It’s Cyclocross season! What a perfect excuse to catch up with the British National Champion and Kona star, Helen Wyman!
I first interviewed Wyman at the start of her 2010-11 season, and then after she won the epic Koppenbergcross – and hopefully you’ll remember the "crayon" drawings she did just for us at the Café? So far this season, she has ridden and won 10 races, taking advantage of the fact the USA season starts earlier by spending September in East Coast USA, with fellow Brits Ian Field, Gabby Day, her husband/mechanic/soigneur/DS Stef and her constant companion Ratty - before winning Ruddervoorde, the first SuperPrestige race of the season.
I spoke to Helen on Skype the day after Ruddervoorde, while she was cleaning the house…. I bet Niels Albert wasn’t spending the post-win day cleaning! Still slightly jet-lagged, she told me all about her USA trip, how the CX scene there differs from Europe, her plans for the rest of the season and much more. And this being Helen, it’s illustrated with photos from her trip and videos. What more could you ask for? More crayons maybe? Here's her exclusively-for-Podium-Café impression of the USA! If you can't read the words, they say "The Brits are coming"...
Podium Café: Firstly, congratulations on Ruddervoorde – your first SuperPrestige win – and all the American wins! Ruddervoorde has everything - cobbles, sand, washboards, lots of twists & turns - it didn't seem the perfect Helen levels of mud, but from the video you rocked it - did you like the course?
Helen: Yeah, it’s always good to win on a course that doesn’t suit your strengths - but since America I’ve learnt I have to, or I’ll only win when it rains!
The best part was the bumps! Worst was the scoot chute – there’s a right hand corner where you get in the rut then take out the right foot and scoot the bike it till the next corner where you can clip in and ride.
I’m not fully back to normal yet from the trip, but it was good to win, so I’m happy. I should be back flying by the weekend! It was good to win the USA races, but if I came home and rode badly people would just say "oh well, America has no competition". And I felt it was important to show Europe and the American girls that they are good and deserve credit for it.
Podium Café: What were your aims going to the USA – and why did you go?
Helen: I went because I ride for Kona, an American-Canadian team, and I really wanted to give them back coverage in their own back yard. And I love adventures!
My aim going over was to win 6 races. I knew the competition would be steeper in the Gloucester GP, and I allowed one race for mechanical failure!
Podium Café: What was the competition like? Can you tell us a bit more about the USA riders & CX scene?
Helen: It was good. My main competition for the races on the East Coast were Laura van Gilder, Andrea Smith, Amy Dombroski, Nicole Duke and the visiting Euros, Joyce Vanderbeken, Caroline Mani (French national champ) and Gabs [Gabby Day]
The thing about the American scene is that the riders are good at what they are used to. There are a significant amount of corners in American races, 48 in the Midnight Ride race, so a lot of riders are fast round corners but don’t power down the straights.
Nicole Duke is by far the most technical cross rider I have ever seen – more technical even than Daphny van den Brand! But put her on an uphill and you can drop her. She used to be a downhill mountainbiker for 10 years, if she gets her strength up she will be dangerous!
Laura Van Gilder - never take her to the line, ‘cause she will outsprint you and is happy to ride in a group to the finish!
Some are good at mud and some are good at fast courses, but no one is amazing at everything, excluding Katerina Nash and Katie Compton.
Podium Café: Did you know about their strengths before you went, or were you learning from each race?
Helen: Learning every day! Every race the competition changes behind you, whereas in Europe you know the top riders will contest everything at full speed and a small difference is made by a person’s preferred skill but it doesn’t necessarily make the entire result – i.e. Daphny can win in sand and on mud, up hill and flat, but Sanne Cant will be extra fast in sand and just fast on standard course.
Podium Café: Were you worried about it, going over? Did you feel like you had something to prove?
Helen: No, I knew if I could get the first wins in then I would be ok. The first course was the most European, and had good sections to attack hard on and make a difference, so it worked in my favour. Then after that I could work out how to beat people.
Helen: We had a LOT of fun! Hung around with some amazing people and really were made to feel welcome.
The atmosphere at the races is so unbelievably friendly! Everyone was so nice and chatty, and I hopefully come across as quite friendly, so it was great. We were almost mini heroes over there.
And the equality in women’s sport is breathtakingly refreshing - not just prize money but publicity too, and every [women’s] race was before the elite.
Don’t get me wrong, the guys over here are really trying and it’s great to see Sunday’s women’s race on TV, but I think it will take longer, as the sport is older and more established here. Whereas when you start something new, it’s easier to start at the right level.
Podium Café: So if you could take the best bits of the USA races, and the best bits from Europe & add them together, what would you have from each?
Helen: I think to get the best bits from both scenes would be too hard, ‘cause what makes both great is the spectators, but in totally different ways.
In the USA they have cat 3&4 races, you start as a 4th cat, get points then move up. They have over 100 women in these races! How good would that be in England, where the women have to ride with the men! It’s a real encouragement for them - as a cat 3 you can race up or down depending on how you feel.
They have over 1,000 riders across all categories - each day. The racing is participation driven - they come race the early races then watch and heckle the elites. Whereas in Europe it is all about the elite, which is equally a good thing.
