The extraordinary thing about Leo Hayter's recent victory at the U23 Giro d'Italia, beyond the crushing dominance of it, was the fact that no one saw it coming. Not even Hayter himself.
His name was not on the list of top pre-race favourites, but nor was it even on the entry list until 10 days before the start in Gradara. Hayter was, it turns out, a reserve rider for Axeon Hagens Berman and only got his call-up thanks to a late drop-out.
"I'd had a bit of a shit year in general," Hayter explained to Cyclingnews. "I got COVID twice, and the second time, in early March, knocked me out. I couldn't really train properly for a month, I was just so fatigued. Then I struggled to get back into the rhythm and had some small injuries.
"I did Liège and got my head kicked in there, then did Tour de Bretagne and got my head kicked in for seven days, but then a week later I went to visit my girlfriend in Italy and suddenly, I don't know, I just felt good on the bike. Since then I've just been feeling better and better."
When a spot opened up on the Giro squad, Hayter felt like he had the legs to possibly target a stage win, if not the overall - a role that was due to fall to US rider Matthew Riccitello. That stage win came early and, true to the overall nature of Hayter's Giro, unexpectedly.
"I wasn't planning at all to go on the second stage," Hayter said. "We had a fast guy who was going to go for the sprint but an opportunity came up on the climb before, some of the favourites were attacking then it stalled for a moment and I knew it was a good time to go. I just went without thinking."
Hayter crossed the line alone, 39 seconds up on the bunch, and took the pink jersey.
Re-living that extraordinary day in the Alps
What happened the following day was something else entirely, and it's no exaggeration to say it's a stage and ride that will go down in the race's history.
Stage 3 was a 183km trip through the Italian Alps with three major climbs and 5,000 metres of elevation - not including a near hour-long uphill neutral zone. It would be brutal for a Grand Tour, never mind an U23 race. Hayter won it by almost five minutes.
The even more staggering thing was that he'd started the final slog up the valley some two minutes behind Groupama-FDJ's hot-prospect pocket-climber Lenny Martinez, so he put almost seven minutes into the pre-race favourite in the space of 30km.
The statistics were extraordinary, but, in the absence of live TV coverage, Hayter recalled how it all played out on the road.
"The neutral zone was 13km up the mountain and took 55 minutes, and it definitely wasn't easy. The start was a couple of kilometres before the top, so it was like this mad race up, then super fast down. Before we started, I thought there's only one way this can get any harder and that's the weather, and just as we started the descent it started hailing. It was terrible. There was a stream running 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 like 11km at 11%. I put myself in a good place going into it but I wasn't expecting much. Actually I was really struggling at the start. But I kind of got the feeling it never got harder, and there were fewer and fewer people left. When Martinez went, I couldn't really follow. Actually, I didn't really try. I let him go and from that moment I followed Lennert Van Eetvelt, who was setting a hard pace, but comfortable hard.
"Then we took the descent and it all got messy again. The other FDJ guy who was with us, Romain Gregoire, went away so when we hit the valley it was me and Lennert, then Gregoire 20 seconds ahead, then Martinez two minutes ahead. So FDJ were in control and I thought that was race over and Martinez had it in the bag. But we rode well and when we got to Gregoire I kind of kicked to try and drop him, but when I looked behind Lennert wasn't there either. They'd both completely stalled. The road was really unforgiving there, it was like 3% and headwind so if you let anything off the pedals you lost all momentum. I then came towards Martinez and the same thing happened. It wasn't really his terrain but I could tell he was fucked. I just went and when I looked back he wasn't there either.
"From then on it was a 25km slight uphill TT to the line, and every time I got a time gap it was 20 seconds more than the last. It hit four minutes and I was like 'what the fuck'. I was in disbelief but I also did believe it because, the way I dropped them all, it made sense. I remember saying to Axel: 'I can sustain this pace but tell me if the gap comes down and I'll go harder' but yeah, I never needed to."
It's incredible to think that Hayter still had extra reserves left in the tank, and he puts his performance - on top of sheer strength - down to experience, being two years older than Martinez and better versed in fuelling and pacing.
'A lot of options' to go pro in 2023
Either way, Hayter finished so far ahead that he had completed anti-doping and press before he saw another rider. He led the Giro by nearly six minutes and while it was "pushing it" to assume he'd won it, it was his race to throw away.
The remaining four stages were less the Leo Hayter show and more an exercise in controlling the race and seeing it through.
"Because the gap was so big, it made it really easy for us to be honest," he said. "It got to the point where the others were sort of racing for second. Lotto and FDJ would have to cover each other's moves, and not us, because I could afford to lose three minutes. It worked really well for us."
Speaking on Monday, two days after he lifted the trophy in Pinerolo, Hayter was reluctant to bask in the glory of his victory, instead noting that "life moves on" and that he'd need to 'prove himself' in the next races, which include British nationals, Tour d'Alsace and likely the Tour de l'Avenir.
However, he did acknowledge that it will have done him no disservice when it comes to turning professional next year. After leaving Team DSM for Axeon over a dispute as to when he could go pro, Hayter told Cyclingnews that he will make that step in January 2023 and that it's now less a case of finding a WorldTour contract than choosing which one.
"I would say now, for me, next year is the right time to go pro, from January," Hayter said.
"I haven't found the team yet, but as you can imagine, I've just won the Baby Giro, I've got a lot of options and I'm working through them with my manager."
Hayter, younger brother of Ineos pro Ethan, said he is still figuring out exactly what rider he'll develop into, and revealed he is still trying to find balance in his career and life, having taken time out from the sport last year to rediscover his motivation.
"There are always hard days," he said. "It was definitely hard when I was struggling with COVID. When things aren't going well for a while, you lose a lot of confidence in yourself and you kind of lose meaning, I'd say.
"But typically when things are going well on the bike, everything else goes well and I'm happy. There are always going to be hard days but you just have to trust that at some point it'll click, and it did at the Giro."
Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets
After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1