"The muddiest, funnest sport of attrition": an interview with Helen Wyman on her life in Cyclo-Cross

Helen Wyman is Britain's number 1 Cyclo-Cross rider, racing the World Cup and all the major European races, coming 3rd in the 2009 European Championships, and with a brace of podium places to her name. Over summer she guest-rides for Horizon Fitness, the road team where her husband, Stefan Wyman, is the DS, and rides the occasional mountain bike race, even venturing across the ocean to ride in North America! She's also a superb blogger, with very funny and honest blogs on her website and for her sponsor, Kona, and has a Twitter account everyone should be following. So how did she get into the sport she describes as "the funnest, muddiest, sport of attrition, where you can still be home for lunch on a Sunday" - and how does she find life in Belgium? Read on and you'll find out all this.... and more!

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Helen was born in St Albans, and grew up in Norfolk ("it's not as flat as you might think"), the same part of England as Emma Pooley. She came from a family who loved cycling – her dad’s parents used to cycle from London to Brighton for camping weekends, with her dad as a small passenger in a bike sidecar - so from an early age she was riding and racing.

"My mum and dad have this cute little picture of me standing by the side of the tandem when I was about 2 years old waiting to get on the child seat on the back, behind my brother. We always went on cycling holidays everywhere, as they were cheap! I loved bikes! As a kid I rode everything: grass track, mtb, crits, time trialling. We spent loads of time as a family riding together, which was really cool. Then, when I was 14, my brother met a guy out cycling from Kings Lynn CC, and they started talking, and he said he wanted to race. So ‘cause I idolised my brother, I decided I had to race too!

Then I went to uni to study physiotherapy, and suddenly had hardly any time in the summer, but loads of time in the winter to train. Plus my uni let me ride to every placement, so I took up Cross. First race I rode was a National Trophy in Wales, where I got 5th against amazing riders like Louise Robinson, Isla Rowntree, Sue Thomas, Sue Carter etc. Then in that year Martin Eadon took me to a World Cup race in Zolder, Belgium (which was actually a support race for women as the World Cup wasn’t invented for women until 2000) and I was 14th, and instantly hooked!!"

After leaving university she needed to complete 2 years further training to fully qualify as a physiotherapist, so she moved up to Preston, near Manchester, and had time to step up her training. In November 2003 she won her first National Trophy race, and was again taken to the World Cups by former GB National Champion, Coach & Manager Martin Eadon, and realised she had the capabilities (and love for the sport) to be really good – and there were other British women ahead of her, showing it was possible.

"When I was getting good at Cross, Louise Robinson had been 2nd in the World Championships. Isla Rowntree had won the support races at World Cups, and Caroline Alexander was one of the best MTB 4959992686_79fcf736b5_mediumriders in the world, so I always had amazing riders to race against and look up to. Louise is definitely an inspiration."

I ask her when she realised she could make it as a full-time Pro. "That would depend on your definition of making it", she laughs, "As a women it’s pretty hard to make money out of it - but it is possible to survive". In 2005, she moved to Germany to race, and then in 2006 she and Stef moved to Belgium, where they’ve been based ever since. There wasn’t really a choice to stay in Britain, if she wanted to race full-time – in the UK, Cross is a tiny part of what’s already a minority sport, and as with road racing, the real competitions happen on the Continent.

"It’s a shame it’s so difficult for British women to race in England and Europe now. As the young girls show talent, they just need more competition clearly ahead of them, for something to aim for. I’ve always found that if you are only racing against people at your level, you never step up in the races, you always step down."

By now she’s properly assimilated into Belgium, and although she doesn’t drink the beer ("I hate beer! Love Baileys!") & commits what’s probably high treason by smuggling British mayonnaise into the country to have with her frites (she must hide it as she sneaks through Customs, under the cheddar cheese, orange squash and curry sauces she brings in from the UK), it sounds like a great life.

"I love Belgian culture! They are so excitable about Cross and they just love bike riders no matter how good or bad you are! 1.4million Belgians watched the World Cup at the weekend on tv!" Does she get recognised in the street? "Kind of. As you walk around the races, yeah, people know who you are. But also Stef went to get a hire car at Brussels last year, wearing his Helen Wyman Supporters coat, and the guy said "You’re not Helen Wyman, I know what she looks like!" Plus at the Bike Show in London a couple of weeks back, these two Belgian guys came straight over to me after we were interviewed on the stage, asking for my post cards cause they had missed me at the last Cross!"

Helen and Stef have just moved to Oudernaarde, where they live with British 'Cross racer, Ian Field, and their house acts as the Belgian base for Horizon. Training with Ian is a big part of Helen’s regime - and it’s clear that the work and competition with Ian in the role of "annoying younger brother" stimulates her, keeps her on her toes and gives her another huge incentive to keep improving. I ask how often she does get to beat him.

"Very rarely! But when I do, the world knows about it. Like with the bunny hopping thing - I tried it, and failed – then he made it look like it was a small twig. I got angry, did it again, and did it 3 times, no problems. It’s good competition! It’s better again to train with someone better than you - it makes you work harder. Oh bless him, hanging out with him is fun too, we have funny conversations. He’s a really easy-going guy, so is great to live with. There is a great friendly rivalry between us about pretty much everything. Girls I like training with are Sarah "OMG I ride everywhere at 30kmph" Storey and Claire Thomas, girls who are super strong and train like it too."

A big part of her training regime revolves around her brand new, very own ‘Cross course, built by former 'Cross rider Ronny Couliez and Stef, with steps, climbs, and obstacles. I have visions of Stef adding sneaky little surprises (fire pits, moving obstacles, releasing the wolves to encourage extra bursts of speed), and Helen and Ian sneaking out at night to set up traps for each other… "Stef is pretty inventive with the course, so it’s always interesting. I don’t have a nasty enough mentality to play tricks on Ian - but he has stopped just at the top of a bank while training, so I couldn’t get up it, and then laughed as he rode away! But it's all light hearted fun, and I will get him back!"

Over winter she’s training for 12 to 20 hours a week, depending on schedules etc, and over summer, it’s a more consistent 15-18 hours a week. She’s also sponsored by Paligap, the UK importer of CycleOps power taps, so she uses their power meter as well. "I’m pretty geeky on it actually! Today I was only 8 watts off getting new power records for 1,2,3, 4 and 5 minute peak powers, which were actually recorded after 48 seconds of the national champs!" She sends me her file of a training ride on Alp d'Huez this summer, where she was practising sprinting between the hairpins. "I sprinted out of a hair pin and tried to maintain as high power as possible to the next hairpin, then take one hairpin rest, before doing it again all the way to the top".

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Racing the World Cup and Pro circuits, she travels all over Europe, with help and support from their extended 'Cross family. "For the last couple of years we had a guy called Jurgen help us but this year he has too many other commitments to come to every race, so at the minute for World Cups its just me, Stef and Ian, and for Belgian races we have Ronny, who was European Cross Champion and Mario De Clercq's main man! What he doesn't know about cross isn't worth knowing. We also used to have Robby Pelgrims helping us for a couple of years too, who was junior Belgian Cross champ. It's mad how many good Belgians there are that were never as famous 'cause they were the 8th or 9th best Belgian, but still in the top 20 in the world". It's always surprising to me that given the strength of the men's side, there aren't more strong women riding on the roads, track and in 'Cross. Why is this? "Well to be fair, Belgians are a bit traditional. And women's racing isn't regarded as equal, especially when you compare how women's racing is viewed in Holland. But Sanne Cant is increadibly talented and definately starting to show that women can race. Equally, you do have to remember cyclo-cross has only had a women's World Championships since 2000! And it's changing all the time. In the last 5 years the competition has moved on sooooo much, and a lot of the spectators go early to the World Cups just to watch the women's race, because it's exciting too".

So what are the differences between women's and men's 'Cross?

"Probably the main differences relate to money! There’s more money for the guys, as the whole of their races are televised - just 2-3mins of the women’s race gets shown - so more money brings more teams, as with 1.4 million Belgians watching the race, that’s good advertising. Then, as there are more teams, there is more competition for places, there are proper wages, plus the riders have a higher value and get more start money - and prize money. But the racing itself is still just as hard for women, and sometimes there are the same amount of girls on the start line."

Does this annoy her, or is it something she’s learnt to live with?

"A bit of both. I’ve accepted that until our races are televised, there isn’t much we can do about it really. America is actually leading the way a bit, in terms of equal prize money at races, so that’s a good start. Plus compared to road racing, I'm a millionaire! To win a kermese race, it’s 52 Euros; to win the lowest grade UCI Cross, it’s 150 Euros. But on the road there are not very many women outside the top UCI teams who are paid. That’s where it differs to Cross."

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One of the things that really helps her to make a living riding is the fact she’s sponsored by Kona. She REALLY loves her kit, and her twitter was recently full of pictures of shiny new bikes and parts, like a special cyclist-only version of Christmas (and if you read her blog, you'll know she's just a little bit Christmas-crazy!)

"Kona have serious bling in terms of bike stuff, it’s amazing. I always have the newest bike you can’t buy yet, and always the latest Dura Ace and FSA, plus I got a whole heap of new Dura-Ace wheels this year. Wendy Simms, the Canadian national champ, was racing for them, and used to stay at our house every winter until she started trying for a baby. Then she got pregnant and they wanted to keep sponsoring a woman. At the time I had left Vision 1 to do my own thing, and we contacted Paligap, the UK importer, and they hooked me up with the guys at Kona. It went from there really. They are really cool, laid back, relaxed people, I love it!"

So seeing as she wouldn't want to steal their kit, given that hers is so lovely, if she could steal any of the other riders' skills, what would she have? "I would steal Daphny van den Brand’s bike handling and Katie Compton’s power. From the men, probably a combo of Stybar’s and Ian’s skills, Bart Wellens' running ability, Sven Nys’ anal-ness towards training, Klaas Vantornout’s determination and Bart Aernout’s annoying little attacking skill". And who does she see as her biggest competition? "Currently everyone is competition. Sanne van Paassen is a lot better this year; Hanka Kupfernagel has only just started [training] but she is always good; the little ankle biters like Sanne Cant are always annoyingly there and Christel Ferrier too". And of course, there are the three biggest riders on the circuit - Katie Compton, Daphny Van Den Brand and Marianne Vos. " All three of those girls are really nice, particulary Marianne, she is adorable - genuinely friendly, and nice and humble. Really lovely family too". Vos has already said that she'll be focussing on the track for her 2010-11 season, coming back for a few favourite races, and the World Championships - so I'm interested in whether this will change the dynamics of the racing, or make a difference to the other riders. "Not as much as you might think. She hasn't raced a full 'Cross season now for 3 years, so yes she has stepped in and will always be successful when she does, but you can only beat the riders on the day, so until she shows you never know how good she is. I think Vos has a genuine love for ths sport, and it's no problem her picking and choosing, as everyone knows she would be rubbish without 'Cross, ha ha! The only thing I like is when she does start, it's gonna be a lot further down the grid, and she is so easy to follow (if you have the strength!) that when she goes back to the front group, I can always get back to them too, like at Euros last year! Her first lap is always way too fast, so the only chance you get to follow her is if she passes later in the race!"

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I ask Helen what her worst conditions to race in, and her least favourite race. "Probably Asper-Gavere, as I crashed there and had to have stitches in my face, but this year I intend to conquer the course! Worst conditions - probably frozen ruts. Ice and snow are fine when it’s fresh or smooth or just frozen ground – it’s when it melts and re-freezes that I struggle a little. Again I intend to conquer this too. It’s not the slipperiness – that’s easy to deal with – it’s the ruts you have to cross to get the normal lines that makes it tricky." And her favourite conditions, and favourite race?

"That's really difficult, because they have changed loads of the courses, and taken away my favourites like Pijnacker - so now it would have to be Koksijde [iconic 'Cross course built on the dunes on the Belgian coast]. I ride best in mud, it’s just Koksijde is so unique - when the World Championships are there in 2012, it’s gonna be unreal. I can’t describe how exciting the atmosphere will be. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. At the 2007 World Championships in Hooglede-Gits there were 40,000 spectators and a further 2.3 million Belgians watched it on telly – that’s nearly all of Flemish Belgium! And Koksijde is close to England, so there'll be a load of English types there – it’s going to be by far the biggest ever specator race."

So what are her plans leading up to when she win the worlds in Koksijde?

"Well, first I plan on moving slowly and unsuspiciously up the World Cup result list, race by race, over the next 2 years, until they don't realise, but I’m actually sitting silently on the leader’s wheel with one lap to go before the Koksijde Worlds finish - then I'll play the "hey, did you see what that cow just did?" before attacking up the other side, getting a 10 second gap and winning the race! Good plan? If you want a serious plan then try to progress back to the World Cup podium, and just keep putting in good performances to get the results, as at the end of the day this is my job, and you don’t choose which days you work hard or don’t in real life, so I don’t either."

Knowing that there are a lot of Podium Cafe-ites and twitterers who are riding 'Cross for fun (Hi Albertina and Cleo!), I'm interested in what her tips would be for novices. "Just enjoy it really, plus if you want to get better at it, then watching the best guys do stuff can show you good lines to try at the next race". And are they crazy for wearing their bruises with pride into the office on Monday mornings? "Ha ha, yeah, I was thinking that today - with my pedal scar and crash bruises, that right there is another reason to ride Cross, 'cause in the winter you can crash as much as you like, but on a Monday its trousers or thick tights, and no one will ever know! Can't do that in the summer with road rash!" Plus there isn't the same tan-line problem, that adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the heels & short skirt combo! "Oh, I couldn't ever give up my red patent plastic 3 inch heels. I love them. Never get to wear them, but love them".

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Throughout our conversation, Stef is always cropping up. They met in a service station outside Port Talbot, which in true Wyman style is one of the funniest places for a romantic first meeting I’ve ever heard (this is probably something that will only mean anything to British readers – there’s probably no international translation, but if you start here, paying particular attention to the comments, you might get an idea of some of the implications…), and as he lived near to where Helen was studying, he offered her lifts to and from races. A couple of months later, they started going out with each other, and stayed together through university, getting married in 2004. They’ve worked together for years – both Stef supporting Helen in her ‘Cross, and Helen supporting Stef & riding on the teams he DSs for.

"To be entirely honest, when we first got to together he was a cool guy, and I liked him a lot, but 10 years on I can honestly say I love him more every day. He's always doing things that surprise me and make me realise how much he means to me. It hasn’t always been smooth, but we've both grown so much together and had a lot of fun doing it. There ain’t many people who can spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week together for 6 years and not kill each other!"

And after all this time, does she still love the bike as well?

"There's nothing better than just going out, not knowing or caring where you are going, and just riding. When I was working in the hospital no matter how angry or upset or how shitty your day was by the time I got home on the bike, it didn't matter any more. I reckon that if more people rode home from work there would be less nervous breakdowns in the world! When I have time off and just go out for a spin with no motive or purpose I really love it. Or when I am riding really strongly again, it feels amazing, but I've never hated the bike. Probably the day I do I'll stop racing. The best thing about cycling is probably the freedom and control of your riding destiny!"

So, what will the future hold? I ask if she has plans for a life after ‘Cross, or if that’s too far away to think about yet.

"Make babies! And we have discussed travelling around America in a RV after the Cross Worlds for a few months, but at the moment each day changes so we shall see". Will she be repeating the pattern, and be taking any children on Touring holidays? "Stef says no, I say yes. Stef actually said he would tape a tennis racket to their hands, especially if it’s a girl!" Now there’s a scary thought – a child with all Helen’s talent, humour and determination, and Stef using his DS experience as a dress rehearsal for his future role as Competitive Dad…. look out world!

Interview: Sarah Connolly. All photos owned by and courtesy of www.helenwyman.com

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