When I first interviewed British CycloCross star and Kona rider, Helen Wyman, she was happy, enjoying the start of the season, her new life in Oudenaarde and her first World Cup round. Fast forward two weeks, and she's just had an amazing weekend, racing two of the hardest races out there, with superb results - coming second in the SuperPrestige Zonhoven, and winning her biggest race to date - GVA Koppenbergcross, the Cyclo-Cross equivalent of Ronde van Vlaanderen. I couldn't imagine how great that must feel.... Luckily, Helen is the best kind of rider - the kind who thinks a good way to celebrate a win is to get onto Skype, and tell us here at Podium Cafe all about it! Check out her official audio interview after the race, and if you come below the jump, you'll find my slightly-less-formal post-Koppenberg interview with her, including a video of her win, and talk of mudpits, sandpits, cobbles and hot flannels - and you'll also find out exactly how much of her success is down to us - although this photo might give you a clue!!
EDIT: Now with added inspirational picture of what it feels like to ride the Koppenberg, by Helen herself! Check it out, at the bottom of the interview - it's a-MAZ-ing!
Pigeons: Firstly - MASSIVE CONGRATULATIONS!!! How are you feeling?
Helen: Thankyou. Feeling good thanks, I think the boys [husband Stef Wyman and British Cyclo-Crosser Ian Field] are doing a good job of keeping me grounded - today I went food shopping and had to do the washing! At least Stef cooked dinner!
Pigeons: So you haven't been allowed to turn super-diva then?
Helen: No, I got called a diva this morning for asking Stef to walk the 100metres to the butchers to buy the meat!
Pigeons: Not fair! Can I start by asking you about Zonhoven first?
We were watching the men's race live on Podium Cafe, and were just in awe of those steep, sandy descents and climbs - how was it to ride the course in real life?
Helen: Just as scary as it looked! There were a million corners, sand banks, sandpits, mud sections, and uphills! When me and Stef rode the course in the morning, it took me a bit of courage to ride the second descent, but once I'd ridden it for the first time it was so exhilarating, it was wicked. Sand really doesn't hurt when you crash, and you would have to pedal incredibly fast for the sand not to slow you down, so the consequences of crashing are just a few bruises - so I just went for it.
Pigeons: How was it to climb up - because the spectators at the end had enough trouble walking - so to run, carrying a bike.....?
Helen: Yeah, that was hard too - but it's the same for everyone, except the midgets, I guess it's harder for them!
Pigeons: Did you know from the start that you were going to do well? Or when was it in the race that you realised how strong you were?
Helen: I had the worst start in history! But I still felt strong so just kept riding hard, and a few people around me crashed, so I got back to them. Daphny [van den Brand] went from the start, then a group with me, Sanne van Paassen, Sanne Cant, Pavla Havlikova and Nikki Harris got together; at the end of the second lap Nikki and Havlikova were no longer there - we rode together for a lap or so but Nikki crashed in front of me on one descent and I don't know if she came back to the group after that. I have no idea what happened to Havlikova. I just put in a sprint after the second run up to get over the next small hill with less effort, and the next thing I know, I had a gap on Sanne van Paassen.
I just went to the front and rode as hard as I could, 'til on the start of the last lap I was 35 seconds down on Daphny and 15 seconds up on van Paassen
Pigeons: When you were hitting those climbs, were you thinking "only 2 more times", etc, or was your whole mind on getting up them as quickly as possible?
Helen: A bit of both really. I'm always thinking about what's coming next, but sometimes when I'm suffering like a dog I'm thinking about how long I have left!
Pigeons: You finished the race in second place - how was it, crossing the line?
Helen: It felt good! It was my second time on the podium in a week, so it felt good as it was a little unexpected, too.
Pigeons: So at that point, were you already thinking about Koppenberg?
Helen: Yeah, of course. Our race was stupidly early, so when my race was over at 12, Ian's didn't start till 3.15pm, so I warmed down and had recovery drink and stuff, then drove home and got home in time to watch his race on the tv - then I lay on the sofa for most of the day! Although it was my turn to cook dinner, so I had to get up for a bit! We take it in turns to cook so it was my turn! Stef did say this morning "bet Sven Nys doesn't have to do the food shopping today!"
Pigeons: When you have 2 big races back-to-back, what do you do, in terms of that evening, the next day.... and deciding how hard to push it on the first race?
Helen: Well, this race is always a bit strange at the start, no one really wants to take it on, so I knew it would easy to. From there I intended to have the fastest lap I could, and see who was still there at the end.
