“If you’re a little bit anxious or uncertain or it scares you, then it’s probably something you should try and take on.”
Lachlan Morton’s approach to life isn’t for everyone.
From the outside, the Australian cyclist appears a glutton for punishment, but he insists it’s all about carpeing that diem.
“I try to just think of the best way I could spend the next day,” Morton says.
“I look for where I am, what the weather is going to be like, the different places I could go and basically just map my day out that way.
“Usually it just involves some sort of big bike ride generally.”
Big bike rides are Morton’s thing.
A professional with the EF Education-Nippo team, he has ridden a Giro d’Italia and a Vuelta a España, though he also participates in mountain biking races and has taken on several more adventurous side missions such as filming a documentary alongside his brother while they rode the 2,500km from their hometown of Port Macquarie to Uluru.
Morton’s latest quest, “The Alternate Tour”, had him bikepacking every stage, and the transfers, in this year’s Tour de France.
While the peleton rode 3,414km, climbing 42,200 metres in 21 days, Morton took on a gruelling 5,510km, hauling his gear up 65,500 metres of climbing.
The 29-year-old also had to source his own food, repair any mechanical issues himself and find a place to set up his bivvy every night.
All while raising nearly $900,000 for World Bicycle Relief – a charity which aims to mobilise people in developing regions.
“I guess at heart I’m still just a cycling fan,” Morton tells Sporting News of his motivation for attempting the Alt Tour.
“So for me, the idea of trying to take on the route in the traditional format was really interesting.
“I like riding in the self-supported style. I feel like I get a lot out of it and I guess finally it was probably the fact that I wasn’t sure if I could do it and that made me like a bit nervous.”
Morton rated his chances of beating the peleton to Paris “60-40” before setting off, but a knee injury, unfavourable weather conditions and mechanical problems had him battling some demons early in the journey.
“I was like, ‘Alright, I’m a week in, I’ve got another two weeks, is this really possible?’” he said.
“Deep down, I wasn’t going to stop, so it was more of working out, ‘How do I get around this seemingly impossible hurdle?’ and just problem solving.
“It’s generally what ultra exercise is about, just problem solving really.”
With a career’s worth of endurance event experience behind him, Morton knows better than most how to embrace the struggle and overcome the moments of self-doubt.
He held the Everesting – riding up and down a hill until you’ve climbed the height of Mount Everest – 8,848m (7 hours, 29 minutes) – world record last year amid a host of other sinew-straining achievements.
“I think if the challenge is big enough, there’s probably a point in every day when you question your ability to do it or not,” Morton says.
“And then it’s about if you can just overcome that difficult moment, day after day after day.
“The more you do it, the easier it becomes to get past that moment.
“That’s probably why the first week is generally the most difficult because your body is revolting to be like, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this.’
“The reality of taking on something really difficult is very different to the idea, because the idea is always quite romantic and you have this idea of, ‘Yeah, I’m going to push my limits and I’m going to dig really deep’ and then you get out there and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this just sucks. I’m cold and I’m hungry and I hurt, I just want to stop.’
“You slowly find ways to adapt to your new reality and what those discomforts are.
“That’s why ultimately when you come out the other side, it’s a very empowering experience because you sort of face that on a daily basis.”
Morton departed Brest shortly after the peleton on the Tour’s opening stage and rolled into Paris 16 days later, five days ahead of the 141 riders who finished La Grande Boucle.
Along the way he ran into continuously miserable weather, leaving his normal cycling shoes waterlogged, while his knee could no longer take the stress put on it by the clip-ins used on a road bike.
“I had to ride flat pedals because of my knee and then wet feet in cycling shoes as well, day after day for 12 hours, you basically just start to get trench foot,” he says.
He bought a bike, commandeered its pedals and got himself new footwear – some cheap sandals.
“It sort of turned into the perfect tool for the job,” he says.
“I think from the outside it was a very obvious problem. You look at someone riding a road bike like that, you’re like, ‘Oh, they should have bike shoes on.’
“The first thing people would ask was, ‘How are the sandals?’”
Morton’s progress around France was tracked by a community of supporters, or “dotwatchers”, who’d often meet him out on the road for a ride, a chat or to offer a helping hand.
One gifted him a pair of carbon inserts which gave some structure to the sandals, helping him dry out his feet and easing the pain on his knee.
Another made him question reality.
“I was riding into Carcassonne and it was this block headwind and it was a day that in theory should have been easy, but it was actually turning out to be really difficult,” he recalls.
“This young French kid that was coming the other way, turned around and he didn’t speak a word of English and my French is basically non-existent.
“We were somehow stumbling through a conversation and he started talking about rugby league and I was like, ‘I didn’t know rugby league was a thing here’ and then he was like, ‘Yeah, Manly Sea Eagles, Manly Sea Eagles.’
“I was thinking, ‘Am I hallucinating here?’
“It’s country France and a young teenage kid is into the Manly Sea Eagles.
“He said he gets online and watches their games. I was just like, ‘Has someone put this guy up to this? This can’t be legitimate.’
“It was really nice. It actually lifted me out of a bit of a hole, it was like a connection to home, in a place that felt really, really far from home.”
While the various encounters on the road were mostly welcome, Morton’s fortunes occasionally contrasted too significantly with those joining him for a short ride.
