Features Interviews Riders

Leo Hayter interview: his own man, part 1

The 19-year-old Development Team Sunweb rider on being compared to his brother, his surprise junior success and the tough decision to turn his back on the GB Senior Academy to join Team Sunweb instead

It could be tempting to pigeonhole Leo Hayter as ‘Ethan Hayter’s younger brother’. He undoubtedly shares many similarities with his precociously talented sibling, beyond his surname, genetic make-up, and his ability to pedal a bicycle very quickly.

Both brothers spent formative years learning their racecraft at the Herne Hill Velodrome with VC Londres, the South East London cycling club that seems to churn out an inordinate amount of cycling talent. Both spent time on the British Cycling programme as juniors, showing incredible promise on the track (Ethan told us Leo was faster than him every year at the same age). Both also racked up highly-impressive junior road racing results, including UCI road race wins. And both finished second overall in one of the UK’s best indicators for future talent: the Junior Tour of Wales.

Hopefully in the next year or so, I’ll be able to show that I’m more than just Ethan’s little brother

But their paths are now very much diverging. Ethan has continued to focus on the track with British Cycling in his senior years – his sights firmly set on Tokyo now – and on the road is now often the nominated sprinter for Ineos Grenadiers. Leo, on the other hand, turned down the opportunity to join the GB Senior Academy, instead opting for Development Team Sunweb (now Development Team DSM). Already proving himself to be a strong climber, he’s now focused on developing himself into a GC rider.

Last year – his first as an under-23 – he already began showing flashes of his GC promise, despite the curtailed season. Despite not being fully fit, he took 12th overall at one of the biggest under-23 stage races of the year, the Ronde de L’Isard. In the process, he finished 8th on the mountainous stage 2 before helping the team to team time trial victory on stage 3. He was 4th overall going into the final day, only to slip down to 12th on a tough last stage.

We sat down virtually with the Rayner Foundation rider just before he went to Italy for a block of racing that will involve riding the Per Sempre Alfredo and the Coppi e Bartali (where he will race against his brother) for the Team DSM WorldTour team, before racing a string of one-day under-23 races with Development Team DSM.

In this first part of a two-part interview, he talks about what kind of rider he is developing into, how he feels about being compared to his brother Ethan, how his success as a junior came as a surprise to him, his proudest achievements as a junior, setting new power records at the Sunweb talent days despite being sick, and the tough decision to turn his back on the GB Senior Academy to join Team Sunweb instead. Part two is available here.

Photo: Development Team DSM

Let’s start with the question I ask pretty much every rider in the under-23 ranks – how would you describe yourself as a rider, Leo?

I’d say the way things going, I’m evolving into a GC specialist. My time trial is, so far, the most obvious thing I’ve got to prove myself in, but from last year, and how things have been going over the winter, I really think I can be up there in the mountains. 

You’ve also had good results in Belgian classics-style races in past?

Yes, but I think the Belgian races in the junior ranks, and how they are now in the seniors, are like two completely different things. Right now, I don’t think I’m ready to compete in that kind of race. 

Why is that do you think?

I think I still struggle quite a bit with basic things like positioning. As a junior, you can kind of get away with that. When I won Borsele [Ed: EPZ Omloop van Borsele Juniors], I rode that race really, really badly, but I was strong enough to fix my mistakes. But you can’t really get away with that kind of thing at this level.As a junior, you kind of have to be good at everything. There are very few races specifically for climbers or sprinters.

Now you’ve moved up to under-23 level, do you find that you’re having to choose what kind of rider you want to be yet? In terms of the way your approach your training, when you’re talking to coaches, is there a sense that you need to start thinking about specialisation? 

Last year, I would say definitely not. Last year, all my training was quite general, I was working on a bit of everything. But I would say, this year, I feel like my training has been more specific for time trials or for climbing. I’ve had a lot fewer short, punchy training rides. I mean, it’s not it’s not completely up to me, I’ve still had to work on my punchiness a bit, but I’m definitely not doing as much as I was last year.

I actually didn’t really enjoy it first, I certainly wasn’t very good to start with anyway!

And just going back to the beginning, how you did you get into cycling?

It was the same as for Tom [Gloag]: through the holiday clubs at Herne Hill Velodrome when I was about 11 or 12. It was an easy place for my parents to dump me and Ethan. I actually didn’t really enjoy it first, I certainly wasn’t very good to start with anyway!  

Leo (left) next to VCL club mate Tom Gloag. Photo: Tim Hayter

Your Dad posted a picture of you on Twitter, standing next to Tom on the podium at Herne Hill when you were young. I don’t know how to put this politely, but you didn’t look particularly athletic at that point?

No, I was quite a big boy! When I was that age, before cycling, all I was doing was sitting at home and playing PlayStation. I really enjoyed gaming – I still do – and my Mum liked to treat me a lot. So I was basically just eating and playing PlayStation all day! Cycling is what moved me away from that. 