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Pigeons: Then yesterday..... Koppenbergcross, your new home race... and you said you ride best in the mud.... how did you feel beforehand?
Helen: Really confident from the day before. The descent was treacherous, but again, there wasn't a good line, so no matter what you did, you had to do it with a foot out - so I knew I couldn't lose much time on anyone. Plus the ascent was hard as nails, and I knew I could make a difference there. I didn't put any pressure on myself, except to try and lead the race.
Pigeons: Have you been training on the climbs there since you moved in? Or do you know it well anyway, given it's the equivalent of Ronde van Vlaanderen!
Helen: Ha! Yeah, I did hill sprints once on the cobbles.....never again! Other than that, we rode one lap on Thursday, but it was a lot easier then, as it rained a lot between then and the race
Pigeons: From the mini video, it seemed like you attacked from the start - with only Sanne Cant keeping up. Once you attack like that, do you get the feeling that no one will get back to you?
Helen: I did ride as hard as I could for the first lap uphill, and then re-assessed. I was surprised that only Sanne came with me, but I guess it must have been harder than it felt on that first lap. Some of the girls were struggling in warm-up on that uphill section, but I thought it was just 'cause they hadn't seen it already. I'd punctured just coming off of the cobbles section, but to be fair, I think it worked to my advantage, as I had the most grip possible for that first little descent! Although I wouldn't recommend running your tubs at 0 bar too often! It was definitely a strength and fitness cross yesterday, and the first proper mud race we have had in a good couple of years
Pigeons: There was a moment on the clip where you were sliding all over the place, and came off the bike, and it looked like you were laughing - was it a grin, or a grimace? Were you enjoying the race?
Helen: I was loving the race. I don't think it was a smile, but it wasn't a grimace - it was definitely a concentration face, but I was loving the course. The thing is, if you slide off sideways again, it's just a muddy field, you can't hurt yourself - so I just enjoyed the moment.
Pigeons: And the crowd looked awesome too...
Helen: They were. When I was with Sanne, they were being patriotic, but when I was alone, everyone went wild for me - it was amazing! And riding back after the podium along the start straight, everyone was waiting for the guys to start and were clapping and saying well done - I felt like a mini superstar for at least two minutes!
Pigeons: I felt for Sanne, when she had that mechanical, but you looked much more in control, when it was the pair of you out alone together... Did you feel stronger? I got the impression you'd have won anyway!
Helen: Yeah, I had dropped her already, but jumped on my bike on the bottom pit and missed both pedals, and she came back past, so I did think I could win. When whatever happened to her bike happened, I genuinely didn't even notice, I just sprinted out of the corner like I did every lap and thought "Is she crazy, why is she taking mud out of her wheel, just keep riding it will fall out". Then at the top of the hill by the pit I suddenly noticed I had a gap. She was just unlucky. I didn't ride the perfect race technically, but I genuinely rode as hard as I could.
Pigeons: When you were out there by yourself, with the crowd going crazy, was that they best moment? Or was it crossing the line in first place?
Helen: It was the ride back to the Tardis/car and all the people congratulating me, even the elite guys were saying "well done", it was wicked!
Pigeons: In the "top 10 moments of Helen Wyman", where does winning Koppenbergcross come?
Helen: Number 1! It's epic. Last year I got second, but I didn't believe I really deserved it, 'cause Marianne and Sanne had punctured - but this year I think I rode my heart out for that result.
Pigeons: How do you set up your bike for that level of mud? What tyres, tyre pressure, gearing etc were you using?
Helen: I had 3 bikes, as the pits are in 2 different places. I didn't change anything on the bikes, although if I'd had an option to, I could have used a compact chainset - but I don't think it made any difference to me. I used Dura Ace deep section carbon wheels with Dugast Rhinos on. I also have Schwalbe muds, but they were on my metal rim wheels, and I wanted to use the carbons. As to tyre pressure, I have no idea - Stef does it, and I say if I want more or less. Yesterday I wanted less! Probably about 20psi-ish. I can ride them pretty low, 'cause I only weigh 55kg - the bigger you are, the more pressure you would need.
Pigeons: So if people want to steal your secrets, they basically have to steal Stef!
Helen: Haha, yeah - but they would probably give him back after a few days! He always rides the course with me, and I make him do stuff faster than I think I can, and then I see if he crashes then I can't go that fast, if he doesn't, I need to go faster!
Pigeons: I have always wondered how 'Cross riders go from caked in mud, to looking pristine 15 mins later on the podium! Does Stef turn a power-hose on you, or something?