“You could be having one of the most difficult parts of your life, deep in the mountains, 12 hours in and you’re trying to just get to somewhere to camp and someone turns up fresh and for them, they’re just excited and out on an easy hour ride and then they’d enter your world and you’re deep within your own head,” he says.
“Overwhelmingly it’s really nice… to have people appreciate you just doing something that you like, it’s pretty amazing.”
When Newspaper men Henri Desgrange and Géo Lefèvre proposed a publicity stunt which became the first Tour de France in 1903, they weren’t sure it was even possible.
Six stages, averaging over 400km each, pushing the sport’s pioneers to their absolute limit.
Morton hoped to explore this spirit on his journey.
After finally making it through the seemingly endless climbs of the Pyrenees, he took on a monster final stage of 570km to Paris, riding through the night to arrive at 5am.
“The longest ever Tour de France stage is 482 kilometres,” he says.
“I wanted to do that at some point just for the experience and to get my head around what racing for that distance would be like.
“I also wanted to put something on the end that pushed it further than anything I’d done.
“That just meant riding all the way to Paris. For me, it was a very fitting way to end it.
“I wanted to end it on a way, not just get to the edge of Paris and then have a nice, easy 100km cruise through the city. I wanted it to be difficult.”
It wasn’t all soul-sapping though.
While Morton’s teammates were wrapped up in the “sterile” race-hotel-race-hotel monotony of the Tour, his version allowed him the opportunity to savour the experience.
“I stopped for a beer every day on the ride. I’d always wait until I was within 100km, but normally closer to 50km from where I wanted to park up,” Morton says.
“Sometimes it would just be a servo beer. Sometimes you could find somewhere nice, and it was just 10 minutes to sit down and look around and see what’s happening and just observe normal life for a minute.
“I always just looked forward to having those 10 or 15 minutes each day just to myself.
“I guess it’s a bit of a throwback to the original days but, compared to the amount of things I was consuming, one beer is a drop in the ocean.
“If you chase a beer with three baguettes and a piece of quiche, it’s pretty insignificant.”
Booze and the Tour de France have a storied history together.
On stage 17 of the 1935 Tour, Frenchman Julien Moineau pinched more than 15 minutes off his rivals after a group of riders were tempted by some friendly locals offering beer.
Even today, the leader of the general classification and his teammates will enjoy, or at least pose with, a glass of champagne on the final stage.
The French inclination to embrace life’s simple pleasures suits Morton.
“I think my big realisation was it was such a different experience than you have in a regular grand tour,” he says.
“When you ride every kilometer, you’re not in a bus doing a transfer or in a hotel, you get a real sense of the country and the terrain, the people you meet.
“You’re much more connected to where you are.
“I also realised that as difficult as what I was doing was, it was nothing compared to the original one.
“Okay, I was carrying my stuff and my bike was really heavy, but I had a GPS computer and a phone and my bike is made out of carbon fiber and the roads are paved.
“There’s so many difficulties that they would have endured in the first tour that I’ve got even bigger respect for now having had a very small taste of it.”
Morton says those mod cons, particularly a music-laden smartphone which helped drown out the rasping sounds coming from the bone-dry bottom bracket on his trusty steed, enhanced the experience.
“Hamish and Andy is the one podcast that I can do,” Morton says.
“Everything else just ends up pissing me off.
“I had a bunch of audio books and stuff but there’s something about listening, when people are talking in a very calm and measured voice when you’re doing something that’s really difficult, that gets very agitating.
“So basically I just listened to music. I had a playlist of 2500 songs and I just had it on shuffle.
“Certain moments you’d have to look for something specific to get you out of a hole.
“It might be something to remind you of home or a certain person or a time, or sometimes you want a mindless techno track that you would never otherwise listen to, but it seems to be the right thing at the moment.
“I think the experience would have been not as nice without music. It just adds to the whole thing for me.”
What’s next? Something.
Morton’s head had barely hit the pillow for a “magical” sleep in a comfy hotel bed in Paris before he began considering his next adventure.
“I’ve got lots of ideas but it’s just a matter of honing in on one,” he says.
“It’s working out which one motivates you in the right way.
“If you actually want to be able to achieve and push yourself in that sort of scale you have to be very internally motivated and doing something that you have a genuine connection to, not just picking something because someone mentioned it and you thought maybe it’s a good idea.
“I haven’t found the right thing but for sure it’ll come. I’m already putting in big days on the bike again pretty much raring to go.
“It won’t be long before I’m ready to put a circle on the calendar and chuck something in there.”
Having fallen in love with cycling while watching the Tour as a kid, Morton says it remains an itch he’d like to scratch.
The only issue is he’s blessed with a team and sponsors which enable his tendency to take the alternate route.
“I’d still love to ride the Tour de France, the real deal,” he says.
“I saw it in person when I was like 11 years old and that’s when I decided that I wanted to be a bike rider.
“I think if I never did it, it would be a small regret.
“The amount of preparation that goes into preparing yourself for the Tour de France, it would be like a 12-month project in which I couldn’t just duck out and do a week-long ultra race somewhere or go and spend two weeks doing mountain bike races.
“There’s a lot of people who want to be on that team. I’m still umming and ahing if I can give up all the other fun things that I get to do to just chase the Tour.
“But if there’s any event that you’re going to do that for, it’s the Tour, so I’m thinking about it.”
Lachlan’s insane Alt Tour achievement was helped in part by recovery tracking on his WHOOP band. Check out how he compared to his teammates on the Tour here.