Features Interviews

Meet the parents: what’s it like raising cycling’s future stars?

Matilda Price speaks to Tim Hayter and Becca Wright about bringing up three of Britain's most exciting cycling talents

It is a well-recognised fact behind every great cyclist, there is a wealth of important individuals all contributing to that athlete’s success: coaches, doctors, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, mechanics, chefs, the list is long. Parents – no matter how crucial their role may be when a rider is young – don’t often figure in that list once a rider turns professional. 

Raising successful cyclists is certainly no accident. So when Ethan and Leo Hayter and their fellow Herne Hill graduate Fred Wright secured four national titles and three more podium spots in the space of four days at last month’s National Road Championships, congratulations flooded in for their parents, as well as the very talented VC Londres alumni.

Unless the parent is prepared to stand behind the kid and give them their time, I don’t think it works

Tim Hayter

It was a special weekend, not only for the riders but for the parents who had supported them since their first pedal strokes. And, with Leo, Fred and Ethan just 20, 22, and 23 respectively – it’s clear the Hayters and Wrights have been doing something right.

So what is it like to raise a professional cyclist? Matilda Price spoke to Tim Hayter and Becca Wright in the summer to find out. 

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – 17/10/2021 – Cycling – Men’s National Road Championships – Rapha Lincoln GP – Lincoln, England – Podium – U23 winner Bahrain Victorious’s Fred Wright with Groupama FDJ’s Lewis Askey second & Development Team DSM’s Leo Hayter third.

Like most sports, cycling is one that often requires its participants to start young – most start competing as teenagers, some before they’re even ten – so parental involvement is a given. Though it may not be the 5 am starts asked of swimmers’ parents, or regular trips to the Alps for those whose children dream of professional skiing, raising a cyclist is not as simple as putting your child on a bike and letting them go. From driving to races and paying for kit, to keeping a rider properly fed and being there for emotional support when things don’t go to plan, the role of a cyclist’s parent is varied – and, it would seem, key to their development.

“Unless the parent is prepared to stand behind the kid and give them their time, I don’t think it works,” says Tim Hayter, parent of not one but two young cyclists: Ethan, 23, turned professional with INEOS Grenadiers in 2020, and younger brother Leo, 20, rides for the development squad of WorldTour Team DSM.

It started because it was cheap childcare to a certain extent

Becca Wright

Ethan and Leo took up cycling at Herne Hill Velodrome as kids, a pathway followed by many London-based cyclists. “It started because it was cheap childcare to a certain extent,” jokes Becca Wright, mother of fellow Londoner and Herne Hill alumnus Fred Wright, who started cycling at one of the velodrome’s holiday camps. Now 22, Fred rides for WorldTour team Bahrain-Victorious. When Becca and I speak, she’s just come back from Paris to watch him finish his first Tour de France.

For both the Hayters and the Wrights, what started as a hobby at the local velodrome soon turned into a much bigger commitment. Soon, Tim Hayter and Becca Wright found themselves tasked with taking Ethan, Leo and Fred to races and track meets around the UK, as well as providing all the other support – practical, emotional, educational – that a young rider needs.

“It’s a massive commitment,” Tim Hayter says. “A race weekend can start on a Friday night and end on the Sunday night. One race day on Saturday, one on Sunday. You’ve got to get them to a hotel locally, you’ve got to get up in the morning to do a race recce and get the food sorted out. You’ll be stood on the roadside holding bottles while the race takes place. Afterwards, you’ve got to get him showered. You’ve got to take them out somewhere to eat. You’ve got to get them home.”

When a rider is on a professional team, many of these things are arranged and provided without much thought, but for cyclists who are still teenagers, the bulk of this responsibility falls on their parents. Becca calls it “classic mum stuff” – preparing food, giving lifts, washing kit – but concedes that the duties are amplified when you’re the mum of a cyclist. Lifts are to Manchester and Blackpool, food has to properly fuel a rider through a weekend track meet, piles of delicate lycra kit need to be washed and dried in time for the next race. 

Whilst both Becca and Tim are clear that they never considered not supporting their sons in wanting to pursue cycling, they’re open about the commitment it requires, and the impact on family life. Tim Hayter pinpoints a series of wins and podiums for Ethan in spring 2014 as the moment that made him realise this wasn’t just a hobby.

