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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Poole

A Celebration of EF's Alternative Approach to Cycling

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Halfway up Ingleborough on an overcast September's day, my Dad and I staggered up Yorkshire's second-highest mountain, two dogs in tow. This could be any ordinary day, with a couple of walkers spotted already, but it is not. As we try to keep two border terriers from running wild, we come across a man with a camera, he looks, if not completely uneasy, a tad out of place. The man is Oliver Duggan and at the time he worked as Head of Film and Copy at Rapha. It is not a coincidence that us three cycling fans have descended upon Ingleborough on this typical gloomy morning, we are all here for one thing- the 2019 Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross race. We are all here to see Lachlan Morton of EF Education First (Now Ef Education-Nippo) race for the first time in this event, coming off the back of winning the GBDuro.

With work to get to in the afternoon, we pitch camp on a marshy stretch of grass that comes about 10 minutes into the riders' climb of Ingleborough, the first peak of the day (with Whernside and Pen-y-ghent to come). As the riders make their way up further down the climb, we begin to hear the first rings of cow bells and cheering, excitement is brimming. The leading riders soon crest the hill into our vision and the bright pink of EF's kit first comes into view; Lachlan is third wheel and the pace is already high. The border terriers are caught unawares as cheers of "go on Lachy! Go on Lachlan! Allez allez!" begin to ring out. The viewing is spectacular, a WorldTour pro racing in the Yorkshire Dales- our backyard! This day couldn't get better, I thought, for all of a few seconds... As the second placed rider approaches us and Lachlan follows close behind, 'Lachy' reaches down to his bottle cage and throws a bidon our way- marvellous!

After bumping into Oli Duggan on the way down once more, I get to wax lyrical about travelling back with an EF bidon. Luckily, we keep in touch and I end up making it into EF/Rapha's 'Gone Racing' Youtube episode. Lachlan went on to finish fourth at Three Peaks, a fantastic placing for a first-time rider of the event. But, this is not Lachlan's first, or last, foray into alternative racing. This is one in a series of unusual approaches to racing for a WorldTour team, an approach that has stood EF Education-Nippo out from the crowd.

© EF Education-Nippo/Rapha

As British cycling fans, the revolution in the WorldTour over the past decade has been a joy to behold. Not only did Bradley Wiggins become the first British Tour de France winner in 2012, that success has been repeated by Chris Froome (four times) and the ever-popular Geraint Thomas. Team Sky (and later Ineos) brought a spotlight on British cyclists that had never been shone so bright before, but this success was not universally welcomed. In fact, we have seen a tremendous backlash against the success of Team Sky, with their approach to racing turning many fans off and their media performance often hostile. Whilst their attempt at covering away the riders warming down did not last long, they are still not particularly open with the media. Jumbo Visma effectively regurgitated Sky's racing tactics at last year's Tour and I must admit, it did get tedious. In complete contrast to this approach to the sport of cycling, EF Education-Nippo have changed the rulebook on what a WorldTour team should look like.

This has coincided with the arrival of, and has probably been inspired by, the aforementioned Lachlan Morton. Morton and his brother Gus first dipped into presenting a fresh approach to cycling in 2013, when, after impressing in his first season with Garmin-Sharp, Lachlan (and Gus) embarked upon a trip from Port Macquarie to Uluru in Australia. What started out as a means to spend more time with one another, has since developed into a series of feature-length films which has followed the Mortons' adventurous rides. Following the first 'Thereabouts' film that showcased their exploits in the Australian Outback, the brothers have since travelled through Colombia, America and Eastern Europe, amongst others. Each film is as inspiring as the last and personally, I would say, I am far more motivated to ride by Thereabouts than I am watching professional racing. This adventurous spirit, and a desire to connect with people on another level than simply racing WorldTour, has followed Lachlan into his career with EF Education-Nippo since joining ahead of the 2019 season.

