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Pro cyclist riding 1,000 kilometers for Ukrainian refugees

1st Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior 2022

UBEDA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 14: A general view of Lachlan David Morton of Australia and Team EF Education - Easypost prior to the 1st Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior 2022 a 187,7km one day race from Baeza to Ubeda 727m / #ClásicaJaén22 / on February 14, 2022 in Ubeda, Spain. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

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Australian professional cyclist Lachlan Morton, whose ultra-endurance feats have benefited charities around the world over the years, is undertaking another epic ride to raise money in support of Ukrainian war refugees.

The 30-year-old rider for American team EF Education-EasyPost will depart from Munich on a nonstop, 1,063-kilometer odyssey that will carry him through the Czech Republic and Poland and ultimately to the Ukraine border at Krakovets.

Morton was inspired to undertake his latest ride while racing the Gran Camino in Spain. He was having breakfast with his Ukrainian teammate, Mark Padun, when news broke that Russia had invaded the country. Morton began poring over maps on the internet and thought to himself, “I could actually do this.”

“That made it hit closer to home, having a teammate who is directly impacted by it,” Morton said. “I found it hard to focus on trying to get ready for a race when something so significant was happening in the world.

“I’m a pretty optimistic person generally,” said Morton, a native of Port Macquarie in Australia’s New South Wales, “but in the past couple of weeks I’ve just felt that there has been very little to be excited about. It’s hard to get your head around. It’s surreal in a way. You watch the news and the news is so heavy that you almost disengage from it.”

Morton has accomplished plenty in his professional cycling career: He won the Tour of Utah, competed in the Giro d’ Italia and Vuelta a Espana - two of the three Grand Tours - and was second in last year’s Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race.

Yet it’s been Morton’s charity rides, where he races only against himself, that have made perhaps the biggest impact.

Last summer, he rode the entire Tour de France route, including the hundreds of miles between stages when racers would normally be transferred by motor coach, and he did it entirely self-supported. He wound up traveling 3,424 miles in 19 days and raised more than $600,000 to purchase thousands of bicycles for World Bicycle Relief.

His goal this time is a bit more modest: raise $50,000 for Ukrainian refugees.

“I’m not an overly political person. I’m not an expert in any of this,” he said. “I’m just trying to do the one thing I know how to do and engage the bike-riding community to help. My idea is to highlight the fact that war is not a far-off problem. Conflicts are a bike ride away all over the world. That’s the intention behind it, and to try and raise as much money as we can to help out people who have been displaced.”

Morton’s often-audacious rides are rare in cycling for the simple fact that his professional team, led by former American rider Jonathan Vaughters, actually supports the efforts. Many other teams micromanage riders with strict training plans that are designed to deliver them at their peak to the most important races on the calendar.

In fact, the team’s primary sponsor, EF Education First, along with bike sponsor Cannondale and apparel sponsor Rapha, have committed $100,000 to GlobalGiving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. The money will be used to provide refugees with food, shelter, clean water and health care along with access to education and other economic assistance.

There are no major bike races in Russia, unlike sports such as tennis or soccer, but the Gazprom-RusVelo pro team has been banned by the International Cycling Union from competition. The team, which has nine Russian riders, is sponsored by PJSC Gazprom, a multinational energy company with links to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Several of that team’s sponsors, including bike manufacturer Look, cancelled their partnerships after the invasion.

“The UCI calls for an immediate halt to the hostilities in Ukraine and firmly condemns Russia’s violation of international law,” the governing body’s president, David Lappartient, said in a statement late last month. “Our thoughts are with the Ukrainian people as well as Ukraine’s cycling community. No UCI event is scheduled to take place in Russia or Belarus in 2022.”

Still, there are dozens of professional riders tied to Russia and Ukraine competing on the World Tour. One of them, Pavel Sivakov, switched his nationality from Russian to French after the invasion - a move that took effect immediately when it came to bike races. Sivakov was born in Italy and raised in France by Russian parents.

“I am totally against this war and all my thoughts are with the Ukrainian people,” Sivakov said in a statement. “Like most people around the world right now, I hope for peace and a swift end to the suffering happening in the Ukraine.”

Then there’s Padun, a former Ukrainian time trial national champion, who has provided the inspiration behind Morton’s charity ride this weekend. He was born in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which has long been an epicenter of pro-Russian separatists, and still has family and friends living in the war-torn nation.

“Honestly, I don’t know what people should do. I don’t know what I personally can do,” Padun said. “It is difficult to fully concentrate because you are aware that a war is still happening in your country. What the people of Ukraine need is for the war to be stopped. But what Lachlan is doing is good. The more people who are speaking about this, the better. It is great that he is raising money for Ukrainian refugees, too.”