I learnt to drive, I bought a car, I bought a bike rack, and I then spent the next five years pretty much every weekend driving to a bike race

Tim Hayter

“That’s when I thought ‘okay, I’m going to have to change my lifestyle to support this’,” he says. “Because my passion is music. I used to spend every weekend going to see a band or buying records or hanging out with people who have the same interests, or I used to DJ a lot too. But I learnt to drive, I bought a car, I bought a bike rack, and I then spent the next five years pretty much every weekend driving to a bike race – with Ethan for three years and then with Leo for a couple of years. So it completely impacted my life.” 

Becca – who at least didn’t have to learn to drive to support her cyclist son – describes it as mainly a matter of additional planning, and trying to limit the impact on Fred’s sister, Lottie. Like many cycling families, the Wrights’ experience was one of missed holidays, instead swapping trips away for summers travelling to the Isle of Man Tour or the Junior Tour of Wales. Their life became carefully planned around a whiteboard calendar in their kitchen, listing all of Fred’s races and events.

“We just had to make sure that we were free,” Becca says. “You had to think about it and make a plan, but I don’t feel that we really missed out on anything. It’s just more stuff that you’ve got to organise.”

The parent-cyclist relationship 

For all that cyclists’ parents put into supporting their child’s pursuit of cycling, one of the important things to remember is that they are just that: a parent. Tim and Becca both recall memories of being trackside or roadside with some overbearing parents, whose support perhaps sometimes crossed the line from nurture to pressure, something Tim and Becca were keen not to do. As Tim Hayter tells me, it was advice from a parent of one of Great Britain’s most successful cyclists that has stuck with him.

Your job is to support your child. Make sure they keep doing their schooling. Make sure they’re fed and watered and looked after. It’s not to tell them what they did wrong in the race or how they should have done better

Tim Hayter

“Adrian Trott [father of Laura Kenny] said to me at an early GB camp ‘you’ve got to remember that you’re a parent, not a coach, and the two things are separate roles’,” he recounts. “Your job is to support your child. Make sure they keep doing their schooling. Make sure they’re fed and watered and looked after. It’s not to tell them what they did wrong in the race or how they should have done better and what they could do better next time. These things are separate and if you mix the two up you’ll get into trouble.”

“I remember my mum saying to me once, ‘oh I’m a bit worried that Fred is doing too much and you’re pushing him’,” Becca says. “And I was like ‘mum, we really never push him.’ I’m the one going ‘Fred, come and watch telly with us’ and he’d go ‘no, I’m on the rollers’. Definitely the opposite of being pushy, it was me trying to distract him and stop him doing all the training!”

Neither coming from cycling backgrounds, Tim and Becca explain how they would never dream of trying to tell their children how to race, because they know their children know better than them anyway. Both also note that parents being overbearing was rarely a notable precursor to success. 

“Any who have been pushed into it at all are just not going to continue it,” Becca observes. “You have to want to do it for yourself.”

Photo: Phil Wright

Financial backing  

Time, effort and support are all crucial, but money is often the first hurdle for a child who wants to start cycling. Even the most supportive and committed parents must also be able to provide financially – and cycling can be an expensive sport. 

“Both of us are self-employed and fairly precarious in our income,” explains Becca Wright. She is a casting director, whilst Fred’s dad Phil is an actor. “Sometimes you might have money, sometimes you don’t. So it was hard.”

At the start, Fred got by on borrowed bikes and wheels from the velodrome, and later with equipment bought for him by a cycling enthusiast family friend. 

There would be kids with amazingly expensive bicycles, but with Fred we’d say ‘well you don’t need that, you’re keeping up with them, you’re better than them, and you’ve got the most basic frame’

Becca Wright

“But what I think was quite good, was that it meant that from very early on Fred didn’t have all the flashy stuff,” Becca says. “There would be kids with amazingly expensive bicycles, but with Fred we’d say ‘well you don’t need that, you’re keeping up with them, you’re better than them, and you’ve got the most basic frame’ so I think that stood him in good stead.”

Like Fred, Ethan Hayter also started riding on bikes borrowed from VC Londres at Herne Hill Velodrome – something the club always tries to do to help close the gap in terms of money and equipment – but soon he needed his own. 

“In 2013, he decided he wanted to do the Assen Youth Tour, which meant he wanted to get a better bike,” Tim says. “That was fine, but then things started escalating a bit. He persuaded my dad to buy him some Fast Forward wheels, so that’s 600 quid, which is quite a lot of money. That was a bit of an investment.”

Ethan and Fred were both fortunate enough to join British Cycling’s development programme and receive additional support, but neither would have been able to get to that point if it weren’t for their parents and clubs that were able – and willing – to cover the costs that can quickly run into the thousands.

