

“Jordan got into the LifeTime series this year and we thought that doing the Cape Epic would be the perfect preparation for the season. You gain a lot of experience racing each day and you can see areas of strengths and weaknesses. You can also do it in an environment that we could control, not putting a bunch of pressure on him, but just trying to make it like a very productive week. It was a really good stepping stone for him as an athlete,” Morton explains.

With a world-class training facility currently being built in Iten, Kenya (the home of many successful African marathon runners), Morton details how quickly the Amani programme is developing. He explains that the project now involves a full-time coach, a development team and a better level of preparation generally for events.

“I give the coach some ideas, but in general, it’s more just me trying to share my experience and give my input, while still leaving space for the rider to do it in their own way. The last thing I want to do is tell someone what to do, it’s more about just being available to share information and fill in that gap of experience,” Morton says. “The thing I really respected from the beginning of the project is that it’s not a charity. Their team set out to improve so that you can grow up in East Africa as a bike rider and compete at the highest level.”

Gravel racing is the perfect discipline for team Amani to grow within – its relative infancy as a sport means that there are fewer barriers to entry and, without the UCI’s involvement, there is less red tape when it comes to trying to start a gravel team.

“To have a road team it's a lot more difficult and it's a lot more expensive. There's a lot more hurdles to jump over before you can compete against the highest level,” Morton says. “Gravel is a good leveller for that. It’s progressing at a good rate within an evolving sport. It’s not going to happen overnight but they are doing a really good job.”

Above all, it seems like what Morton is searching for in order to rediscover his motivation in the sport is a sense of newness. As he admits, he’s lived the life of a WorldTour athlete, and it’s not a place he wants to go back to in order to win races again. As the gravel scene changes and the level increases, the Australian appears motivated to ensure he doesn't lose hold of what he loves most about sport: a sense of challenge, discovery and using his talent to make cycling a better and more welcoming space for all.

“When I’ve spent time with Team Amani in Iten, I’ve noticed the amazing energy there,” Morton says. “Spending time with those athletes, they have a vastly different outlook on life, which is very refreshing.”

With thanks to Fizik for facilitating this interview

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