And you mentioned your brother. You often get referred to as ‘Ethan’s little brother’. How do you feel about that? Does it bother you at all? 

No, I don’t think so. I’m used to it and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be referred to as his younger brother. He’s not exactly a bad cyclist himself! But hopefully in the next year or so, I’ll be able to show that I’m more than just Ethan’s little brother.

And are you competitive with him? 

I don’t know about competitive. I think realistically, in previous years, there was no point in trying to be competitive, because I know he’s so many levels above me. He’s more like a learning tool for me. He was the easiest person to reach out to ask a question and he’s not afraid to tell me that I’m doing something wrong, which is quite helpful. Obviously, in the last couple of years, I have had a lot more support through the team, but when I was younger, he was telling me what to do all the time!

Your junior years were when I started noticing your results. I think you’ve got one of the most impressive sets of junior results I’ve seen, in terms of the latest crop of young British riders. Are there any results that stand out to you in particular?

I would say that the weekend where I was second at E3 on the Saturday, and the first at van Borsele was probably the best weekend I had. But I was also really pleased when I won the Flanders Trophy towards the end of the season. That really stood out for me as well. I’d got sick after the Isle of Man Tour, and then for the rest of the whole season I felt shit, I just never got back to where I had been earlier in the year. So to win there in Flanders, it felt really quite special. 

Leo (centre) after winning the team pursuit at the junior European track championships

Winning the team pursuit at the European track championships was also really special. I can honestly say we were not the strongest team there. The Germans, for example, finished first and second in the individual pursuit and both of them broke the world record later that year. We just had the process of a team pursuit completely nailed. Spending so much time on the track doing team pursuit efforts over and over really does pay off. All of those 6 am starts in a cold and wet Manchester suddenly became worth it.

That was the first time I had really trained to improve a specific part of my cycling – and it paid off

It was also a personal achievement because I was not even in the main team pursuit team until a few weeks before that. I wasn’t even on the British Cycling programme as a first-year junior and was struggling to get to grips with team pursuiting the whole winter, especially the start. That was the first time I had really trained to improve a specific part of my cycling – and it paid off.

And in the previous year, your first as a junior, you also had a fantastic season…

I don’t actually think I did! I mean, towards the end of the year, maybe, but I don’t think the season was anything special. 

OK, it’s interesting you see it that way. From the results you had, it looked good on paper. You won two stages at the Junior Cycling Assen Tour, won a stage and finished third overall at the Boucles de l’Oise Juniors, and then came second in the Junior Tour of Wales, which is an impressive feat for a first-year junior…

From late August onwards I was good, but the rest of the year was a bit rocky.

Why do you think it was rocky?

I just wasn’t very good, I don’t think!

So, was it a case of getting used to racing at that level? 

Yeah, and just training at a different level as well. I think in the winter I struggled with illness quite a bit. And when I was under 16, I didn’t really race much anyway. I don’t think I really went to many of the youth series, maybe two or three rounds and I didn’t really come anywhere. 

So was it a surprise then, when you started winning in that first year at junior level, that first stage win at Assen?

It was, it was. So I think that day, I went on a breakaway with something like 20 minutes to go with Tom [Gloag]. There were three of us in the break and then he rode into the other guy’s back wheel – and he always says that it was the other guy’s fault but it wasn’t! And I remember we got lost, or at least I didn’t know where I was going. And that was the first time I’d ever won anything on the road, other than, like, the local Crystal Palace crit or something. But even then, I would only win one when Tom or Finley [Newmark] weren’t there because they would have put me away straight away. So, yes, it was a real surprise to win the stage in Assen. And then winning the time trial the next day was what solidified it. I remember I beat Lewis [Askey] that day. And he was on the [British Cycling] programme. He was someone. He was like the guy that everyone looked up to. So that was quite cool. And after that, I just kept building from there.

Instead of going into a race as kind of a passenger, the [wins] made me feel like I could do something

So how did those wins change your perspective? 

More than anything, they just gave me a lot of confidence. Instead of going into a race as kind of a passenger, the [wins] made me feel like I could do something.

Leo on the way to prologue victory at the 2018 Junior Tour of Wales. Photo: 5311 Media / British Cycling

And then, of course, you nearly won the Junior Tour of Wales that year. You only lost the race lead on the final stage.

Yeah, I just wasn’t strong enough. I was in yellow the whole week. I’d crashed the day before although I think I was pretty okay, and then we got to The Tumble and I just wasn’t strong enough to follow it anymore. Ben [Tulett] was the strongest guy on the day and he won the race. I couldn’t complain with second, at all. I was still really, really happy with that. And Ben was also one of the guys who was the best in our age group so to be beaten by him was no problem.

So the next year was almost the opposite? You had a strong start but then struggled with illness later on? 