“It’s an expensive sport to encourage people to get into,” Becca concludes, echoing the experience of every cyclist and their families, one that can stop many from having the chance to pursue their dream.

Photo: Phil Wright

Education

Getting a child through school and exams is hard enough for any parent, but there are extra challenges when trying to balance school with trying to become a professional cyclist. Becca Wright doesn’t recall many issues from Fred’s teens, explaining that cycling and revision provided a welcome balance in their lives. Fred left school with impressive A-Level grades and an offer to study at Bristol University – though of course, the choice between university and joining the British Cycling programme at 18 was a no-brainer. 

But for the Hayters, education was “a constant source of friction”, with Ethan and Leo both wanting to direct their hard work towards cycling instead of studying.

“They had lots of pep talks from me or their mum or their school saying ‘work harder’ and they just didn’t, or wouldn’t,” Hayter recounts. 

“I think Ethan realised quite early on that he was going to make it as a cyclist, so he would do what he needed to do at school, which he did,” Hayter explains. Ethan completed his GCSEs, but left sixth form a year early when he turned 18, opting to join British Cycling’s senior squad instead of finish his A-Levels, whilst Leo left school with a BTEC in sport. 

With both Ethan and Leo on extremely successful paths – an Olympic and world championships medals on the track, three national titles, and a recent win at the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege are among their achievements in the last few months alone – it would be easy to see their educational choices as justified in hindsight, but that doesn’t mean the years of balancing school and cycling were any easier for the Hayters. 

Parental worries

As well as being soigneurs, chefs and chauffeurs and trying to do their best to support their children, Becca and Tim both tell me about the amplified parental worries that come with sending your child off into the world of professional cycling.

Tim likens the experience to a child going to university – after all, it’s not unusual for a child to leave home at 18. But it’s clear there is a difference: most parents don’t send their child to Europe for nine to ten months of the year, and their worries are more likely to centre on grades and managing their money, rather than contract renewals and broken collarbones.

With the crashes, everyone was saying ‘this is the craziest Tour de France start we’ve ever had’ and I was just thinking ‘oh my god, my baby is doing this’

Becca Wright

“I get incredibly stressed,” says Becca when I ask her about watching Fred race. “For lots of the Tour [de France], I couldn’t watch live. With the crashes, everyone was saying ‘this is the craziest Tour de France start we’ve ever had’ and I was just thinking ‘oh my god, my baby is doing this’ and of course he was the youngest rider in the race too. It’s a mix of thrilling and exhausting because it’s so nerve-racking.” 

For all that Becca is proud of her son and enjoys watching him do what he loves, she also tells me that being a parent to a professional athlete is not something she would wish on others. “The pressure is so high, it’s really hard,” she says, a surprisingly candid moment in our conversation, underlining that the hard parts aren’t the long drives or the missed holidays or the high costs, but rather the fact of just wanting the best for your child in a fiercely competitive world. 

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – 17/10/2021 – Cycling – Men’s National Road Championships – Rapha Lincoln GP – Lincoln, England – Podium – Men’s National Road Championships winner INEOS Grenadiers’s Ben Swift with Bahrain Victorious’s Fred Wright second & INEOS Grenadier’s Ethan Hayter third.

A sense of community 

From speaking to Tim and Becca, it’s clear that one of the best parts about their sons pursuing a career in cycling is the community they’ve found among other parents. Especially for those who don’t come from a cycling background, having a group of parents to go through the wholly unusual experience of raising a cyclist with has been invaluable.

“It’s introduced me to a lot of people I wouldn’t otherwise have met,” Tim says. “There are some fantastic parents in the cycling community.”

It’s a sentiment Becca shares, calling the community of parents, and at Herne Hill Velodrome, a “huge plus” of Fred’s involvement in the sport. Indeed, as we speak, Becca and husband Phil are getting ready to travel to Oldham to watch the Olympic omnium with Matt Walls’ parents – an event he ended up winning gold in, and in doing so sparked joy in not only his own parents, but a whole crop of cycling mums and dads up and down the country. 

For all the family holidays sacrificed, hours spent driving around the UK, and afternoon’s spent nail-bitingly watching races, there’s one thing all the parents I speak to have in common: they have no regrets about having helped their child to achieve their dreams of becoming a professional cyclist. “It’s fantastic for all of us to see that our kids have found something that they excel at and enjoy.”

Featured photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – 02/09/2018 – Cycling – OVO Energy Tour of Britain 2018 – Stage 1 Pembrey Country Park to the City of Newport Great Britain Cycling Team Ethan HAYTER Fred Wright