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Helen Wyman previews the 2014 Cyclocross World Championships

European Cyclocross Champion Helen Wyman is a long-time friend of the Café, so who better to preview Saturday's Cyclocross World Championships? We caught up with her to talk about the course, the key contenders, her recent experience on the UCI CX Commission and the future of the sport.

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Helen Wyman, racing to win the 2014 British Cyclocross Championships
Helen Wyman, racing to win the 2014 British Cyclocross Championships
Oli Scarff

PdC: You had your first World Cup podium of the season on Sunday at Nommay – can I start by saying congratulations!

Helen: Thankyou muchly.  I like mud, and I like grass fields that turn into mud!  It was a really good course for me and Vos was invincible so I just let her do her thing and I did mine.  A guy said "your lap times weren’t that much different it was just you didn’t stay with her at the start" - this is true apart from the 25 seconds she put in on lap one, followed by the 15 seconds each lap for the remaining 4 laps…  Vos rode her first lap in 8:37, my best lap was 9:01!

PdC: You seemed really on it from the word go

Helen: Sometimes when I like a course, know I am getting good form and have a lot of self belief, I am, on it

PdC: It was a nice result for you - and I did like the teddy on the podium too - nice smuggle!

Helen: Yeah, my godmother is in hospital at the moment, and I wanted to make her laugh, so was going to take some comedy photos of Super Ted but then last minute let him hang out in the podium bag and see what happened

She made him for me when I was really little, he’s been on top of the wardrobe for a long time. He enjoyed his adventure though! Her husband said she thought it was really sweet and made her smile.  She is the nicest person ever, such a lovely lady and who I am named after.

PdC: It's nice to be able to do something like that!  Did it make Marianne Vos & Eva Lechner laugh on the podium?

Helen: Vos yes, think Katie [Compton] thought I was a bit mad.  Hey ho, I guess I am!

Hoogerheide World Championships course

PdC: So, that was the last World Cup....  this weekend is Worlds... tell us about Hoogerheide!

Helen: It’s a little town just over the border in Holland.  The race is run by Adri van der Poel, a former World Champion whose sons race now.   So the course has been a World Champs before but was a bit different both times.  I'll talk you through what I remember about the course

So, long road start, maybe 300 metres, then you do a left turn down a short descent into a usually very rutted muddy field.  Just as you start bike shagging (that’s a technical term for pushing your bike hard but not really going anywhere) you turn right onto a sandy gravel short section.  It’s important to get up to speed here ‘cause you want to be first down the tiny drop into 2 sharp turns.

This is where it may have changed a little.  In the World Cup last year you turned right then left, then rode past the pit, a longish straight grassy stretch that’s not too muddy, to a really, really sweeping right hander.  Then another shorter straight sweeping left, short straight sweeping right, and a short straight section

After these it’s a left down a sandy trail with a wicked fast left hand bermed up sand thing.  When you watch the guys ride this in person it actually blows your mind.  They must be doing at least 25-30kph in loose sand in the rut, bike leaned over, it’s truly very impressive.  On tv it just looks like "oh that’s a corner then, nice".

So then you have a fast hard packed trail straight line, couple of little dips and bends but nothing technical, then a short drop off into the bottom field.  Again here it may have a changed a little, but last year it was super-fast, straight into three short and cornered sections.  When it gets muddy here, its often quicker to run, and this year could be running territory.  Then another straight back towards the woods, with a little rise up before a short drop with bend into another rise up, basically you are zigzagging the ridge.  It’s pretty tough here because following the up it goes straight into the top field where it is notoriously muddy.  Sometimes it’s a run, sometimes a bike shag, sometimes okay.

You do a 180 at the top and drop back down the hill, before turning left back into the woods.  This corner can get really tricky and picking the right line can mean the difference between crashing or not.  Then you ride up a short-not-steep hill into a sandy U-bend, although if it’s wet it will be grippy, but that’s a really tricky corner in icy conditions.  Then a short sprint out and up over a man-made bridge, where you drop back towards the pit. The pit never seems to get that muddy.

A couple of lefts and rights and you are heading down to the "oh what’s quicker? Corner".  If you watch the pre-riding, so many people cannot work out what to do, it’s quite funny!  It’s a fast straight into a 180º off-camber turn, but you are riding down the ridge then up the ridge immediately, and its quite often slippery mud.  This then follows with a muddy short section before another 180 and drop back into the bottom field.  Not long to go now!

There’s a leftish rightish on the shallow descent into a few sweeping straights and corners that are much trickier in ice than mud, followed by a couple of sharper left rights. Here could get really muddy and become another run.  Then you exit the field onto a short road section before a left and right and sweeping bend, into the run-up of dooooooom!

It’s a long run-up and quite tough by the end as the really good line is steeeeeeep at the top.  So then you jump back on and get to the final descent of the lap, maybe easy in mud.  The problem is the off-camber line is faster but might be really tricky to get if it’s a really muddy descent.   If Vos and Compton are together on the last lap, Compton has to hit this first to stand a chance of out sprinting Vos, ‘cause after the drop you turn right immediately and go straight up a sharp bank.  One mistake here, like a foot down, or a bad gear choice, and winning is over for you – ‘cause then you turn right onto the finish straight.

300 metres is a long sprint but equally, would you want to take Vos to the line and make a sprint against the world road race champion, in Holland, the only women who is capable of beating Bronzini in a fair sprint!!

