In this, the second part of our conversation, Angus ‘Gus’ Morton muses on the future of professional cycling, his striving for a life of simple pleasures and whether love is, indeed, all you need.
Looking back at the films you’ve been associated with, one of my personal favourites is Rapha’s short feature ‘Riding is the answer’. Did you direct that?
I didn’t but that’s actually a funny story because I had no idea I was going to be in that. Or even the level it was on. I’d just shot the first Outskirts and was living out in LA and this guy from Rapha was explaining that they were in town on these dates and would I be available to be part of the shoot for a day. So I was like, sure, and didn’t think anything of it. A month goes by and I get this call from the executive producer at a creative agency and so I’m wondering what they’re doing getting involved because I’m only going to feature in this film for a second or two. Then I get a lady wanting to take some photographs and I have to go to wardrobe but I was super late because I rode there and when I finally arrive there’s 30 people waiting.
I imagine not particularly happy?
Oh, man. They were pissed [laughs]. And then they start talking about the days we’ll be shooting and I’m telling them that I won’t be in town that long. Apparently the shit hit the fan and there was this huge meltdown. I woke up in the morning and there’s 30 emails and millions of missed calls. Turns out I was the main character [laughs].
That tiny detail kind of passed you by somehow?
Man, it was a bit of a stitch up. And I honestly had no idea. I just thought it would be a van with a camera in the back but it was this huge production. They’d closed parts of Downtown LA and I was riding around on empty streets. No cars.
Just the amount of work to get those permits.
Yeah. It was insane. Comical. A proper LA shoot.
But, for me, the film was perfectly pitched. And thinking on from the tagline – about riding answering questions – looking back at your professional racing career I was wondering what kind of rider you were?
Not a very good one [laughs].
I’m sure that’s not the case.
I was a worker. Just a team guy. That was my job riding for Jelly Belly. I was pretty good at cobbled stuff but never that good when it came to individual success. Though I must admit that the first time I was pro I had some decent results but most of the time I was sick with this parasite.
They didn’t know what the problem was?
No and my body was doing all this weird stuff like it stopped producing testosterone. It took a while to figure it all out and kind of plagued that first part of my professional career. And then when I’d finished racing for the first time and got into film, this guy asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I wanted to be a director. I was young, probably 22 at the time, and pretty bull-headed. And he looked at me and then told me to go away and do something else for 10 years.
Just go out into the world and experience. Because what perspective do you have when you haven’t done shit? So I really took that to heart and it played a big part in me getting back into racing for a second time.
From the outside, professional cycling can seem a very brutal career. All about performance?
It is. Exactly right. And it’s kind of funny how you’re judged. Some riders do one good thing and somehow hang onto that. Others are consistently up there but without the recognition they actually deserve. And I don’t really think that cycling truly understands that it’s in control of its own destiny. Everyone’s racing to get first but what the fans also buy into are the characters and stories. Yet the professional sport almost wants to eliminate personality. And it blew me away that, year after year, Team Sky riders were literally getting piss thrown over them and yet they continued with the same MO. Was it successful? Yes. But what’s the point of it all?
So what’s your take on Education First’s Alternative Calendar?
That’s where it’s going. We look back at bike riding and all we talk about are the epic stories. Because that’s what captures our hearts and the general audience doesn’t give two fucks for science and system. It’s all romantic; all emotional. And brands are already beginning to change their focus so ideally we’ll see the sport continue in this direction.
So you think other professional cycling teams are watching?
Dude, you look at Education First during the Giro when Dirty Kanza was building up. There was more media focus on a one-day 200 mile gravel race across the backroads of Kansas than a fucking 21 day grand tour.
I can see your point. I’ve watched the Dirty Kanza film three times. The Giro once. So in terms of a business model?
How much would it have cost the team to ride the Giro? Two, three hundred grand? By contrast, for EF to ride Dirty Kanza it would have cost them basically nothing. And there’s still this disconnect between directly spending money in sponsoring a team and whether you can accurately measure a return. But you know exactly how many views you’ve had on YouTube. And I’m like, if you create a character you’re guaranteed to get ‘x’ number of views per race on whatever content you build around it. People switch on Neighbours every night and watch it. No one wins. They watch it for the characters and the stories. Why don’t you create something like that in sport?
I recently saw an Instagram post obilqely referring to a current female professional cyclist. Arguing that she hadn’t placed well in a race or her own national championships for a number of years and the only reason she was still a member of the race squad was down to her being pretty and having a huge following on social media.
But what’s the problem there? This post is arguing that she doesn’t deserve a spot on the team but is the problem the rider or the entire sport. Doesn’t that just demonstrate that no one gives a fuck about results? That there’s limited value in that for the sponsor and this rider is bringing something extra to the table? I mean, I hate social media. I don’t use Instagram anymore aside from contacting people. I had my own troubles with that but not from any particular high ground. It just took up too much of my time. But this rider is being followed for a reason. Maybe because it offers an insight into her life as a professional cyclist. Or she’s followed because she has something to say that matters to people. Whether she can still ride her bike and place well? Obviously lower down the priority list of her followers but also her sponsors because she’s got a contract. And that’s what I’m trying to say. All these sponsors are investing money into the sport in the hope that they’ll win. Is that a reasonable allocation of funds? One team is putting in ten million, another team their ten million. But the most interesting thing about bike riding is how dedicated these riders are and how far they’re prepared to push themselves. So many characters from so many different backgrounds. It’s a potential gold mine [laughs].
