A Tale of Two (Colorado) Trails: Lachlan Morton’s MTB Progression

“I wasn’t going back because I wanted to go dramatically faster but because I wanted to put myself in the same situations I was in three years before and be more comfortable. I knew that the only way to do that was to try to do it fast because that requires you to push yourself to a place where you are kind of on the edge of your capability. And every time I reached that limit this time, I was comfortable, in a way. I wasn’t stressed whereas every time I’d reach that point three years before I’d just crumble.”

In 2019, Lachlan Morton rode the Colorado Trail for the first time, starting in Durango and finishing three days and 22 hours later in Denver. He went back this summer, riding the trail in the opposite direction in three days and ten hours, and chopping nine hours off any other recorded time. However, after sitting down with the EF Education Easy-post athlete, it seems that speed was a byproduct of the feat, not the primary focus. Read on for a more detailed look behind the clock, from my conversation with Lachlan about how he went from surviving the CT in 2019 to establishing a new level on this iconic route this year. 

On an early fall evening in Boulder, I met up with Lachlan at a local taproom. He arrived by bike, of course, in a loose long sleeve Rapha x Palace t-shirt over bib shorts. We sat outside and drank stouts—my first of the cooler Fall season—as he generously answered my queries into his origin and development as a bike rider. We had been trying to land on a meeting time between his various engagements for a few weeks at that point, and it was only over beers that I learned he was off to Europe the very next morning. Still throughout the conversation, as the sun sank and autumn’s early chill crept on us, he seemed thoughtful and unhurried, and the longer we talked the more I grasped how his intrinsic equanimity has surely played a role in his bikepacking efforts, but also how the latter has further rewarded an even temperament.

PC: @jsaragossa @camidecavalls

22c or Bust

Hearing about his childhood, one gets the impression that Lachlan was more rigid with himself growing up. Motivated by the classic sibling dynamic, he began racing bikes at age eight to keep up with his older brother, Gus, who’s two years his senior. In adolescence, he describes his relationship with riding and training as “obsessive,” and by his teenage years he was convinced that racing the Tour de France was the pinnacle expression of the sport.

When I asked Lachlan when he first became aware of mountain biking, he points to his teenage years in Australia, while implying that it might as well have been a different sport, “My life revolved around training and going faster and, in my head [then], if it’s not road racing it’s going to make me slower. I didn’t make any connection between what I was doing and mountain biking—it was this totally different thing.” He said the possibility of a multi-faceted rider like Mathieu van der Poel (champion of multiple Classics, 2021 Dutch Olympic MTB team, multi-time Cyclocross World Champion, etc.) would have blown his world apart.

On paper, after high school and through his early twenties, the single-minded rider was seemingly making all the requisite progress to fulfill his World Tour ambitions—living in Europe, riding for Garmin-Sharp—cycling was his existence. In film and popular culture, this extreme dedication is often valorized: eat, sleep, ____ (insert activity that you must sacrifice your life to). But when you’ve poured all of yourself into something and still feel a nagging emptiness, the grind quickly reveals itself as unsustainable. Or, rather, it’s a very confronting thing to realize that there’s a dream you’ve been chasing your whole life and you’ve woken up to find that you’ve arrived in that long desired, elusive scenario but the reality doesn’t look so rose-colored afterall. Of course, for many athletes, the pursuit of ultimate optimization—at least for a time—is worth whatever it may be costing them.

For Lachlan, the allure of escape, adventure and—I’ll posit here—individual expression was proving to be more enticing. (In fact, early on in his European racing career, he bought himself a bike trailer, for shopping, which he soon began loading down with camping gear and, much to the alarm of his racing compatriots, would pedal off into the mountains for weekend excursions.)

Off Road: An Introduction

During his formative years riding in Australia, he points to any unpaved terrain as being incompatible with the 22c tires that were de rigeur for road riders of the era. As he says, “In Australia, if you ride a road bike on dirt roads, 90% of the time you get a flat tire—they’re super rough. Back then we’d run like 22c tires—it wasn’t practical. [As a result] riding pavement in the country in Australia, nothing loops—it’s all out-and-backs. I was just sick of that. I’d done so many hours in my training area. I didn’t start riding offroad until, maybe 17yr old.” When I asked for clarification about “offroad” Lachlan said that yes, he literally meant off pavement so that he could start piecing together loops and escape his old training haunts.

