Cycling careers don't normally begin this well. Three stages into his first Baby Giro, the Giro d'Italia Giovani Under 23 officially, and Leo Hayter has won two stages and sits 5-48 ahead of his nearest rival on general classification. With just one mountain stage to come this week, the 20-year-old might have already wrapped up the pink jersey.
In a display which feels more like PlayStation-cycling than real world sport, the Hagens Berman Axeon rider won stage two to Pinzolo by 39 seconds, to move into the lead overall, and then backed this up the next day with a massive victory on stage three.
On Monday, on a stage to Santa Caterina Valfurva that featured four categorised climbs, including the Passo di Guspessa, Hayter finished a ridiculous 4-55 ahead of Romain Grégoire (Equipe continentale Groupama-FDJ) in second place. On a day with 5094 metres of climbing, he dropped everyone to establish a commanding lead on GC.
To put the stage into context, only one stage at this year's senior Giro d'Italia featured more climbing than Monday's Baby Giro stage, which makes Hayter's achievement all the more impressive.
Crossing the finish line, the young man from London even had enough time to sit up and bow in celebration, with the knowledge that he had just ripped apart the race. It does not normally happen like this.
🔥 Dopo 5000 metri di dislivello, ecco l'epilogo di oggi! 🔥 After 5000m of climbing it all came down to this!#Girogiovani2022 #giroditaliau23 @HBAxeon @leohayter pic.twitter.com/h7yb2KxBYvJune 13, 2022
At last year's Tour de France Tadej Pogačar put over three minutes into his rivals on stage eight to Le Grand-Bornand, but that was an epic feat, something we had become unused to seeing in cycling. Hayter's efforts are as remarkable as Chris Froome's 80km solo break to secure overall victory at the 2018 Giro.
The Baby Giro has become one of the key events for developing riders to show their promise off in recent years. It was won by Pavel Sivakov (now with Ineos Grenadiers) in 2017, Aleksandr Vlasov (now with Bora-Hansgrohe) in 2018, Tom Pidcock (now with Ineos Grenadiers) in 2020, and by Juan Ayuso (now with UAE Team Emirates) last year. These four are, or have been, some of the most promising riders in the world of cycling, with multiple senior wins between them already.
Hayter's older brother Ethan won two stages at the 2019 edition, before he also joined Ineos, so the family have history at the Italian race. Even Ethan, however, did not impress as much as Leo has so far.
The British U23 time trial champion joined Hagens Berman Axeon, the American continental team run by Axel Merckx, after leaving his contract with Team DSM's development squad early in the winter. He won the U23 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2021, proving his promise.
Speaking to Cycling Weekly at the end of last year, Hayter said: "Unless everything goes wrong, the plan is to go pro in 2023. It's nice knowing though that I still have one more year as a cushion at U23 if I need another year. I don't think I will though."
Merckx, the Hagens Berman Axeon team boss, told VeloNews on Tuesday: “It’s been two good days, that’s for sure...
“On the second stage win [Lenny] Martinez (Equipe continentale Groupama-FDJ) had such a big gap on the last descent that I thought that the stage and overall were gone but Leo and Lennert Van Eetvelt kept working on it and caught Romain Grégoire and then I think the FDJ guys lost it. They just collapsed,” Merckx said.
“They were suffering, with maybe the heat or dehydration. It’s not usual that we do a race with over 5,000 meters of elevation. Martinez was tired and Leo was basically able to keep his composure and maintain the pace that he had throughout the stage.”
There is just one more big mountain stage to come at this Baby Giro, on day six up to the Colle Fauniera. If Hayter can keep in the pink jersey through that, it will be a huge step forward for the man from London.
"I don’t think that the overall is finished," Merckx continued. "There are still some tricky stages ahead and it’s only five riders per team. Take Leo out of it and it’s only four guys. It’s really hectic racing so it’s hard to control. We’ve come here for stage wins, we’ve done that, and now we’re going to defend as much as we can. Hopefully, Leo can keep his legs for the remaining stages that are to come.”
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