Yeah. I had a really good winter, I don’t think I really got sick at all. And then at the start of the season, I just felt super, super strong like nothing I’d ever felt before. All my numbers were really good. 

And then the weekend that Oscar Nilsson-Julien won the Cadence race, I decided to go to the Sunweb talent days, which was a small training camp with the team. And on the flight there I ate something strange and had a really bad stomach bug that weekend, but I didn’t tell anyone. So I did two days of testing, all-out, pretty much just on white bread, which was all I could eat. 

That was a real eye-opener; I’d never seen myself as someone who is fast up a climb.

Looking back now, that was probably really, really stupid and I should have just said something, but I wanted to prove myself so I smashed myself to pieces that weekend. I set all-new power records on the climb there, I was the fastest they’ve ever had. And that was a real eye-opener; I’d never seen myself as someone who is fast up a climb.

Wow. So despite not being one hundred per cent, you performed extremely well?

Yeah, but then I was completely fucked after that. The Trophée Morbihan was the next weekend and I was actually second in the time trial there, a Nations Cup time trial. But then in the road stages, that weren’t even that hard, I was on my knees every day. That was when I knew something was up and that it was going to affect me more than I thought – which it did for a long time. I remember we had a training camp in Derby with the British Cycling academy boys and I had to get in the car at some point on one of the road rides because I got completely dropped up a climb. Not fun.

2019 UCI Road World Championships – Men Junior Individual Time Trial – Yorkshire, England – Leo Hayter of Great Britain. Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

But you did at least finish the season at the Worlds in Yorkshire. How was that?

I didn’t really feel that good, to be honest. I wasn’t going badly. But I just I definitely wasn’t going well. I had that top ten in the time trial, which is pretty nice. But my numbers in the time show were actually really bad compared to what I had been doing in the year. The power I did then I can do now for five hours now or something. And it was only a half an hour time trial. 

It must have been a good experience, nonetheless, racing in front of home crowds?  

Oh yeah. I really, really enjoyed the road race. It was crazy. I was completely finished at the end, I literally couldn’t do anything. But it was still the most enjoyable race I’ve ever done, because of the crowds.

The crowds were crazy, the race was crazy, it was the world championships. It’s still the biggest crowd I’ve ever ridden in. It was a really, really cool experience. I just remember that finishing circuit, just people everywhere. It was pouring with rain and there were people everywhere. It was so cool. Brutal, but really cool.

That was actually probably the hardest decision I’d had to make in my life up until that point

So by that stage you were on the British cycling junior academy. What led you to leaving the British Cycling system and joining Sunweb?

That was actually probably the hardest decision I’d had to make in my life up until that point. My parents really didn’t want me to leave the British Cycling programme. I had a meeting with Ethan’s agent – now my agent too – and he was advising me. He had to come to my house to try and convince my parents that going to Sunweb wouldn’t be a bad thing. I think they were really worried about me going to a different country and being on my own. And they knew from Ethan that the British Cycling programme could work and I would be safe there. 

Photo: Development Team DSM

So what made you choose Sunweb, ultimately?

It guess it started with this rumour that track riders would have to be really heavy in the future. And it was at the same kind of time when all the team pursuit records were being completely destroyed. And, it sounds stupid, but I heard this rumour that if you want to be a track rider in the future you need to be 85 kilos or something like that. And that’s where it started, to be honest. I really struggled even as a junior to be in that team pursuit team. The start was the hardest thing for me. I just couldn’t get going at the start. I knew the faster it was getting, the bigger gear I’d have to be on. And I’m really not a punchy enough rider to be a track rider. I can ride hard for a long time, but when it’s up, down, up, down, I can’t do it. So I knew I wouldn’t be that good on the track.

I felt like if I was going to the Academy I’d be regarded more as Ethan Hayter’s brother

Obviously, at the time, the road programme on the Senior Academy was still really good. But I also thought it’d be nice to do something that my brother wasn’t doing. I felt like if I was going to the Academy I’d be regarded more as Ethan Hayter’s brother. I really felt like I wanted to do something different and experience something new. The setup Sunweb had, seemed really professional; right now I’m in my own apartment, it’s got two stories, two toilets, it’s all to myself, it’s really nice. You have access to nutritionists, things like that. I feel like I’ve got everything 

How well-founded do you think the rumour was, about needing to be bigger to be a team pursuiter?  

If you look at anyone doing team pursuit now, they are basically a sprinter who can go for a long time. I would say my brother is maybe near the limit of what it takes to be a pursuit rider. He’s definitely not a man one rider and to me he’s a really strong sprinter. I think I could put on weight as much weight as possible and be in the gym all the time and I  still wouldn’t ever get to the level that it takes to be a professional team pursuit rider. 

And did you have other options? Why Sunweb and not another team?

I did have interest from other teams, but Sunweb showed the most by far. So that was quite an easy choice.

Read Part 2 here.