Haribos, Taekwondo and stubbornness : Inside the Hayters' rise to success
While one was dominating the U23 Giro d’Italia, the other was going head-to-head with Wout van Aert at the Critérium du Dauphiné. We sat down with Ethan and Leo Hayter to find out how they’ve become two of the most exciting young talents in the peloton
The Hayters pop up on my screen from a hotel in Dumfries, Scotland. Less than 24 hours earlier, they’d both won National Championship titles in the individual time trial, with Leo winning the U23 race by 17 seconds after a mid-race bike change, and Ethan utterly dominating the elite race, taking victory with a margin of one minute and 14 seconds over second place finisher Dan Bigham.
“It was alright. Good, I guess,” Ethan responds when I ask him how he feels about yesterday’s performance. Leo nods nonchalantly in agreement, chewing on another Haribo from the bag of sweets that sits in between the two brothers. While, for the sake of the interview, I would have hoped for a slightly more elaborate and emotional answer, I’m not surprised by their laid-back attitude towards the events of the day before.
The thing is, the Hayters have become pretty used to winning races. Last year alone, Ethan had ten victories on the road, took home a silver medal from the Tokyo Olympics and became Omnium World Champion on the track. Leo won the U23 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, took a stage win at the Tour de Bretagne and secured the U23 National Time Trial Championship, all in only his second year out of the juniors.
This season, the success hasn’t stopped for either of them. Less than one week before our interview, Leo took home the pink jersey in the Giro d'Italia Giovani Under 23 – known to many as the ‘Baby Giro’ – one of the most prestigious U23 stage races on the calendar. Won by the likes of Pavel Sivakov, Juan Ayuso and even the great Marco Pantani in years gone by, a victory in the Baby Giro means that you’re, well, very good indeed. A race which has become a showground for the brightest young talents to market themselves to the biggest players in the WorldTour, it’s no surprise that Leo has had lots of teams come knocking since he took victory by over two minutes.
Leo Hayter wins stage two of the Giro d'Italia U23 (Image: Hagens Berman Axeon/258 Protege)
“I’ve had a lot of options,” Leo explains when I ask him about his plans for next year. “Jamie, my agent, will sort it out. I want to go somewhere where I have a few years to find my place and not really have too much pressure straight away. Maybe a year where I can find my feet at the highest level,” he says.
Understandably, Leo is cagey about his options. The elephant in the room is that rumours have been swirling around social media that the young Brit will join his brother Ethan at Ineos Grenadiers when he makes the switch to WorldTour. I tiptoe my way around the subject, tentatively asking if the two of them would be happy to ride on the same team in future seasons.
“I think it'd be nice. Although it would also be nice to race against each other, too,” responds Ethan. It’s in this answer that I sense a slight rivalry between the pairing.
“Leo keeps telling me he’s faster than me, but I beat his time for two laps yesterday, but then he tells me I have a faster bike, so we’ll see what happens,” Ethan continues. With the National Road Race coming just two days later, I wonder if the two of them would work together to ensure a Hayter pulls on a stripy jersey there.
“Nah I’m not gonna help him,” Leo says with a smile. “He’d probably chase me down,” responds Ethan. There’s a jokey tone to the exchange, but the glint in Ineos Grenadiers rider’s eye tells me he wouldn’t cope too well with his younger brother getting the better of him just yet.
Both the Hayters seem to have a somewhat ruthless desire to win. When I ask if they can put their finger on what has made them successful so far, Ethan points to this as the answer. “We’re both just quite stubborn, that’s a good starting point,” he says. “Genetically, there's obviously something. But actually we're quite different physiologies, I’m a different build to Leo. We’re also fortunate to be brought up with good dinners and an easy lifestyle.”
“Lots of chocolate brownies,” Leo adds. “But I think I’m too competitive sometimes, like super competitive. I love to win.”
Despite this familial rivalry, it’s clear that Ethan has been a driving force in his brother’s success over the years. With Leo three years younger, he’s grown up watching his older sibling take the cycling world by storm. “I think it's helped me whenever I've had a rough patch, like COVID this year, or when I had some other problems last year, he's just been winning all the time,” Leo says. “That does motivate me, when I haven’t left for my ride at 2pm and I’m sitting on the sofa and I see that, I’m like, shit, I better go training.”
It was Ethan’s advice that helped Leo to victory in the Baby Giro, too. “I think before the start, Leo was going to wait for one of the stages and just go for the one stage. But I said just try from the start and don't sit up and lose time in the early stages, keep trying and see what happens,” Ethan explains.
It’s a good job that Leo took on this guidance throughout the race. After winning stage two, he also catapulted himself into the race lead. The next day, he took his second stage win of the race in the pink jersey, winning by over four minutes on the hardest stage of the entire race.
“That was basically just a stupidly long day,” Leo tells me. “Including the neutral, it was like six hours. I think the grupetto did it in like seven and a half hours. After the last real climb, there was a descent and then it was still a 30km false flat. I think everyone else thought of that big climb as the finish line and they emptied themselves. I still had gas for that last long false flat and when I went, no one could follow me.”
