Ethan Hayter interview: British cyclist on breaking his back, a first pro win and no Olympics in a tough 2020

Racing cyclist Ethan Hayter at the National Cycling Centre, Manchester. - Asadour Guzelian 
Racing cyclist Ethan Hayter at the National Cycling Centre, Manchester. – Asadour Guzelian

To say the year did not go as planned for Olympic athletes would be understating things. But when Ethan Hayter says it he really, really means it. On the day he was meant to be winning team pursuit gold in Tokyo this summer –Wednesday August 5 – the 22-year-old Londoner broke his back.

“Yep, crashed at Milano-Torino, my second race for Team Ineos,” says Hayter. “Broke it in three places. It kind of sums up a pretty average year for me to be honest.”

Hayter is not kidding. A year that began with huge disappointment on the track, Great Britain failing to qualify for a medal ride in the team pursuit at the track world championships in Berlin – a discipline they have dominated at the Olympics since Beijing 2008 – seemed at times to be cursed. 

After Tokyo 2020 was officially postponed, Hayter initially enjoyed sunny lockdown training rides with his flat mates (and fellow cyclists) Fred Wright and Matt Walls, only to develop tendonitis. “I got a niggle and tried to train through it,” he admits. “Obviously I couldn’t get a massage or anything [due to lockdown]. I couldn’t get a scan as it was emergency appointments only. I ended up taking a few weeks off.”

Hayter admits he struggled mentally during those weeks. “It was definitely the worst point of the year,” he says. Quite an admission from someone who broke his back a few months later. “I just played PlayStation and watched TV. You start falling into a bad routine, especially as an athlete. There was literally nothing to do and nothing to plan for. 

“There was a day when I was just getting back into training and I got five minutes up the road and my knee got sore and I had to turn around. I went and sat in a local park and I thought ‘What the —-  am I doing?’ I wasn’t in floods of tears but it was a low point. I would take a broken bone over that any day.”

The hits kept on coming. When the road season finally started up again post-lockdown, Hayter broke his back as mentioned. That meant six weeks on the sidelines. Then, just when things were looking up, with Hayter grabbing his first professional win at the Giro dell’Appennino, experiencing his first road world championships and enjoying a few of the Ardennes Classics, he went and broke his fibula and ruptured knee ligaments in another crash at his final race of the season, Ghent-Wevelgem. “Yep seven weeks of rehab,” he says, laughing. “I only got back to full training earlier this month.”

Needless to say Hayter – one of the Tokyo Eight whose progress Telegraph Sport is tracking in the build-up to next year’s Games – is hoping 2021 goes rather more smoothly. 

It could be argued the 12-month delay to Tokyo was a blessing in disguise, giving the Great Britain quartet time to reduce the deficit to their rivals in what is one of track cycling’s fastest-evolving disciplines.

The Danes, in particular, were on another level in Berlin, smashing the world record multiple times en route to gold, while New Zealand, Italy and Australia all went under 3min 50sec, a barrier Great Britain have never broken. Although Hayter is not prepared to accept that Great Britain could not have won this year.

“I don’t know,” he says. “The delay could work for us. But I still think in qualifying, you know, when it’s just you on track [rather than two teams where you can benefit from a slipstream], we were only four seconds off the Danes in Berlin. I think it was definitely doable this year. I’m not saying we would definitely have done it. But it was definitely possible.

“We had a lot more to come physically and with the whole Olympic spin on things that happens every four years [Great Britain’s now traditional peaking for the Games] we’d have been confident of a medal. But the Danes have definitely pushed it on a bit so gold would have been a challenge.” Nevertheless, Hayter admits the Danes’ searing pace in Berlin was a wake-up call. The British quartet went back to Manchester and immediately reset their targets; revising what they thought would be needed to strike gold in Japan and reverse-engineering a means to that end.

As well as the team pursuit, Hayter has designs on medals in both the omnium and the Madison in Tokyo provided he can convince the selectors that he deserves to ride in all three events. He plans to do just that.

This year may have been “pretty average” by his standards (Hayter has been described by his team-mate, the three-time Olympic champion Ed Clancy, as “the next Bradley Wiggins”) but he has lost nothing in terms of ambition.

“I’d still like to [ride all three],” he says. “And I think it’s still possible. There are some pretty good riders trying to get those spots. But I think everyone should aim as high as they possibly can. Then if you fall short of those high goals you’re generally going to be going for something pretty big. Like, even if I only get selected for one event, I’d still be going to the Olympics. That’s pretty huge.”