It’s not every day that you get to hear a seven-time national champion, European champion and prolific winner of races on the road and off be so self-effacing as to admit that they’re not quite sure what they’re doing. But then Helen Wyman isn’t your average European champ either. MarathonMTB caught up with her at her first ever MTB stage race with her North American Kona team mates to find out what it’s like trying something so different, and hear about her first love, Cyclocross.
MMTB – Hi Helen, thanks for talking to us. So how are you finding the AlpenTour.
HW – It’s really good, I liked today’s stage, that was fun.
MMTB – What, even in the snow?
HW – Yeah, especially in the snow, and it was shorter than Thursday. That was the longest I’ve ever ridden a mountain bike I think. I think my previous best was three and a half hours.
MMTB – Was that in your adopted Belgium, or in the UK?
HW – No, in the UK. I’ve ridden MTB in Thetford Forest, and at Woburn sands with Maxine Filby .I rode in Thetford for, actually maybe 4hrs, and it’s perfect preparation for this, right? I mean, same terrain…
MMTB – Oh yeah, definitely, the mountains of East Anglia are pretty serious. Talking of which, the East of the UK has produced a lot of good women’s cyclists, yourself, Emma Pooley, erm…
HW – Oh, Victoria Pendleton of course, and her young heir apparently Laura Trott
MMTB – So what is it about riding in the fens that makes such good women racers.
HW – Well, I’m not really from the Fens, I grew up in Hatfield where it’s a bit more hilly. I did once ride from Heacham on the Norfolk coast to Cambridge with my dad, and then have to get the train home because of the wind, so maybe it’s the toughness to ride in the eastern winds! My brother and my dad still have a bike shop out that way!
MMTB – You’re seven-time British Cyclocross champ, and of course now European Champ, have things changed much whilst you’ve been racing?
HW – So people don’t realise, but women’s cx is actually a fairly newly recognised sport. We had our first world champs back in 2000, so I was actually racing world cups, before they were called world cups, in 1998-99. Back then, they were just support races for the men, but there are some familiar faces from that time – Hanka Kupfernagel has shown that she can still turn up and mix it at the front. But there are a lot of new faces too, which is good for the health of the sport, and makes for exciting racing. There are a few people like Marianne Vos & Katie Compton who are just exceptional, but then there are lots of girls close behind like Sanne van Passen and me who have good days and bad days. Last year, in eight world cups, I think we had ten different people on the podium!
MMTB – So things are really progressing in women’s cyclocross?
HW – In some ways, yes, definitely, but we’re still a little behind in others. Things have got much better, but there is still huge inequality between the treatment of the men and the women; we’re nowhere near close to having equal prize money for men and women, and the same is true for racing contract. In the US, they have equal prize funds, which strikes me as much fairer
MMTB – Indeed, the US mountain bike scene is similar, offering equal prizes for men’s and women’s fields at endures. And World Cup XC does the same.
HW – Yeah, exactly. So we’re a bit behind in cross. I have spoken to people about this at races, and although there is broad, popular support for the idea of equal prize funds and contracts, that’s not the way organisers want to do things. On top of that, I have heard that at some events, sponsorship covers all the racing costs, so when you have 20000 spectators paying 15euros each, it’s hard to imagine why organisers can’t afford to put their hands in their pockets. Doubly so when it’s likely that Sven Nys’ contract dwarves the entire women’s prize pot.
MMTB – We alluded to this before, but this year you swapped stripes for stars, and there’s a new british national cx champ in the form of Nikki Harris. It must be upsetting to lose a jersey you’ve had for so long, but good to see such strength in depth in CX in the UK
HW – Yeah, I really screwed up the nationals didn’t i? No, it’s great to see such strong riders coming through, in the Europeans it was fantastic to have Nikki there as a team mate in the front group, it didn’t matter if I didn’t get the jersey because I had a team mate there who could too. Being able to work like that is new to me, previously it’s been me and three or four Dutch or Belgian girls, so they let me have a podium place, but they’ve always kept me off the top step. So it was really amazing to win in front of a home crowd in Ipswich like that.
MMTB – Yeah, my other half was shouting at the computer screen that last lap, willing you on
HW – The home crowd were amazing, it was great to win for them. <Pauses>. I’m being waved at, I think the North Americans want to go back and sleep.
MMTB – Thanks for the interview!