Moving to Boulder, CO in 2010 would greatly facilitate this new mindset, where the aesthetics of a route would start to become more important than the training opportunity it presented. “With road riding, everything was a training session, everything was regimented, and that [getting off the road] started to break that, a little bit, for me. When I moved to Colorado in 2010 I started riding a lot more dirt. Here, I could ride a road bike on all the dirt roads and I was like ‘this is great,’ all the dirt roads are quieter, you could do much cooler loops. From there, I guess I got what you could call my first gravel bike.”

Thereabouts: Australia

What happens next is one of those strangely pronounced and poetic turning points—at least in retrospect—that so rarely punctuate the course of one’s life events. Thoroughly disillusioned by the constraints of professional cycling, Lachlan returned to Australia in the offseason of 2013 and, with Gus (a former pro himself), took on a 12-day/1,250-mile ride from the country’s eastern coast, in Port Macquarie, to the central waypoint of Uluru, a project they later dubbed as Thereabouts. The accompanying low-budget film that showed the brothers’ natural charisma alongside clear rebukes of the sport’s ingrained traditions (riding sans helmet, in t-shirts and flapping button-downs or sometimes even shirtless) became akin to an indie single that somehow manages to break into the narrow confines of the Billboard Top 100. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it and the following two Thereabouts films have become mainstream cycling’s version of cult classics.

The aforementioned first gravel bike made its appearance for the ride, as Lachlan describes, “In 2013, we built a custom Mosaic for the Thereabouts Australia [with 32c tires]. That was my first non-road bike but I wanted everything to feel the same as my road bike. The geometry I just kind of matched from an R3 Cervelo. But now I ride it and I’m like ‘oh this [setup] kind of sucks for offroad riding.”

Readers of this site may immediately want to know what style the brothers completed the ride in—they were supported but that was hardly the point. Although unsupported bikepacking and ultra-distance riding was already thriving, albeit still in a pretty underground way, for the Mortons this ride was paradigm-shattering and a rediscovery of the sport they’d both become enamored with as kids. For Lachlan, Thereabouts offered an alternative way to experience the bike, “in that ride, I just discovered this world outside of racing—I just hated it at that point and was looking to do anything outside of that.”

PC: Jordan Clark Haggard

But what does all of this have to do with mountain biking? I’d argue that in order for Lachlan to ever point his wheels down a slice of singletrack, the blinders of the race horse mindset had to be lifted and, more importantly, they had to reveal something else worth chasing. The freedom and adventure that Thereabouts encapsulated was this revelation.

The psycho-emotional effects of the inaugural Thereabouts journey would simmer for the next few years as Lachlan raced another year with Garmin, then Jellybelly, before finally landing with EF. Although the Morton brothers sought to recreate the Thereabouts experience with more roguish rides—one from Boulder to Moab, and another in Colombia—it wasn’t until EF and Rapha bought into the Alternative Calendar in 2019 that Lachlan’s trajectory as a rider fully changed course.

2019: The Alternative Calendar & the Colorado Trail #1

This transition has been well documented and it was a year of firsts: that season, as the gravel racing phenomenon continued to mount in the U.S., the EF team made waves with their appearance at Unbound. Later, Lachlan went on to experience his first self-supported ultra-distance event in the GB Duro, got a taste for hiking his bike at the Three Peaks, came back stateside for an introduction to mountain bike racing at the Leadville Trail 100, and ended the season with a soul-crushing lap on the Colorado Trail. (Oh, and he won a stage at the now-defunct Tour of Utah the week before his CTR attempt, and while that would have been his calendar highlight less than a decade prior, now it feels like an afterthought to mention. How’s that for a zeitgeist shift?)

PC: @sean__greene

It was while in-transit home after his first-place finish at the GB Duro that he decided to commit to a run on the 530-mile high alpine route that is the Colorado Trail, “I thought [GB Duro] was such an amazing experience, what’s the next thing I can do? So I entered the CTR at the airport. But, I’d fully forgotten about Leadville and then there was Tour of Utah which I had to do also. I did like no research—in hindsight, it’s amazing that I didn’t get into serious trouble. I rode the exact same setup I had at Leadville, full on cross country tires, 100mm travel bike, no dropper—my setup was wack—and I just headed out.”

When I asked what the low points from that first CTR run were, half-laughing half-sighing, he said, “Oh man, there were so many,” before going onto describe finding himself at the course highpoint, at 13,000’ on Cataract Ridge, at midnight unprepared to sleep with just a liner bag and bivy; Sargents Mesa; the last 50km to Mt. Princeton; losing his SPOT tracker; and, finally, having his lights die in the last two hours and duct taping his phone to his front bag to navigate by dim iPhone flashlight. Although he managed to finish in an objectively blazing time of sub four days, Lachlan describes his biggest takeaway and frustration with the route as generally being “very uncomfortable with how I just managed to stumble through it.” Clear-eyed about being sorely underprepared—from a technical riding standpoint as well as being under-equipped mentally to deal with the intangible demands—he determined that he would eventually go back and redo the route when he was ready and, in the meantime, he had to “just get better at it all.” The next three years–now in uncluttered hindsight–seem like quiet, determined, and diligent preparation.

