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Helen Wyman: Revolution or Evolution

We speak to Helen about the cyclocross season, her bikes and the equality issues slowly being solved

With the cyclocross season kicking off properly this weekend, we spoke to one of the UK's leading cyclocross riders about her season's goals, the love of mud and how equality is making steady progress in cycling.

In February, Helen won her 10th National cyclocross title, an achievement rarely seen in elite sport. With a new team, Wyman will be looking to remain at the front of races through the coming race season.

Helen Wyman wins national cyclo-cross championship for the 10th time.jpg

The cyclocross season is starting in Waterloo this weekend. How is your race calendar shaping up and what’s your big aim for the season?

The racing calendar is going good so far. You always have to wait a bit in the summer until you get the contracts in for Belgium races to really finalise everything. But I am pretty sure I have a good calendar set for this coming cross season now. Goals are always a secret until I achieve them.

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Some of the best coverage of women’s racing is in cyclocross and the Women's World Championship race went to 50 minutes. How important is race length parity with the men’s events when you’re pushing for equality in the racing scene?

Race time is still set at a minimum of 40 minutes. I really think 50 mins would be perfect for racing. I think the UCI cross commission know it too. If you look at the rules that got agreed at the management committee it includes provision for a junior world cup. This makes me think that they will up the women's race to 50mins once this comes in as they will need to differentiate between the two categories. I don’t think any rider would ever complain about an extra 10mins tv coverage and in most races that would actually only be 1 lap more. I think women's cross is at a great professional level right now and the TV coverage shows how exciting it is, so ultimately it should be reflected in time.

Certain brands and sponsors are really stepping up to offer equal, or significantly increased prize money. Is it time for the riders and teams to start voting with their feet and avoid races that won’t progress?

In my opinion, there are two ways to create equality, revolution or evolution. Women's tennis association took on a revolution and won. If you haven’t watched it the Billie Gene King movie you should, it was fascinating. For cross, however, the position we started in was already different as we had started the process of evolution.  On my time on the cross commission we equalled all prize money in C1 and C2 races, increased overall world cup prize money to almost equal and even before this individual races had chosen to equalise their own events like 90% of races in the USA, Koppenberg then Trek CX World cup. We have gained live tv coverage, decent overall prize funds and UCI cross teams requiring a women. At this point voting with our feet would seem a little late.

I spent a lot of my time on the commission highlighting exactly how fantastic women's cross is as I believe changing the minds of influential people is the biggest battle to reaching equality. I have seen peoples attitudes change so much over the last 5 years it's like having a conversation with different people. I have always said that when we provide financial rewards to stakeholders in the sport we become as important as the elite men and we are nearly there.

The UCI recently announced that they have agreed to equalise prize money by the 2021/22 cross season. People have said to me well they should just do it now. I agree we shouldn't have to wait this long, however, we have. The gap is 30,000 euros per round, that's a massive 270,000 euros across the season. It's not easy to just find that kind of money instantly. I am happy that finally an end date has been given, the organisers have time to find the money and we can hold the UCI accountable to this. Its all within touching distance and while it may not change my life it is something (along with the junior world cup) that will help keep the next generation in the sport.

I still remember the first ever World championships for women in 2000, there are very few riders left racing who have seen so much progress in our sport in a relatively short period of time. We were already 50 years behind the men. So on reflection to reach equality in prize money, tv coverage and world championship race categories in 21 years of existence isn’t so bad after all.

To be clear for the record, when I first went into a UCI Cyclocross Commission meeting some 5 years ago, I asked for a graduated change (not overnight change) and for a timeline to equality to be agreed. Sadly that request wasn’t met and now it’s 4 more years until this change will come into effect.  That will be 9 years from when the request was made.  In reality, we should be sat here now with equality already being the norm.

So let's start the revolution, to the pitchforks…..

You’ve been involved with the UCI and seen the barriers preventing growth in cyclocross. Do you think there is one particular barrier that, if removed, would allow the largest growth in the sport?

Global growth across cross could probably be fixed with it being included in the winter Olympics. It's that simple. The Olympics opens up the sport to worldwide tv coverage that we currently don’t benefit from. However, I’m fairly sure this isn’t a future option. To me maybe input from a global marketing group could grow the sport. Cross is such a fantastic sport to be part of in terms of participation or spectating. I would love it to become as big as road racing and in my opinion, it deserves it. It is the best sport EVER.

Being a cyclocross rider is quite different to being a road rider when it comes to sponsors and you seem to have built a great group of sponsors this year. How did the team form?

I found out last summer that my contract with Kona was not being renewed so I needed to find something from January 1st. At first not much came through, after all, it was the middle of the summer and no one was really thinking about cross season. Then a few people contacted me in December and it went from there really. I was able to put together a fantastic group of people with existing sponsors and new sponsors and pulled it all off just in time for January 1st. I have Stef, my husband, so I was never alone in setting everything up.

Of those sponsors, the one that most caught my eye was KindHuman bikes. They’re not a brand that we’ve seen much of in the UK market. Could you tell us a little more about what attracted you to the brand?

KindHuman are a great bike company. They have a shop in Toronto, Canada. When I was looking for a new bike sponsor I had already seen Jonathon Pages canti bike that he was using from them and it had really nice geometry. They actually contacted me to see if it was possible for them to do anything for me. It's always nice to work with people who really want to work with you too. I like the fact that they are called KindHuman, I think it's a great name and something I really want to be associated with. They are great guys and great bikes so its perfect.

Pro Bikes: Helen Wyman's fleet of KindHuman race bikes

Having attended one of your cyclocross coaching days, is the coaching side something you’re looking to build on?

Yes absolutely. We already have coaching clients and really enjoy helping people reach their goals and are still open to take more. What I love most about the cross clinics are how quickly people learn stuff and how enthused they feel after them. We will be doing more of them in the near future too. One of my favourite moments from a clinic was when we were in the car park beforehand. A guy saw his friend and said: “Oh no, you showed up, I was hoping to be able to get one over on you at the next race”. People get so excited about the small things we can help them with so they get the most from their races.

Video: Top skills as cyclo-cross ace Mathieu van der Poel avoids wiping out in the sand

Throwing it way back to February, the World Championships will be remembered as one of the most brutal courses ever seen. Having reflected on that race, what have you taken away from it?

I loved that race. I felt terrible on the first lap and just couldn’t get going but then it was awesome. Such a brutally tough course. We have had a lot of frozen fast worlds over the last 10 years so it's nice to finally get a muddy one. Although it was tough it was also close racing in the women's race with the downhills and the uphills suiting Compton or Cant better. I would love to do it again next year hahaha.

Video: Cyclocross skills with Vecchiojo

The conditions were rather muddy which you’ve said you love. But you've been going very well when it’s dry, winning the Koppenbergcross in dominant fashion. Does a result like that make you look at races differently?

To be fair I love muddy races because it makes the course conditions tough and you need watts. Koppenberg was dry, not dusty, but still really tough. It may not look it on tv but you have a really long hill from the VIP tent in the bottom field all the way up to the dip to the cobbles, then to the top of the hill before you get maybe 20 secs recovery and you go uphill again after the pit. That course was won on the hill so my climbing skills were what made it for me. If every race could be brutally tough uphill or mud it would be amazing. Can that be arranged??


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