There must be something in the Rocky Mountain air - or lack thereof. For the second time in as many weeks, Lachlan Morton, just last year a stagiare for Garmin-Sharp dipping his toes into the world of World Tour cycling, is leading a major stage race in the United States. On the heels of a barnstorming ride to win Stage 3 of the Tour of Utah, Morton infiltrated the lake breakaway on yesterday's Stage 2 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and was a key aggresor in the waning kilometers, ultimately forcing the elite selection of three - and then two - that saw Matthias Frank of BMC win the stage. Behind Frank, Morton took second on the stage with enough of a time gap on the field to take the lead by 2 seconds on Frank and 11 seconds on Peter Sagan.
Last year, some attentive fans caught notice of Morton at the Pro Cycling Challenge, but then it was more for the fabulous wavy hair this young Garmin stagiare from Austraila. It was hard not to notice the hair, really, especially with teammates constantly posting updates on the hair situation inside the team RV as the race went on. And while the hair is still there - now accompanied by a wisp of a mustache - we have more and more reasons to notice the 21-year old now.
Morton first caught the eye of Garmin-Sharp director Jonathan Vaughters in 2009 when he spent the summer months racing not in his native Australia but in Colorado and the surrounding states. By the time the 2010 season started, he was on the Howelesko Partners development team Vaughters ran. That year, the team received an invitation to the Tour of Utah, then a staple on the North American racing circuit but not open to World Tour teams as it is now. As an 18-year old, Morton was required to race on restricted junior gearing against teams such as Fly V Australia, Bissell, and Jamis-Sutter Home. Somehow, with a 52x14t the largest gear on his bike, Morton not only avoided getting dropped at 55kph but rode his way into 7th in the overall classification by the end of the mountainous race.
You can be forgiven for not noticing the kid then. Utah was smaller and most of the attention on youth in the race was directed at Taylor Phinney, who won the prologue and individual time trial. The following year provided more of the same promising yet easy to miss results. Morton, now on the Chipotle-Garmin Development Team, placed sixth sixth in the UCI 2.HC rated Tour of Lankawi. You probably remember that race as the breakout for Andrea Guardini, the young Italian sprinter who won a staggering five stages in dominant fashion reminiscent of Mark Cavendish's best sprints. Later in the spring, he finished second at the Cascade Classic and third at the Tour of the Gila, once again riding superbly in the North American stage race circuit. From there, Morton's progression was steady, notching a few decent results in Europe before ascending to a trial run at Garmin-Sharp at the end of the season. Now, he's in the big leagues to stay.
At six feet tall and a mere 140lbs (1.80m / 62kg), Morton is impossibly skinny along the same lines of Andy Schleck. However, the youngster seems to have a little more time trial motor in him than Schleck, as evidenced by his early overall placings in Utah, Cascade, and Gila. More crucially, he won the time trial stage of the 2010 Tour de l'Abiti on his way to winning the overall classification of what is often considered the most prestigious junior stage race in the World. Stage race wins beckon for the Australian once he adjusts to the pace of World Tour racing.
Will Lachlan's hair stand atop the podium at the end of the Pro Cycling Challenge this week? He has one of the strongest teams in the race behind him and no longer faces competition from Team Sky's impressive list of riders after their protected rider Joe Dombroski left the race after suffering numerous nosebleeds. But does Morton have the day to day resiliency and calmness in mind needed to protect his lead against Tejay van Garderen? In Utah two weeks ago, he lost the leader's jersey the day after his solo escapade, likely suffering from expending so much energy the prior day. It would be a surprise if he reversed course and held on to win in Colorado... or would it?