Within a one-kilometre radius in south London lived Fred, Ethan, Leo and Tom. All different characters, all with their different strengths, they came as a four, racing each other day after day, lap after lap, around Herne Hill Velodrome for as long as they can remember.
Just three years separate the four, who all find themselves part of cycling’s professional peloton, making this pocket of the capital an unlikely conveyor belt of biking talent.
The Hayter brothers — Ethan and Leo — are on Ineos Grenadiers’ books, while Fred Wright has been at Team Bahrain Victorious since 2020.
Tom Gloag is the last to make his mark, at Jumbo-Visma, impressing enough to warrant a late call-up for the current Giro d’Italia, after team-mate Jan Tratnik was hit by a car on the last training ride before the race.
Going around and around at Herne Hill, he was quick but was always given a pasting by the rest of his quartet. And anyway, cycling, which essentially began as cheap childcare — £5 for five hours — in the summer holidays, was more for enjoyment than pure competition.
A keen maths and physics student, with three A-star and an A at A-level, he was enamoured with the film Moneyball and had aspirations to put mathematics to some similar use.
That is until he started going uphill as a 17-year-old on a training camp in Spain, leaving his housemates trailing in his wake.
It is apt that he should have this season recovered from a bout of Covid, as it is the virus that unwittingly acted as his springboard to success. Covid meant no A-levels — his grades were allocated to him — so he packed up to test his hopes in the saddle in Europe.
“In some ways, 2020 was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I had an unconditional offer to read maths and physics at Durham, and cycling was always second — that was on the back-burner and I would get relatively battered at it. But A-levels got cancelled, so I really rode my bike for the first time.”
Living in a village of 100 people in a house with two Mexicans, no Wi-Fi and water which was either freezing cold or boiling hot, he thrived.
The results were immediately good — he won his first four races — and then came the realisation: “I’m not terrible at this.”
Teams started sniffing around, although he still was not sure if the professional cycling route was one he wanted to take. He talked to Ineos Grenadiers, among others, before signing with the new dominant force of men’s cycling, Jumbo-Visma, who boast Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard, three-time Vuelta a Espana winner Primoz Roglic and nine-time Tour de France stage winner Wout van Aert, who won last year’s green jersey.
Jumbo, for him, were the perfect fit, and he is quick to pick the brains of his team-mates, notably Vingegaard, with whom he shares the same coach.
“Every chance I get, I’m sliding in questions,” says Gloag. “And the way I learn best is hearing their stories. Often you learn best from people’s mistakes, and it’s better to hear it from the best in the world. They look so dominant in races, but then you realise they’re human beings.”
The plaudits are coming thick and fast for the 21-year-old, who is refreshingly unaware how good he is or how good he might be. The Giro has been an eye-opener. He started today’s stage in 104th place and has already thrown up under the rigours of an earlier stage.
That he finds himself at this point and riding his first grand tour in Italy is surreal. He talks of his dad as a ‘mamil’ (middle-aged man in lycra) triathlete growing up, who saw Herne Hill Velodrome both as affordable childcare but also a way to get his son off the PlayStation.
It proved a masterstroke. Quite where it takes Gloag is unclear. He has no idea whether he will be a grand tour leader, a stage winner or a super domestique.
“What I do know is I’m not going to beat Cav [Mark Cavendish] in a sprint,” he says. “It all depends on my skillset and what I end up being. The beauty of this sport is seeing how far you can go. Right now, I could be the best I am or I could be whatever. That’s the fun part... finding out.”
And he, the Hayters and Wright still ride out together whenever they can, occasionally allowing themselves to bask in how surreal that four lads from south London have made it to cycling’s top table.