Lachlan Morton, the maverick Australian adventure racer signed to the EF Nippo team, will ride every stage of this year’s Tour de France – including all transfers between stages – not among his peers, but on his own behind the race convoy, with the aim of reaching the Champs Élysées in Paris on 18 July ahead of the Tour peloton.
Morton, who combines World Tour road racing with competing in gravel and endurance racing, says his solo unassisted ride will be an attempt to reconnect with the original spirit of the Tour, in which riders raced through the night, slept rough in fields and ditches and ate where and when they could.
When the Tour was first held in the early 20th century, stages started before dawn and lasted hundreds of kilometres. Riders stopped in cafés to eat and would fix their own bikes along the way. Their progress was monitored at checkpoints, but Morton will be followed online using GPS, by fans known as “dot-watchers”.
“I just think that era of cycling was really exciting,” Morton said. “At that time, the Tour director basically wanted one finisher, so it was a totally different sport compared to what it is now. The scope and scale of the stages then were really inspiring.”
While the 2021 Tour peloton will race 3,383km, Morton’s alternative Tour (or Alt Tour) will cover 5,510km and is scheduled to take in 65,500 metres of climbing. He is likely to also ride on rest days, while the peloton recovers from its efforts. Morton will watch his teammates leave Brest on Saturday and then roll away from the same start line an hour later, to ensure he does not become tangled up in the Tour’s lengthy convoy and its associated road closures.
“We thought about doing it last year during the Giro, but in the end I had to ride the race,” the 29-year-old adds. “We kept throwing the idea around and then thought about doing it during the Tour. It’s a celebration of the original Tour and what it was all about to begin with. I realised it was going to be a huge undertaking. I’m not even sure if it’s possible.
“We’ve had to really dig into how not to be caught in road closures or the convoy, but I think inevitably it will happen. The biggest challenge is the self-supporting element. I’ll be carrying everything I need, clothing, bivvy, mattress and sleeping bag, plus a cooking set up.” Morton added that he wanted to keep to the original pioneering spirit of the Tour.
“You’re in charge of your nutrition and your sleeping and that will keep me a lot more engaged and interacting with the places I’m travelling through. Obviously as a pro, I’ve raced in France a lot, but you don’t get that same interaction if you’re racing in the peloton.”
Morton’s sponsors, EF Education First and Rapha, are each donating 500 bikes to World Bicycle Relief, a non-profit organisation that delivers locally assembled, rugged bicycles to people in need.
While Morton will ride at a slower average speed than the 184-rider pack, he knows he has to maintain a high speed to have any chance of reaching Paris before his peers. At some point, possibly in the depths of the night while the convoy sleeps, he may well overtake their progress.
“I think my actual moving time will be around 12 hours a day, but I’ll be out there for longer as you inevitably spend time stopped, getting water and food. So I think for more than half of the time over the next three weeks, I will be riding.”
As the explosion of interest in bike packing and endurance racing continues, Morton is keen to seize the day. “In a weird way, it’s the event that I’ve been building towards and preparing for my whole life. I feel lucky to have the team and support that I have, because they can see there is value with interacting in a way that’s about more than simply getting results. I’m hoping that through doing things like this we can bridge to a wider audience and provide inspiration.”
Morton hopes nonetheless that his 12-hour shifts in the saddle will get him to Paris before the peloton, even if it occasionally means racing through the dark. “I prefer not to do a lot of night time riding,” Morton says. “It’s mentally taxing and it becomes a mind game because you have much less to look at; all you see is the patch of light on the road ahead. There’s a skill in knowing when to push on and when to back off, when to ride and when to sleep.”
“I may skip the rest days to build up a nice time buffer before they all get on the plane in Bordeaux for the final transfer to Paris. If everything goes to plan, I may have a six-hour buffer! But I’m riding against the route really, not against the peloton. The modern-day Tour doesn’t reflect what the old Tour was, but what we are doing is a homage. Ultimately we are celebrating the race.”