Despite a difficult season, newly crowned British U23 time trial champion Leo Hayter has ended 2021 on a high. A brilliant solo victory in the U23 version of Liège-Baston-Liège in September marked a career high point for the young Londoner, and it was followed with further success, including a stage win at the Tour de Bretagne.
Although he has no record of success in time trialling, Hayter also took victory at last week's British National Championships with an impressive gap of 53 seconds to second place.
"It went surprisingly well," he said. "I haven't actually done a time trial since Yorkshire in 2019. I knew from the halfway point I was going pretty well because I had a general pacing plan to keep to and I knew my halfway time was way faster than I thought I would go. The rest just worked out."
Hayter has given himself and Development Team DSM, plenty to celebrate in the latter part of the season.
"Since Norway, I guess I've just felt really good all the time," Hayter said.
"Probably because of the break I had in the middle of the year, I haven't really tailed off in form yet."
"After the time off I had a big block in Spain of really hard training, harder than I've ever done before, so I'm going strong for Nationals."
However, his surge in form has not just been a result of physical factors.
"I think I believe in myself a bit more than I used to and in general I'm just riding in a smarter, better way," he explained.
20-year-old Hayter has been open about his struggles with motivation and connection with the sport in recent months and years. He posted on social media in August explaining that he'd taken a break from cycling in May to find out 'what he really wanted' after admitting to struggling with the transition to racing at a higher level.
On his post he stated, "having a sport being the biggest thing in your life for years to suddenly not wanting to have anything do with it was the most mentally draining thing I've ever been through."
He was widely praised for his openness and he admitted that while it wasn't easy, he had people around him who were able to help.
"There's a lot of places I can find support but it's not always the easiest thing to do," he said. "For me the person that I always come back to is my coach, Roy [Curvers]. He was a pro for a really long time, and I just found it really easy to open up with him. He went through a similar thing when he was a little bit older than me so that was always someone who kept pushing me through it."
Leo Hayter's path diverged from the traditional British Cycling route through the track and into a British team. Instead, he signed for DSM's development squad in 2020 and is now based in Netherlands.
"It's a little bit isolated but it works for me. The area that I train in is really good, especially compared to living in London where I've always lived."
He confirmed he would remain there in 2022, and outlined his plans in terms of his proposed racing schedule.
"I'm going to stay under-23 for next year, I've got another year with DSM, and I really want to go for the races I missed this year. The Baby Giro, Tour de l'Avenir and Worlds I think would be the big three.
"I've never really gone into a season targeting a set of races, and if it's possible then I want to go for those three, but it's not just up to me it's up to the team and logistics. Then hopefully in 2024 start as a professional rider."
Hayter isn't altogether certain on what type of rider he sees himself developing into.
"GC makes the most sense because I can climb pretty well and time trial pretty well, but that's another reason I want to stay U23 for another year because there I really have the freedom to explore different avenues, and I don't really know what my niche is yet."
The question of young riders being rushed into pro careers has been a point of contention recently, with concern among cycling circles over some riders plateauing following success at junior level.
Hayter doesn't necessarily feel it's the best path for everyone.
"Yeah I agree, I don't know if it's always the right thing to do. I would say I was pretty successful as a junior and maybe if I had the same success as a junior then as I do now then I would have had a pro contract lined up for next year already. It's just the way that things are going but I think these years I've had now, learning more about myself, and what works for me is really important."
In a sport replete with siblings, and especially in a year where elder brother Ethan has achieved so much, it's impossible to resist asking whether there is a rivalry between the pair, despite them not having faced each other very often.
"I haven't raced him that much but in Norway I did, and I was really racing against him there and I really enjoyed that," he said.
Sadly, despite the family having much to celebrate in recent months a key family member was missing at the Nationals.
"I feel really bad because my family are actually stuck at home because my dad's got Covid," Hayter revealed.
On a damp, grey Sunday in Lincoln, Hayter dug deep to stay in contention, despite having trouble in the early part of the race.
"I missed the lead group completely and felt really bad for the first few hours," he said.
"But at one point I thought, 'I've had enough at the back here and just went for it on my own."
He launched a brave solo move to bridge to James Shaw's group and between them, they worked to close the gap. Hayter took an impressive eighth place overall, and third place in the U23 category.
With one year left at this level, if he continues in his current vein of form there's every chance he will improve upon that in 2022 and go on to challenge on the biggest stage.
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