Podium Café: Was it Adam Myerson who helped plan the trip?
Helen: Yeah, he hooked us up with the right people who sorted us out in their area. The coolest thing about the trip was meeting new people for sure, and you suddenly realise how much of your personality is lost in translation – in Europe, when I can’t communicate in the way I normally do to other English speakers, no one sees the real you. It’s only when you get to a country that almost speaks your language that people appreciate your personality too. Like Bart Wellens to Belgians compared to straight-laced Sven Nys
And you could swear and they thought it was cute in our British accents, not offensive!
We stayed in different places each week. We started in New York, it was just like the movies, hot dog carts, steam coming from drain hole covers, yellow taxis, the works! We got a bus to Allentown, 3 hours west, raced Nittany, then got driven by the race organiser for the next race and his friends, to Baltimore, where we stayed for the week.
Baltimore was cool – we went for icecream one night and was sat eating it on this little square, there was a guy playing a violin for some people next to us who he had just met, a dude with a telescope letting people look at the stars and just strangers chatting to each other - very, very cool.
Then we met Mike Garrigan, ex-Canadian national champ and our good friend, who had dirty great big black A-team van, called Wezley, spelt with a z. Once Mike and Wez had met us, we travelled everywhere with him.
So our next stop was Vermont, where we stayed in an empty house, owned by a guy who had started building it seven years before, but never quite got round to finishing it. That was pretty funny, but cool, and Vermont was stunning. The night of Adam’s race, the Nor'Easter, we drove 6 hours to Rochester, and raced Rohrbach's Ellison Park Cross the next day there. Then we went to Mike’s apartment in New Jersey, and after that we drove up to Gloucester and stayed with another great couple in Beverley Farms right on the coast for the rest of the week until race time.
Podium Café: Did you get the chance to go sight-seeing between the races, or was it all about the training?
Helen: When we stayed in New Jersey we got to go to New York for the day! That was cool. And me, Ian, Stef and Gabs went to Washington when we stayed in Baltimore.
Podium Café: Did you see all the sights in New York?
Helen: Yep and got photos. Although our main thing in New York was the Apple store, Oakley store on Time Square and Toys r Us! They have a giant ferris wheel inside the store!
Podium Café: It sounded like you had a great time! Are you planning another trip next year?
Helen: Definitely go back 100% for sure next season, and maybe for longer. I had such a great time, everything about the experience was just relaxing and fun and refreshing.
Plus we have already decided what bad ass vehicles we want eventually. Nissan Titan 8 litre! And Ian’s gonna run me over in his double wheel base ford dodge!
Podium Café: So do you have any recommendations for European-based riders who might want to try some USA CX racing?
Helen: Me, Gabs and Ian loved it so much because of the atmosphere. And I think it really is the language thing. You could probably say that to an English speaker, America is amazing, the culture is so similar but different at the same time, where you can really appreciate the sport and the people and be appreciated whilst doing your job.
So if you want to be a big head don’t bother going - if you want to experience new things, go for it!
Podium Café: For USA riders who might be inspired by you to come over to Europe, which races would you recommend they try?
Helen: Give it go - we have less corners but still fun courses! And Nicole Duke should come to Zolder for sure - I wanna see her ride that descent at her usual speed!
Podium Café: Looking ahead, will you be riding more races this season, now all the C1/C2 races have women's races?
Helen: I think I’ve got about 35 races this season, but we will have to see how the ranking works out as to what I have to and want to ride. It’s about 5 races more than previous years.
Podium Café: Which races are you particularly looking forward to?
Helen: Koppenberg, I want another trophy so I can equal out the mantelpiece. And Koksijde Worlds, it gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. It’s gonna be sooooooo loud and exciting and just once in a lifetime experience!
Podium Café: Are there any races you haven't ridden before that you're looking forward to?
Helen: I don’t really remember what’s new and not - there are races I have done before in a junior race or as a non UCI, so probably Diegem, that’s a new one for sure. Oh, and Baal! Really looking forward to that. I’ve never raced it, but it’s on the side on a tough hill – I’ve trained on the course and it’s bloody hard!
Podium Café: And what did last season teach you, and what did you learn from your month in the USA that you’ll be taking forward?
Helen: After America, I’d say I’ve learnt quite well how to use my strengths to win races, so hopefully I can keep thinking about it and analysing riders back here - even on courses that don’t necessarily let me use my real strengths, like Ruddervoorde. And the US has taught me that I can adapt, and as long as I’m open to new courses I can make it a good course for me.
Last season taught me to believe that I am one of 'them'.
Podium Café: What helped you make that shift in your head?
Podium Café: So that Koppenberg win showed you that what everyone else said about you was true?
Helen: Haha, yeah!
Podium Café: What are your ambitions for the season?
Helen: Worlds. Only one ambition this year. All focus. Worlds!
Podium Café: Finally, any messages, or anything you’d like to add?
Helen: Just thanks to everyone who made the America trip possible, they know who they are. They run great races and I can’t wait to be part of it again next year!
Interview: Sarah Connolly; All photos property of and used with kind permission of Helen Wyman, www.helenwyman.com