Of all the thousands of miles, dizzying days of suffering and countless moments of self-doubt, the one that sticks out most to Lachlan Morton came high in the Alps, where a monster day of cycling along the route of the Tour de France had left him burned and blistered and feeling despair.
The challenge before Morton was audacious at best, insane at worst: Ride the entire Tour route, including hundreds of miles between stages when competitors would be riding in a luxurious motor coach. He would carry everything he would need, cook his own meals, camp out at night and arrive before the peloton pulled into Paris this weekend.
Yet there he was, alone on a mountain in the first week, wondering whether he would make it at all.
“By the time I finished to where I was camping,” Morton told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Wednesday, “I'd run out of food and there was nowhere to get food. I had to sleep hungry. And then the next morning it was 60 or 70 kilometers to stop and get breakfast. That was a low. It was compounding issues. All seemed to come to a head.”
Morton survived, though. Then he kept riding, day after day, one painful pedal turn after another.
On Tuesday, he finally coasted down the Champs-Elysees, greeted by a few hardy souls aware of his challenge but hardly the throngs awaiting the Tour's final stage.
The odyssey took 19 days and 224 hours in the saddle, carried him 3,424 miles and over nearly 220,000 feet of climbing and, most importantly, raised more than $600,000 for charity.
“All things considered, I feel pretty good,” Morton said. “My body has a few aches and pains.”
That's probably the biggest understatement he'll ever make.
The so-called Alt Tour was the brainchild of Morton and his American-based pro team, EF Education-Nippo, which currently has two riders in the Tour's top 10 overall. Morton had raced extensively in Europe throughout the spring, but would not be taking part in the Tour, so the idea dawned on him to beat his teammates to Paris in the original way.
When the Tour de France began as a newspaper publicity stunt in 1903, the idea of riding bikes competitively was still in its infancy. There were no soigneurs to provide massages, chefs to cook meals, radios to provide riders with their position on the course. Instead, the 21 adventurers who completed the six stages had almost no support, often riding 300 or more miles in a single day — one even stopped by the roadside and fell asleep, eliminating him from the race.
The romanticism of it all captured Morton's imagination.
The 29-year-old Australian had ridden extensively around France, but packed tightly in a professional peloton left little opportunity to experience the sights, sounds and even smells of the Tour route. On his own, he would be able to chat with everyday folks in campgrounds, eat baguettes from local bakeries for breakfast and bed down whenever he saw fit.
It also would test his physical and mental limits.
Morton has done plenty of ultra-endurance rides in the past. He joined brother Angus in a 1,500-mile ride across Australia in 2014, and did a similar ride across the Colorado Rockies the following year. He's set endurance records in Britain, on the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail in the U.S. and last year won a 434-mile sprint across the Iberian Peninsula.
“I always find when I take part in an ultra or a really long event, when you're finished you have a self-confidence,” he said. “You're just better equipped and more confident in your own abilities to deal with hardships and difficult situations.”
Then came the idea of turning all that hardship into something meaningful.
EF Education-Nippo and apparel sponsor Rapha planted the seed by donating 1,000 bikes to World Bicycle Relief, a non-profit that delivers locally assembled, rugged bicycles to children and adults in places where they may not otherwise have access to them. The money Morton had raised by Wednesday had already purchased about 2,800 more.
“I can really relate to the idea that a bike can change a life,” said Morton, who has spent much of his professional career racing in the U.S. “The idea that you can give bikes to people and purely provide access to education or water or work, and that a bike can transform their life — it's just a really beautiful cause.”
Most of the past few weeks were a beautiful ride, too. There were soaring mountain vistas in the Alps and Pyrenees, nights illuminated only by the stars. There were long, flat stretches of sunflower fields and the rolling French farmland.
Random strangers would join Morton along the way. Some rode for a mile or two, others for an entire day.
Not everything was so sublime, though. There were blisters that caused Morton to wear sandals rather than his cycling shoes, and long stretches without food and water. There were long periods of silence and loneliness.
All that suffering came to a head that day early in the Alps.
“You're really forced to battle with yourself and see where your limits are,” Morton said, "but then out of that, I just gained so much confidence when I dealt with it. Even the next morning, when I started riding, I was like, ‘I feel OK. I’m hungry but not dying.' And I looked around and was like, ‘It’s super beautiful.' The sun had come out. I had this magical moment on top of this col. And to have that range in a weird nine-hour window, that was pretty special.
"And from that moment I was like, ‘OK, I dealt with this. I can deal with everything I need to get to Paris.’"
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