Helen: They have a tent with hot water, flannels and a towel! Plus your crew always have fresh clean clothes for the podium. Although I do only do the podium bag when I'm feeling confident about the race! It's hot water and a flannel and a Stef! Perfect every time! And mud is good for the complexion!
Pigeons: So then, you do the podium thing, play with champagne, do a couple hundred interviews & photos.... go home & have to cook the tea again? Or did you stick around to cheer for Ian?
Helen: I went home, but before I left, the guy who owns Morgan Blue, who had let us use his motor home before the race, invited me to drink champagne, so I went home, washed, then went back to have a glass of champagne with the guys. I missed the entire race - we recorded it to watch later! But I had to go to doping control too, so had already missed the start. In doping control 2 other girls were there and struggling to pee. I went straight in, gave them 125mms and was out of there within 5 minutes, I hate hanging around after races. The other girls were a little shocked!
Pigeons: Now that you know what it feels like to own a cobble of your very own, how does it compare to winning a World Cup round?
Helen: I don't know yet. In terms of Belgium, it's just as big, but in terms of personal achievements, probably the World Cup is bigger
Pigeons: A fortnight ago you said your favourite race is Koksijde - have you changed your mind now?
Helen: Nope - watch this space! No, seriously, when I saw how they had made the descent on the Koppenberg harder, with more turns and less speed, I knew any advantage the girls used to have was wiped out - so yeah, mud and Koppenberg equals a top two race for me!
Pigeons: Does winning something this big change your attitude? I can't IMAGINE the confidence boost!
Helen: It definitely gives me confidence, and a lot more self belief for sure. I just want to keep doing the best I can, and hope it's the top step. Apparently before the race, Stef and Ronny [Couliez] told Stuart that I would win it, but didn't want to tell me to increase the pressure. I guess Stef knows me better than anyone in the world - however he has to say I'm the best, or I would beat him violently with a stick!
Pigeons: So does it change the way you'll be approaching the European Championships on Sunday? How much training will you do this week? Or is it all shopping, housework & washing up?
Helen: I plan on getting my hair cut! Back to proper training, back to a normal preparation for a race, and off to Germany on Saturday, and race Sunday. Things can't change, really, as it's still a very long season. My last race is February 28th ish
Pigeons: On Sporza, the commentator said Koppenbergcross was too hard for women, and we were having a discussion - was he being sexist, or was he trying to say "it's a bloody hard race!!" and it came out wrong? What's your take? It was great to see the racing clip, but.....
Helen: Well, I guess it's probably a matter of interpretation. The commentator guys are always really friendly to me, and say nice things about me, and are pretty respectful towards women racers. Belgium is a different culture, you have to remember that - and that women have only had a world championship since 2000. I think it takes time to change attitudes. But in this case, having met the commentators a few times, I think its probably a matter of misinterpretation. They also said that Tom Meusen was too young to be riding all the big series of racing in one year, and a World Cup series, so maybe its just the way it was said
The most Important Questions!
Pigeons: I have two very important questions for you now. I don't know if you've seen it, but I have put together SCIENTIFIC PROOF!!! that riders who engage with Podium Cafe go on to win races. How much of your success yesterday do you think is down to the Cafe?
Helen: Haha, all of it! I think all my success - or as my mum said, "top step thingy" - is down to Podium Cafe!
Pigeons: So next important question….
when preparing for a race…
WAX OR SHAVE????
Helen: Shave. I'm pretty lazy and lucky 'cause my hairs don't grow that fast and are really fine, so can get away with a good week between shaving!
Pigeons: Apparently Niels Albert uses a woman's razor!
Helen: Ian uses the same kind of razor as me! He has his own, just the same Gillete Venus razor!
Pigeons: Thanks so much for your time, and for answering my questions! One final one: what are your goals for the rest of the season? Are you able to relax a bit, having this epic big win, or does that make you hungrier?
Helen: Win win win win win win win ........... That covers the next 7 races, then I'll re-assess, ha ha! If I were any more relaxed I'd be asleep! I definitely want to win again though!
Over the course of our interview, I'd told Helen all about Gavia's excellent crayon-based art, and to round off a great conversation, she sent me her own "inspirational" picture of the how it was riding Koppenbergcross...... Here's to Helen winning many more races this season, and coming back to tell us all about it - with extra crayon-y goodness!
Interview by Sarah Connolly; Pictures owned by & courtesy of Helen Wyman