PC: @sean__greene

After his self-admitted humbling experience on the Colorado Trail, Lachlan says he knew he would need to spend a lot of time on the mountain bike to reach his desired level of competency. On risk taking, he reflects that he’s not a very sendy person while grimacing a bit at the word. “I need to be 95% sure I can do something,” he says, going on to add that, “I need to be sure I’ve acquired the skills that a feature, etc., requires before I will…. ‘send’ it. But that doesn’t mean you don’t do stuff that scares you.” And while he may not have approached the mountain biking learning curve with the carcass-flinging-hail-mary inhibition that some natural, gravity-eschewing athletes possess, his approach of steadily chipping away paired with his resolute inner drive has obviously worked in its own way.

While spending the fall and winter months following his first CT in Girona, he describes developing a relationship with a skilled, local rider named Ramon, who in hindsight Lachlan realizes was always presenting him with challenges right on the edge of his capabilities. He describes one memorable instance, “I remember this one feature that was a real turning point for me. It was this really steep feature, like a rock roll with these sketchy crates, just outside Girona. I went out to ride it with Ramon, and just didn’t think I could get it, I was like ‘no, not doing it, not doing it.’ Then I got up at like 5am the next morning thinking about it and was like I know I can go and do that—there’s nothing about it you can’t do—it just takes that little bit of commitment. I rode it and it was super straightforward. Once I rode that one feature, I applied that [process] to a lot of things.”

2020: Staying Busy Amidst the Pandemic

Back in Boulder in early 2020, he spent several days learning foundational skills with renowned instructor Lee McCormack in the lead-up to what would have been his first Cape Epic mtb stage race in South Africa. Of course, the global pandemic had other ideas and the race—and life in general—ended up being canceled and athletes flocked to the airports to return to their home countries before the gates to foreign travel closed during those dark and confusing months.

But despite the lockdowns and race cancellations, Lachlan stayed busy. In May of that year, he set a then-FKT on the Kokopelli Trail, endured two record-setting Everest feats separated by just a week (which, bizarrely, NPR picked up), and then headed to Europe for the second half of the season, where he completed a 43-hour push at the Badlands race (without the audio distraction of a phone, I might add) and played the pro roadie part at the Giro d’Italia. Throughout this time, I’m also sure that he had plenty of transformative days out on the mountain bike that never made headlines.

It’s funny that at the end of this (by all accounts) busy season, when asked by his brother in a podcast conversation “what’s left for you to do in cycling,” he quickly rattled off several ultra-distance and mountain biking objectives. One could assume he was just getting started.

PC: @jsaragossa @camidecavalls

2021: Cape Epic, the Alt Tour and a Mental Shift

Once the world was back to normal(ish) the following year, he finally did have the opportunity to race the Cape Epic alongside Kenyan rider Kenneth Karaya but mechanical issues left the experience, in some ways, lacking. But the real high water mark of the year, and arguably of his riding tenure at this point, was taking on the Tour de France, in the only way that would make sense for a rider with his increasingly unconventional preferences. Dubbed the Alt Tour, in addition to riding each stage of the Tour de France self-supported for the project, he also pedaled the transfers which added nontrivial mileage between the tape marked courses, ultimately with the goal of beating the peloton to Paris, which he did handily by five days.

While he’d taken clear and intentional steps to increasing his proficiency on the trails, he points to the Alt Tour as being a pivotal experience in navigating the mental hardships that often accompany multi-day efforts. As he says, “There’s a lot of those things you can’t change about yourself—I don’t think—it’s more about understanding how to deal with the aftermath of your emotional response. The Alt Tour helped me with that because it was just a long period and long time in your own head. There wasn’t a huge amount of stress on that ride—it was just a long time with long days—so when things get bad you kind of have more time to think about ‘okay what’s going here, why does this happen?’ and you can be like, ‘tomorrow when this happens, let’s try music, or let’s just force myself to eat more than I think I need to eat. Or, maybe you just need to stop and sit down for a second and get some sunshine on your face, reassess and have a bit of perspective then keep going.’ So I could try a lot of those things and put them into process.”