Leo Hayter and his mum, Nicky, at the end of the Giro d'Italia U23 (Image: Hagens Berman Axeon/258 Protege)
From then, Leo held on to pink throughout the whole race, coping admirably with the pressure of leading one of the most important races of his season. As he crossed the finish line after the final stage in Pinerolo, his parents were waiting for him on the other side. It was an emotional moment for the young Brit when he spotted them in the crowd. “It was a complete surprise,” he says. “After I hugged my dad it was like a release. At that point it was like, okay, now I've won and I can relax.”
Much of the Hayters' cycling journey has been a family affair, with their parents, Tim and Nicky, a crucial factor in Ethan and Leo’s success. Countless journeys to races up and down the country as they were growing up and unwavering support throughout the early stages of their career means both brothers are grateful to their family.
“Both mum and dad have been amazing,” Ethan says. “We have the Hayter chat on Facebook with all this rubbish being posted,” adds Leo. There is also a third Hayter sibling, Lucy, who Ethan and Leo explain is relieved not to be a part of the cycling circus. “She did try cycling before but I think she saw all the injuries and thought it wasn’t worth it. She quite enjoys living a bit more of a normal young person lifestyle. Few more parties,” jokes Ethan.
Growing up at Herne Hill Velodrome and being part of VC Londres, a cycling club based in the area, is also something both Ethan and Leo see as key to their development as athletes. “I think it sets the tone for the rest of your cycling,” says Ethan. “You go down and everyone's racing but no one's really that stressed about it or serious. It's just a nice environment and it makes it fun.”
“It's easy going,” adds Leo. “There are people now who are like 13 or 14 who are training with power metres and Training Peaks, but until I was 16 I would just go to Herne Hill and ride a bike and now I’m here, it’s more enjoyable that way.”
“There's definitely a bit of a rush to be super professional as young as possible. I think that's not the best thing to do,” explains Ethan. “You need to be a bit more relaxed if you want some longevity in your career.”
Both riders also see value in growing up doing a variety of different sports to help create a well rounded athlete. “The more sports you do, the more opportunities you have to learn different things. In road cycling, most of the training is quite monotonous and simple. It's just hours and your bike. With the track you learn a lot more skills,” says Ethan.
“The more sports you do when you're younger, the less chance of you getting bored and burnt out when you have to focus on one thing when it comes down to it.”
Perhaps slightly unorthodox, Taekwondo was the sport of choice for the Hayters before they began their cycling careers. “I think more than anything, I was learning discipline. When you had those sessions you had to do everything they told you,” Leo explains.
Ethan Hayter at the end of the 2022 National Time Trial Championships (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
Despite their success so far, both Leo and Ethan appear acutely aware of their age and how much development there still is to come for both of them. Neither are fully aware of what type of rider they are, or which races are best suited to them.
“It's hard, I think that [Wout] van Aert has similar problems,” says Ethan. “I’m a bit of an all-rounder. I can't pick every race, I will have to specialise and target certain races. If you do every race, you’re going to be fifth in every race and tired. There’s a risk of becoming a Jack of all trades and master of none.”
“I can probably improve my climbing a bit still,” he continues. “But it comes down to the thing where you start to get better at climbing you get worse at the things that win the races like the sprints. So it’s a balancing act and something I need to play around with.”
As for Leo: “I’m the opposite, I need to improve on going downhill,” he says with a smile. “I think for my general performance I need to have a more balanced lifestyle. I think that's where I do go wrong. Most of my life is cycling. So when cycling is going badly it kind of hits me a bit more than it should or than it would hit most people.”
It’s in this answer that the younger Hayter exhibits some real vulnerability. At just 20 years old, he’s courting WorldTour teams and coping with the media attention that comes with winning one of the biggest races on the calendar. It’s good fortune, though, that he has his older brother to guide him through the process
“I can learn from his professionalism,” says Leo. “I know we’re sitting here eating Haribos in an interview but when I’m with him I do pick up on things he does and think, maybe I should be doing that as well.”
“Yeah like hoovering,” Ethan quips back.
“I’m not as bad as he makes out,” responds Leo.
Through all the banter, it’s clear that having a brother in the peloton is something that both Leo and Ethan will value, especially as the demands on professional riders get harder each year. “Your goals get higher and higher. You’re expected to perform and ride in a certain way, it’s never bad pressure, just a small push on the back to help you along the way,” says Ethan. “There's maybe more pressure to perform but it's good. That's how I think sport is, it's your job to perform.”
While Ethan says he dreams of winning a World Championship title on the road and Classics like Flanders or Roubaix, Leo sees himself as a rider who could follow in the footsteps of some of Britain’s best GC riders. Though they might be on different career paths, both the Hayters appear to have the mentality that will help them continue their success, and the bond of brotherhood seems to make them even stronger yet.
Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix