"More than just money": Helen Wyman talks equal prize money at Koppenbergcross

Helen Wyman, Koppenbergcross 2014 - Thomas van Bracht, Peloton Photos

There have been a lot of good signs around cyclocross this season - with the World Cups streamed for free on the UCI youtube, and equal prizes for the women and men at the World Championships - and just as the season closes, here's some more - from this year, the Koppenbergcross, part of the huge bpost bank trofee series, will be the first European C1 race to pay equal prize money for the women and men, thanks to a sponsor from the USA, Maryland-based Twenty20 Cycling shops. European Champion and 2013 Koppenbergcross winner Helen Wyman, who helped make this happen, came to the Café to tell us about the impact of this on the sport.

PdC: As the current Koppenbergcross Champion, what does this news mean to you?

Helen: This is more than just money, this is HUGE, this really is something special.  I know in the USA they have had equal prize money at races for years now but Europe have never taken the initiative before.  It's so exciting because Koppenberg is such an iconic 'cross race, not just here in Belgium, but across the world too.

The guys at Koppenberg were open to changes.  They're a pretty young, progressive committee and see there is a proper opportunity to do something big for women's 'cross.   They were the first race to listen to us, to see there was good publicity in it for them, and that it was the right thing to do.

The committee are really proactive about equality - so we've said that they should do things like have the same parking for the men and women, so the best riders are seen when the press come along.  When you're opposite Sven Nys, you get seen, you get the same publicity, and that's really important too.  They're also going to do thing like getting as many women as possible on the start, and paying start contracts.  They want to take their race and elevate it even higher than the races around them, and this is one of the best ways they can do that.  They were so keen to have equal prize money, so when Stef and I said "why don't you do this?" and they told us they wanted to, but they needed a bit more money, we said we'd find someone to sponsor the women for them.

Kris Auer from Twenty20 was really keen to get involved, too.  It's such a huge thing too, because an American company is standing up and saying "Hey you guys need to do this right and we want to make it right - let's do it together".  I think it makes a really huge impact, an American company sponsoring a Belgian cyclocross race - but it's not just any Belgian race, it's Koppenberg, the most iconic race in Belgium outside the World Championships!  It's such a huge race - and they were the first people to listen to us and it's so important that they want to make a change with us.

PdC: And you've been working with Twenty20 for a while, haven't you?

Helen: Yes, they've supported me for the last three years - they hooked us up when we first went to America.  Kris, and Adam Myerson, got us together with all the right people for us.  Kris puts on an amazing weekend of racing in Baltimore, the C2-ranked Charm City Cyclocross, and his bike shop Twenty20 Cycling are the main sponsors of that event.  Having Kris step in as an American sponsor is important as well, because it says "Why is there no one in Belgium doing this?"

PdC: I was wondering about that - Adam Myerson was talking about organising UCI-ranked races with equal money eleven years ago - and they've had races over there where the women get more prize money than the men.  It really shows the impact the USA is having on the sport, especially for the women, when Katie Compton is one of the very best riders in the world, and there are established stars like Meredith Miller, and up-and-coming riders like Elle Anderson and Kaitie Antonneau.  It's so cool to see the Americans changing the sport over here too.

Helen: It has an even bigger impact because it's coming from outside of Belgium.  It's guys saying "We do it right in our country, let's start doing it right in yours".  The response has been brilliant - we've had retweets from Sven Nys - but we're trying to get people involved in Belgium to promote it as well, because as soon as people see this publicity that's driven from it, other sponsors will realise they're missing out on something here too.  We are having discussions about increasing tv time for the women's races, and other viewing platforms that could be available to us, and the bpost series are announcing something big about the women on Monday, so everything's going in the right direction, but this should kick a few people into saying "we need to do this too".

PdC: To me it's great that it's Koppenberg, because there are cycling fans who don't know anything about cyclocross, but will know that's it's a hard, tough race because it has the Koppenberg in it!

Helen: It is iconic isn't it?  All around the world it's a famous hill!

PdC: What surprised me, though, was seeing that the prize money isn't even a huge amount - the winning prize has gone up from €350 to €1,667 for first place.

Helen: It's the point of it, isn't it?  But it still does make a big difference, €350 to €1,700 for first place, and just under €5,000 added to the prize purse.

PdC: It must make it actually worth winning - you make real money after everything you spend getting yourself and your bikes there, it must make it worthwhile racing, and not just for the winner, but for the riders coming 5th and 10th and so on.

Helen: It makes a difference to everyone.  A lot of women rely on prize money to race, which is a shame, but it takes time and progress to build that too, but this is a good step in that direction as well.  With all the publicity around it, riders will want to race this race, racing for more prize money that helps them live and survive, but other teams will be looking at it and thinking "Hold on a minute, this race is getting big as well - why don't we have women in there?  Why don't we have a women's team?"  So when you start having more teams, you start having more money for more riders, and everything grows.

This season, first place was €350, and the overall prize fund was €1,583 and prizes went down to 25th place - €14.  For the GP Twenty20 in 2014, the winner will get €1,667, somebody coming 5th will now get €400 - more than last year's winner got - and prizes will go down to €34 for 30th place.

PdC: It's so important, too, because say some Marianne Vos of the future, some 16-year-old girl, comes 20th and gets a real prize, she can use that persuade her family to support her to come into the sport as a pro.  You've said before that you want young riders to see a career in the sport, and it says to that young girl that it's possible, and changes will keep happening, so by the time she's 20, she can be making real money from this.

Helen: And it's not just seeing that there's prize money, it's seeing that there's progression.  When I first started racing, Hilde Quintens was one of the best, the Belgian champion, and she was racing in 2000 when we had our first World Championships, which was only 14 years ago, and she put a message out about this about how it's an incredible step.  She's seen what it was like when she started in Belgium at the beginning of her career until now, and she knows how big a step that truly is.  Now, huge steps can be made, but we'll think "now that's wasn't hard to make", because we'll have had the first - and everyone remembers their first!  This will be remembered as the first European cyclocross that has equal prize money!

PdC: There seems like there's a tradition of trying to change things - you've always talked about the impact Hanka Kupfernagel has had on you, fighting for the first women's World Championships, World Cups and prize money.  How does it feel, being able to follow in her footsteps?

Helen: If only I could follow in Hanka's footsteps!  I don't look at it like that - I look at it like this is exciting,  I'm not trying to be anyone.  I've been brought up by a mum who would have been a Suffragette, and been taught you can do anything you want to do.  Everyone that I surround myself don't see it as being an issue of men and women, they see it as being people - why does that person not get the same as this person?  So for me it's all about progressing us.

I understand this is small, and I understand the stuff on the UCI Cyclocross Commission is political, where you need to do things in different ways, because you need to please everybody across generations, from race organisers to the people who run all the Series, to the 16 year old who's just turning elite, and I understand they all have different issues.  But I just love what we do - I love our sport, and it's so exciting.  I've been in races this year that I've been excited to be racing it, so I can't imagine how exciting it is to watch! A race like Hasselt, where the crowds go wild for Sanne [Cant] and then wild for me, and then wild for Sanne, and it all comes down to a final sprint - that kind of thing just enthuses me, and every step I try to make to make it even more exciting, and to bring even more people into that battle, is a step in the right direction for me.

That's what I want to do, I want to get progress before the end of my career.  People are now saying "what can we do to help you?", and I've never been in that position before, and I hope that I can help progress what we have, and more people like Kris come along.  Asper-Gavere is an iconic race, maybe someone will come along and help with that - and Baal is an iconic race, giving the chance for a company outside Belgium to be associated with Sven Nys , so I don't see why other sponsors can't look at it and think it's a good idea.  And just because they're not the first person to do it, doesn't mean they won't get as much publicity.

For me, working with the UCI Commission to try to get equal prize money is a long process, and in some respects it's actually easier to work like this.  You know you have a problem, that it's not equal - you know you have people that are prepared to make a solution, and it's just mixing the two together.  That's a quicker process than changing stuff on the Commission!  In some ways, connecting the right people is easier than making a rule - although that obviously still has a place.

PdC: And it also shows the Commission, and other races, that this is possible - it's good to work on both paths at the same time, especially to show people who think it's not possible that it is already happening.

Helen: It's the best way to do it - everyone should work together as a community, to further our sport for men and women. There are 6 million Belgians that watch 'cross, but the people who are racing, who are organising, who are proactive in making it happen are a small community, and we need to work together to make things happen.  This is one step showing how we can work together.  The Commission are doing a fantastic job, they're really using everything they have to progress the sport, and that's exciting too .  It's just good that this comes alongside it - it shows how we can work together.

PdC: I was interested in how you've been talking with the fan community this week too, getting everyone ready for this announcement - and you were saying to people that in a way the fans are more important to reach than the cycling media, to get this news out.

Helen: Well, you guys are, the fans are the people that want to see change, that come to the races.  I was speaking to the guy who was in charge of the World Championships at Hoogerheide, and he said that ticket sales on Saturday were between 17.5 and 20,000 sales - that's a lot of people who came to watch the women's race on Saturday afternoon.  On Sunday it was between 35 and 40,000, so Sunday's men's race was around double what we got.  But most of those people came in in the afternoon, he can't give an exact figure, but the majority of people came in between 1 and 2:30, and the u23 men had finished at 11:50, so he said it would be tough to work out, but there were more people at the elite women than the u23 men.  And that, in my eyes, is progress too, that we got to race in the prime afternoon slot rather than in the morning before the men, and so many people came and saw us

PdC: And then you had people all around the world watching it on the UCI youtube too.  This season feels so good to me as a fan, because I've been able to watch all the women's World Cup races, streamed for free, with English  commentary!  And getting to talk about the races with people all over the world, who love cyclocross, or love Marianne Vos, or love riders like you, that's brilliant too!

Helen: We have fanatical fans!  The people who support us know all about us and follow us as much as they can, and are so excited about it, and that's really, really exciting!  Even in those races that are on so early in the morning, we're seeing people come specifically to watch us, and that's really exciting too.  There are obviously still big steps to get full equality, but every time we make this progress, we're going in the right direction, and people are hearing us still - and that means such a lot to me.

PdC: So what's next, that you can tell us about?

Helen: There's rumours about the bpost trofee doing something big for women - we'll find out about that on Monday, at the gala dinner,

PdC: Have you won the bpost trofee yet?

Helen: The last round's on Sunday, at Oostmalle.  I've got a 30 second lead, but it could go to me or Sanne Cant - and Nikki Harris is only a minute down.  It will be close!  I think I can win it and Sanne thinks she can win it!

PdC: And you're going to have fun fighting for it!

Helen: Yeah!  Oostmalle is always a fun race, it's a good race to watch, always really exciting - the lead changes hands all the time.

PdC: Even if you don't win the bpost, it's been a brilliant season - you were European Champion again, and Koppenberg winner again, and third in the World Championships - the first Briton to win a Worlds medal since Louise Robinson in 2000!  Amazing!

Helen: My season peaks, like I said to you before Worlds, were Koppenberg and Euros, then Nationals and Worlds, so they were specific peaks, and there aren't many opportunities in your career when you know there's a course that really suits you and the weather works for you, so it was maybe risky to go for Worlds, when the last time they were at Hoogerheide was frozen - but equally, you've got to try, and I did put a lot into peaking for Worlds, and I did feel really good.  I might have played down my chances a little bit beforehand, but I was really, really confident going into Worlds!  And yeah, if Compton had had a good ride, and hadn't got issues, maybe I would have ended up 4th, but equally she has to be there!

PdC: Looking ahead, you're off to Florida for a holiday on Monday - will you be riding any road this summer?

Helen: If Matrix-Vulpine, Stef's team, get a spot at the Women's Tour of Britain, I'll be there in the team, and I'll be doing the Crits with them.  Then there's the cyclocross World Cup in Milton Keynes on 29th November - everyone needs to go to that, it's so exciting to have a World Cup in Britain!  And it'll be great for fans - it's on a train line, so you can go shopping, have lunch and watch us race!

PdC: Do you have any idea of who's going to be at Milton Keynes?

Helen: Everyone!  It's a World Cup, so everyone who rides in there will be there! Sven Nys, Niels Albert...  Vos said to me that she's trying to re-arrange her schedule because she loves riding in England...  Everyone who's everyone who's racing at that time of year will be racing there!

PdC: And it's super-easy to get across from Europe, so everyone should come!  Thanks so much for your time - any last words?

Helen: Just go and watch Milton Keynes and follow them on twitter, go and follow Twenty20 cycling on twitter, follow the Koppenbergcross, and share the love!

***

For more on the Koppenbergcross' equal prize money, click through to the Koppenbergcross' announcement, the  press release on Twenty20's website, Helen's announcement on her site and her blog about her thoughts on her own site.

To find out more about Helen, head to her website, follow her on twitter, and check out her rider profile on the Kona team site.   You can also read previous interviews with her for the Café in October 2010, from the start of October 2011, on her USA trip, then later that month when she won the Koppenbergcross for the first time 2011 and her preview of the 2014 Cyclocross World Championships for us - and you can see the "crayon" drawings she did for us here and here; and omnevelnihil and I interviewed her on our women's cycling podcast in December 2012 and November 2013.

Photo by Thomas van Bracht, Peloton Photos, used with kind permission of Helen Wyman

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