PC: @sean__greene

2022: Lots of Racing & the Colorado Trail #2

While I’m not sure the CTR was yet on his mind, much of Lachlan’s 2022 season seemed to be hell-bent on technical progression as is reflected in his dizzying calendar, half of which were mountain bike races. February: Gran Camiño (Road) Stage Race, Cami de Cavalls 360 FKT. March: 1,000-mile ride for Ukraine. April: Sea Otter Classic, The Traka. May: Race La Ruta. June: Unbound 200 (DNF), Migration Gravel, Evolution Gravel. July: Crusher in the Tushar. August: Breck Epic, Leadville Trail 100. September: Park City Point to Point, Colorado Trail ITT—

On his first impression of mountain biking, before his introductory run on the Colorado Trail in 2019, Lachlan recalls the new-to-him side of cycling as, “Fun, I just want it to be fun. I know my personality and if I get too into something…if I start racing these, I’m just going to ruin it.” One could argue, as I did, that this statement is markedly at odds with the three years that separated his initial ride from Durango to Denver and the one he would complete in September, 2022. In response, he offered this by way of clarification, realizing that his prediction had not come to pass, “I’ve actually never been worried that I’m ruining it, I think because I have so much fun. The mentality is totally different. The mentality I was worried about I now realize was kind of attached and engrained with my relationship with road bikes, where I could be obsessive and competitive and, overall, have an unhealthy mindset. It was such a departure from the riding and racing I was used to that was never really an issue. Mountain biking is very individual (in racing), there’s less tactics, less dependence on teammates, so you have a lot more control over the experience that you’re having. So I’ve been able to control the experience I’ve had in a way. It feels a lot like play.”

PC: @sean__greene

Perhaps this idea of controlling an experience is the linchpin of his attraction to longer distance, often solo, events. Or rather, walking the balance of retaining a feeling of capability in the face of unforeseeable challenge. At one point, in describing the mental and emotional side of ultra-distance pursuits, he said that, during the Alt Tour, someone recommended he listen to David Goggins, which seems wholly antithetical to his mental approach, ”I just couldn’t. One of those people who’s like, ‘You just gotta toughen up,’ I just don’t really believe in that. It’s all very personal—basically you have to understand how to frame a negative situation into a positive mindset. But there were still moments when it took me like two or three hours to do that because it’s hard.”

I think this is what people mean when they deploy the cliche phrase, “battling your inner demons,” but I much prefer the way Lachlan and Gus bantered about it in that aforementioned podcast where the process is more akin to finding out your psycho-emotional house has “a whole other garage you didn’t know about.” Chalk it up to Aussie speak but, to me, the lightheartedness rang with a little less self-judgment and more with curiosity for patient introspection.

In the context of the Colorado Trail, he pointed to being unphased by sections that had proved traumatic in 2019 as the most satisfying marker of progress. Whereas Mt. Princeton had been a standout nadir before, he describes being in an unbelievably better headspace this go-around. Arriving there at 4am, his thought was “I’m doing so much better this time than when I last saw this, I’m fresh! I could ride back from here. How did you ever make it last time?”

PC: @sean__greene

As Lachlan has shifted away from traditional road racing—as I understand, 2023 will be his first year as a supported EF rider without World Tour and road racing contract stipulations—I think his draw to trail riding is a physical representation of a mental shift in where he finds motivation. While his early road career was, as he describes, marked by ego and the desire for external validation, this transition to a discipline where he had no preconceived expectations and no history allowed him to clarify his motivation for lining up, at a race, or a trailhead. Along the way, he’s made his riding about more than himself by intertwining several objectives with fundraising efforts; in fact, this Colorado Trail ride was dedicated to his recently-lost friend and rider, Sule Kangangi. Furthermore, without the external sense of obligation to a team where overall performance might hinge on your contributions to another rider’s day, and some distance from more youthful ambitions, it seems that, on the best days, he knows why he’s out there:

“I think it’s really important to be mindful of the fact that you’ve put yourself in the situation because you want the difficulty of it, and you’ve got to be in a space where you can’t blame anyone. Because that’s where your brain wants to go—it wants to be angry at something or someone but, in reality, no one’s put you in that situation… But if you could just control all of your emotions, it would be less of a life experience. At the same time, you don’t want to let your emotions get in the way of you achieving what you’re trying to achieve.”

So while the route may change—from racing one-day events, or long-hauling it across the state of Colorado—the same objective remains. It’s about liking who you are while you’re out there.

You can see more from Lachlan’s time on the Colorado Trail in the film below. Due to the presence of media, his time is not acknowledged as the official CT FKT.