Again, I’m hearing from you this focus on stories?
The thing with Dirty Kanza – the way it played out – I still don’t think they fully get it.
In what sense?
We can all see the race. We understand what that is. But what would it look like if we threw these guys completely fish out of water? OK, we’ve just finished the Tour of California and we’ve got ten days to Dirty Kanza. Let’s ride there; training on the road as we go. Let’s sleep in a van. Camp. We don’t need all this other shit. We’re approaching it exactly the same way other people racing are doing it.
Thinking about Lachlan [Morton], Taylor [Phinney] and Alex [Howes] riding Dirty Kanza; all of them professional cyclists for EF Education First and I did wonder how their entry in the race would be viewed by the amateur racers. But, as it turned out, they didn’t win.
Taylor said it was absolute hell. And it shows they’re human and that’s all we want. To see these guys be genuine; that they’re not robots or beyond our realm of thought.
That they suffer; that they have their highs and lows?
And then when an amateur cyclist beats them? Well, that opens up a whole other level of narrative.
This grassroots approach to riding your bike; is a life of simple pleasures important to you?
I think that’s what I’m pursuing. What I’m exploring through these films. Spending all my time boiling things down to their absolute essence. What is satisfaction at its most basic, molecular level?
Have you found the answer?
No [laughs]. But the act of trying allows me the realisation that I don’t need much to be happy.
And the understanding that enough is enough?
Yeah. I’ve had problems with that [smiles]. Constantly asking myself what can we do next, how can we make it better? I’ve been staying with Taylor and we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about that.
With this mental and emotional exploration, I’m thinking of the Beatles’ song ‘All you need is love.’ Would you agree?
I think love is an interesting one. It can be all consuming; whether you have it or are pursuing it. When you’re falling into it, then it is all you need. And then if it’s lost, it’s all you want. So maybe it’s about being comfortable with yourself first. For a number of years I’ve chased all these different things and in some ways they’ve offered a form of distraction. So what I’m trying to do now is to take stock and confront all these things that I’ve ignored.
I found it interesting how you allowed references to your relationship with Sami [Sauri] to be included in the final edit of Big Land.
I left them in there for a reason. Which is funny because we got a lot of backlash; people just didn’t get it. But my thinking was that something really interesting happens on these journeys. You go through all of these emotional states when you’re physically tired. So me including those scenes was all about highlighting how the dumbest, smallest, pettiest things can result in these ridiculous arguments. Which, from a distance, looks like a real hipster break-up but that’s the point of it.
That it’s real?
Absolutely. And it’s like in life, we sometimes need to take a step back and realise how the tiny, insignificant things that we’re focusing so intently on are, in fact, tiny and insignificant. But I’m not sure that this approach was totally understood when it came to the film. Which kind of backfired because Sami copped a lot of flak.
Did people think it was contrived?
I think they thought it was trivial. Which it was but that was the point [laughs]. And that highlights the fact that maybe a lot of our audience don’t watch the films in the way I thought they might. So that’s a learning curve that I also need to take on board. You put stuff out there but then you need to emotionally let go because you can’t dictate how people will choose to interpret your work.
In the film you looked really pissed off. Are you the sort of person to make the first move?
I’m quite fiery [smiles]. Very emotional in that regard and I can be a real prick sometimes. But I’m getting much better at being able to apologise. Because it’s not always about accepting blame. It can be saying sorry for how you’ve behaved and then moving forward. Not an easy lesson to learn and I’ve done a lot of dumb stuff in the past. But I’m trying to get better and that’s why it’s good to take a step back.
There’s that lovely black & white picture of you and Sami on Route 66. What were you laughing at?
That was literally as we were crossing from Oklahoma into Texas. We’d all had a really dark time for a number of reasons and it was just a very cathartic moment as we stood – howling and yelling – sipping a beer. The sort of moment that I’m still trying to articulate to an audience. Because, for me, those are the fundamental elements of a trip like that.
The sense that emotions should be expressed. That it’s good to let things out?
And riding helps. Because you can ruminate on things before deciding to talk them through. Lachy and mine’s relationship is built on those moments. We won’t see each other for months and then we’ll ride and talk about whatever’s nagging at us. And these journeys that we’ve filmed are all about those shared moments on the road.
From the outside looking in, it looks quite fun to be Gus Morton?
It has its moments [laughs]. But, yeah, I have a great life. I’m very privileged to do what I love and to have the freedom to do that. It’s not easy in the sense that things don’t just fall on your lap. To have the life that I lead you have to chase it hard. And with the films; you want them to be aspirational. For people to engage and feel the need to go on their own journeys. In a sense, that’s the whole idea.