What’s extraordinary about Leo Hayter’s recent victory at the Giro d’Italia U23, beyond his overwhelming dominance, is that no one saw it coming. Not even Hayter himself.
His name wasn’t on the pre-race favorites list, but he wasn’t even on the entry list until 10 days before the start in Gradara. Hayter was, it turns out, a reserve driver for Axeon Hagens Berman and was only called up thanks to a late retirement.
“I’ve had a bit of a shitty year in general,” Hayter told Cycling news. “I got COVID twice, and the second time, in early March, I was knocked out. I couldn’t really train properly for a month, I was so tired. Then I struggled to find the rhythm and I had a few minor injuries. .
“I did Liège and had a whim in there, then I did the Tour de Bretagne and had a whim for seven days, but a week later I went visiting my girlfriend in Italy and suddenly, I don’t know, I felt good on the bike. Since then, I feel better and better.”
When a place opened up on the Giro team, Hayter felt he had the legs to eventually aim for a stage win, if not the overall – a role that was to fall to American rider Matthew Riccitello. This stage victory came early and, true to the general nature of Hayter’s Giro, unexpectedly.
“I hadn’t planned on going to the second leg at all,” Hayter said. “We had a fast guy who was going to sprint but an opportunity came up on the front climb some of the favorites were attacking then it stalled for a while and I knew it was the right time to go. I’m just went without thinking.”
Hayter crossed the line alone, 39 seconds ahead of the peloton, and took the pink jersey.
What happened the next day was something else entirely, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is a stage and a race that will go down in racing history.
Stage 3 was a 183 km journey through the Italian Alps with three major climbs and 5,000 meters of vertical drop – not including a nearly hour-long uphill neutral zone. It would be brutal for a Grand Tour, let alone an U23 race. Hayter won by almost five minutes.
What’s even more staggering is that he had started the tough last walk down the valley about two minutes behind Lenny Martinez, Groupama-FDJ’s promising pocket climber, so he put almost seven minutes into the favorite pre-race in the space of 30 km. .
The stats were extraordinary, but, in the absence of live TV coverage, Hayter recalled how it all went on the road.
“The neutral zone was 13km up the mountain and took 55 minutes, and it really wasn’t easy. The start was a few miles from the top, so it was like this crazy race uphill and then downhill. super fast descent. Before we started , I thought there was only one way it could get harder and that was time, and just as we started the descent he started hailing. It was terrible. There was a stream coming down the mountain, people were attacking downhill, it was crazy, and it was like that all day.
“The Guspesso was the main climb, really steep at around 11km at 11%. I got into a good position but wasn’t expecting much. In fact, I was really struggling at the start. But I kind of got the I felt like it never got harder and it got less and less crowded. When Martinez left, I couldn’t really keep up. In fact, I didn’t didn’t really try. I let him go and from then on I followed Lennert Van Eetvelt, who put on a tough, but comfortable hard pace.
“Then we took the descent and everything turned upside down again. The other FDJ guy who was with us, Romain Grégoire, left so when we reached the valley, it was me and Lennert, then Grégoire 20 seconds ahead and then Martinez two minutes ahead. So FDJ was in control and I thought it was the race over and Martinez had it in the bag. But we rode well and when we got to Grégoire I kinda kicked to try and drop it but when I looked behind Lennert wasn’t there either. They were both completely stalled. The road was really unforgiving there, it was like 3% and headwind so if you left anything on the pedals you lost all momentum. I then came over to Martinez and the same thing happened. It’s not really his turf but I I could tell he was screwed I just went and when I looked back he wasn’t not there either.
“From then on it was a slight 25km time trial to the line, and every time I had a time gap it was 20 seconds longer than the last one. It went on for four minutes and I was like ‘what the fuck’ I was in disbelief but I believed it too because, the way I dropped them all, it made sense. I remember saying to Axel: ‘I can keep this pace but tell me if the gap closes and I’ll go harder’ but yeah, I never needed to.”
It’s amazing to think that Hayter still had extra reserves in the tank, and he credits his performance – in addition to his sheer strength – to his experience, being two years older than Martinez and better versed in pitstops and pace. .
‘Lots of options’ to turn pro in 2023
Either way, Hayter finished so far ahead that he was done with doping and the press before he saw another runner. He led the Giro by nearly six minutes and as he “pushed” to assume he had won it, it was his throwaway race.
The remaining four stages were less of a Leo Hayter spectacle and more of an exercise in controlling the race and completing it.
“Because the gap was so big, it was very easy for us to be honest,” he said. “It got to the point where the others were sort of racing for second place. Lotto and FDJ had to cover each other’s moves, and not us, because I could afford to lose three minutes. It worked out really well for us.”
Speaking on Monday, two days after lifting the trophy at Pinerolo, Hayter was reluctant to bask in the glory of his win, noting instead that ‘life goes on’ and he would have to ‘prove himself’ in the next few months. races, which include the British nationals, the Tour d’Alsace and probably the Tour de l’Avenir.
However, he acknowledged that it wouldn’t have done him a disservice when it comes to turning professional next year. After leaving Team DSM for Axeon following a dispute over when he could turn pro, Hayter said Cycling news that he will take this step in January 2023 and that it is now less about finding a WorldTour contract than choosing which one.
“I would say now, for me, next year is a good time to turn pro, starting in January,” Hayter said.
“I haven’t found the team yet, but as you can imagine I just won the Baby Giro, I have a lot of options and I’m working them out with my manager.”
Hayter, younger brother of Ineos pro Ethan, said he was still trying to figure out exactly what rider he would become, and revealed he was still trying to find balance in his career and life, after taking time off sport last year to rediscover his motivation.
“There are always difficult days,” he said. “It was really tough when I was battling COVID. When things aren’t going well for a while, you lose a lot of self-confidence and you sort of lose meaning, I would say.
“But usually when things are going well on the bike, everything else is going well and I’m happy. There will always be tough days, but you just have to trust that at some point it’s going to click, and that did it at the Tower.”