© Thereabouts

Along with a new partnership between themselves and Rapha at the beginning of 2019, EF Education-Nippo announced that their riders would partake in an 'alternative racing calendar' that would begin with Dirty Kanza, promising a fresh approach to cycling. Lining up at Dirty Kanza (now Unbound Gravel) was not just Morton, but also his close friends Alex Howes and Taylor Phinney (both also of EF). Over the next 200 miles of racing, across mainly tough gravel terrain, it appeared as though Morton and Howes had a blast (Phinney was hampered by many punctures) on their way to finishing third and fourth respectively. But it wasn't about winning, it was about the experience and the personalities they met along the way.

"No skinsuits. No aero bars. No team bus. We don't want to take WorldTour cycling and impose it on this race. We're pretty much best friends, who happen to be WorldTour riders, entering this race like anyone else would."
Lachlan Morton

If it was adventurous experiences that Morton was looking for, he certainly found some when he took on the next race on their 'alternative calendar', the GBDuro in June 2019. Racing from John O'Groats to Land's End along a 2000km route that takes in 'road, gravel, single-track and everything in between', this race is not for the faint of heart. With a unique race comes unique organisation, as the riders are timed by checking in at the end of each stage on Instagram and carry tracking chips along the route. These tracking chips allow the riders to be followed as 'dots' on a map for supporters, something that worked to perfection when the WorldTour rider came to town. All the way through Britain, as the riders travelled through England, Wales and finally Scotland, supporters came out at all hours to support Morton and his fellow competitors. EF's video following the rider shows occasions where cyclists would come out just to have the chance to ride alongside Morton for short stretches of the course, with one young lad in particular coming out in the middle of the night to give Lachlan some company.

As for the route, it looked magnificent as the riders battled the elements which, he admitted later, reduced Morton to tears at one particular low point. Not to worry, he soon began to laugh his way through it and his infectious passion for cycling (and hurting his body!) shone through once more, on the way to his commanding victory in the race. Once more though, the victory was not important, it was the excitement and sense of adventure that came with taking on such an epic self-supported venture. The fans were rewarded with unforgettable experiences of riding next to a pro, in a race! Morton left Great Britain (not on a flight, as per the sustainable guidelines of the race organisers) with a remarkable experience that he promised to do again.

© EF Education-Nippo/Rapha

Throughout their 2019 travels, nowhere did the community spirit shine brighter than at the Leadville Trail 100 race (Colorado, USA), the mountain bike event which tops out at an eye-watering 3825m along a 100 mile route. Leadville's racing events began in 1983 with 45 runners making their way across 100 miles of Rocky Mountains, later adding the MTB race in 1994. The goal of the race was to save a community that was slowly dying following deindustrialisation and a severe economic downturn (that brought the highest unemployment rate in the entire nation). Bringing hope to a community with a race that is now flourishing, the riders are welcomed with open arms as the city is transformed for the weekend. This is the weekend that the businesses of Leadville make their money, with the race originally being designed in order to be long enough that the racers would have to stop overnight and pump money into the local community. To say it has worked is an understatement, as the city has bounced back and found itself as an essential point of many runners' and riders' calendars. Finishing third and fifth, Lachlan Morton and Alex Howes had represented this unique WorldTour team in yet another event that would never have been on the radar for the likes of Jumbo Visma and Ineos Grenadiers (a keen eye should be kept on how Tom Pidcock's season will shape up).

Moreover, whilst it is easy for many traditionalists to observe from afar and criticise EF for employing racers who 'shouldn't be at WorldTour road racing teams', the riders have disproved this myth and showed that they are "not just a sideshow act", as Alex Howes told Cycling News. Coming quickly off the back of the 2019 Dirty Kanza, Alex Howes won the US Road National Title, and in the week after finishing third at Leadville Trail 100, Lachlan Morton won a stage of the Tour of Utah. Despite having their plans thrown into the air, along with the rest of the world, by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Morton was still able to break the fastest known time on the Kokopelli Trail and win the 700 kilometre Badlands race in southern Spain, all before going on to finish last year's Giro d'Italia. Not bad achievements for 'gimmick riders' eh...

Morton wins by a whisker at the Tour of Utah. © Dave Iltis.

A great part of the success of EF's unique racing calendar is down to the media team that has followed them across the world. By creating YouTube films that range between 10 and 30 minutes, with lots of footage recorded using handheld camcorders controlled by the riders, they have allowed a distinctive insight into the travails of Morton and co. Not only does this promote their 'alternative racing' exploits, it also offers an emotional connection to the team's successes on the road. By allowing access behind the scenes, supporters get the opportunity to become fond of riders' personalities and become attached to the team's results. When Alberto Bettiol upset the applecart by winning the 2019 Ronde van Vlaanderen, the subsequent 'Gone Racing' episode showed the team understandably jubilant and Bettiol teary-eyed as he phoned his girlfriend.

The fresh mindset to life as a WorldTour team has not only been seen following their partnership with Rapha. For years, Slipstream Sports (the sports managing company behind EF Education-Nippo, with the team growing from Garmin in 2008/09) have been a breath of fresh air to the WorldTour. The emphasis is not upon winning at all costs, with founder and CEO Jonathan Vaughters placing strict anti-doping measures in place since the outset. The team races with passion and panache, as seen through Neilson Powless' enthralling breakaways at last year's Tour de France. Unlike some other teams, their racing brings you out of the seat with intrigue, whether it be Powless' (unfortunately) doomed attacks at last year's Tour, or Hugh Carthy's blockbuster display on the Angliru. It is exciting to watch, that is what bike racing is about at the end of they day, isn't it?

© EF Education-Nippo

Before this piece comes to a close, it is clear that discussion on EF's alternative approach to cycling cannot be complete without mentioning last year's Giro d'Italia. With what has gone down as a masterstroke of marketing, EF partnered with skateboarding company Palace, to design a one-of-a-kind kit to be used throughout the grand tour. The announcement was certainly unexpected in the cycling world and set Twitter alive, as debate raged over whether the kit was sheer genius, or a disgusting monstrosity. As you can probably tell from the picture below, I fall on one of these sides of the argument. Cycling history has been littered with wacky and striking designs that allow teams (and inherently their sponsors..) to stand out from the crowd- that is what the cycling business is built upon! EF managed to get featured in both broadsheet American newspapers and fashion news sites, it was a masterstroke.

In collaboration with Rapha, POC and Cannondale, the team completely changed their equipment, kit and vehicles for the Giro, all of which were adorned by the now iconic ducks. With a couple of stage wins along the way, 'the mighty ducks' took the Giro well and truly by storm. The kit sold out immediately on both the Palace and Rapha websites, with the markup price on Ebay sometimes being 5 times the original price... this was cycling meeting the brutal fashion world and any kits you see out on the road will certainly be rare. The whole story was capped off by the race organisers fining the team, for failing to administer proper paperwork for the kits to be used at the Race Presentation- the cycling establishment was rattled by 'the mighty ducks'.

© George Bell

Whether it be the utterly bonkers kits (their usual pink strip ain't too bad either), the racing filled with flair, or the 'alternative racing calendar', EF Education-Nippo have changed the way a WorldTour team is perceived in the past two seasons. This approach to cycling would have been unthinkable amongst cycling's elites at the beginning of the 2010s, but as we stumble our way through a new decade, the team has set the bar for the way WorldTour teams should interact with their fans. With the engaging content that is sure to inspire, they are worlds away from traditional outfits such as Lotto Soudal and Cofidis, to name but two. Although 2020 put roadblocks in place for many of their plans, here's hoping that their alternative calendar can return bigger and better in 2021. Alongside the rise of Hugh Carthy on the road, the future seems bright for a team that has pushed the boundaries of how to approach cycling. Whilst we may not see Chris Froome taking on the GBDuro anytime soon, let us hope that others teams follow in EF's path and provide a more engaging and inspiring approach to WorldTour cycling. Long may their success continue...

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