PdC: and once you’ve finished the first lap, you do it all over again!

Helen: Yeah depending on the weather, 4 or 5 laps.  By the way, I haven’t seen the course yet this, this is all from memory!

Who’s Who in the race?

PdC: So who are the contenders for the race?

Helen: The contenders after Vos and Compton?  Starting with Holland, we have Sophie de Boer, who's just been getting stronger over the last month - Otegem was a great race, she's started 2014 with a new year and a new spirit.   Sabrina Stultiens is a super-fast starter but not so great in really tough heavy boggy mud conditions. Expect her to feature early in the race for sure.  Then there are the young girls like Yara Kastelijn, only 16 years old, and the European under-23 champion, Annefleur Kalvenhaar, she’s always good at pacing her effort.

Then there’s FranceLucie Chainel came third last year, she was sick last week and didn’t race Nommay but she is always a strong contender and can peak well. She has both a slow start and can keep a high effort.  Plus Pauline Ferrand-Prévot - she was great in Rome but had a mechanical in Nommay. More of a holding-on kind of rider rather than an aggressor

Katerina Nash from the Czech Republic isn’t racing worlds - she was the person who lost out on a medal last year at worlds.  Pavla Havliková will race, but she has had stomach sickness. She's a fast starter though.

Rule Brittania!  That's me, Nikki Harris, Gabby Durrin and Hannah Payton.   Nikki and I are great in mud - Nikki won Ronse in brutal weather conditions, so we all know about us!!  Gabby has been sick and so you never know what you are going to get when that happens to you, like Lucie Chainel.

Belgium next – with Sanne Cant always there or thereabouts and never giving up, you cannot rule her out in any way.  With only 5 races remaining in the season I am only 2 points behind her in the UCI ranking, of the 1600 or so points we both have!  She’s a tryer for sure. Ellen van Loy is again another strong always-trying kind of rider. She tends to fade a little towards the end of the races but she’s always going for it.

Then #murica.  Well Compton, obviously, but there’s also Elle Anderson who’s the new on the scene.  Mud is not her thing but in her first World Cup in Zolder she was in 10th until the final lap where she crashed and flatted.  She was in 4th during the first lap in Nommay.  Then Kaitlin Antonneau, she was 7th at the weekend, loves a muddy course, also had an 8th in the Tabor World Cup.  Of course Meredith Miller although she’s not so keen on the muddy, muddy days. And Crystal Anthony, she’s one who loves muddy courses and is very strong

Italy has Eva Lechner, a classy, classy bike rider, never gives up and technically very good.

PdC: And of course, the big two…. what are the big differences between Marianne Vos and Katie Compton?

Helen: Vos is technically brilliant, so aggressive on her bike towards the course, obviously she is always trying and so ridiculously consistent.  Katie is like a diesel engine, she just goes and goes and goes at a really high pace.  She has improved hugely this year in terms of skill and you can see she hardly crashes at all.  So Vos will probably try attacking Compton and Compton will probably try to just ride her off her wheel.

PdC: Compton’s ‘weakness’ is her start, right?  I mean, she could easily get caught behind early crashes and such?

Helen: She’s got a lot better at that during the season too.  She was 3rd ish going into the steps on Sunday.

PdC: Who will win? (apart from you, of course!)

Helen: I want Vos to win ‘cause she is the best ambassador for our sport right now, but I equally think it would be a shame for Compton never to win worlds When she is such a successful racer.  Vos is the best ambassador for European cyclocross and that’s where the improvements are needed, and she has a huge following with 64,000 twitter followers - when she talks, people listen.

PdC: And if you can’t be on the podium, who should it be apart from those two?

Helen: If I can’t have it should be Nikki Harris.  She’s had a great season too, and she’s British!

The UCI Commission, and the future of women’s Cyclocross

PdC: Speaking of Vos speaking and others listening... You did some of that with the UCI Cyclocross Commission, didn't you?

Helen: I did.  It was amazing.

PdC: How did that happen?  Why did they pick you?

Helen: I got asked to do it when Brian Cookson said we need a women on every committee, probably ‘cause of the ruckus about Worlds last year, they thought "we can keep her on our side and keep her quiet"! I’d been asked to write an op ed piece for VeloNews on why there were only 30 women on the start line for the 2013 Worlds, and I said it related to Federations not being fair. But I said the UCI could help this by having the same rule for women that the men have, where if riders are in the top 50 in the World rankings and in the top three for their country, they are automatically entered into the World Championships.  Then a lady, Michelle Lee, did an online petition for it, I wasn’t involved in that but it went pretty viral!  Anyway they changed the rule, so riders like me, Nikki and Gabby placed, 4th, 5th and 15th in the world ranking have to be included on Great Britain’s team selection for worlds

PdC: They don't have to fund riders to get there, right? Just give them the chance.  Seems entirely sensiblee!

Helen: It stops Federations saying "oh well Margriet Kloppenburg, you didn’t win nationals, so you’re not going", ‘cause she is still around 30th and the first Danish women.  They are under no obligations to fund anyone, just put their name on the start list.

PdC: What was it like on the Commission?  What sort of other people were on it? And were they nice to you at the UCI?

Helen: There’s Sven Nys, Peter van den Abeele (UCI guy and very good mtb/cross racer in the past), Geoff Proctor (USA guy who runs the Eurocross camp for USA riders), Beat Wabel (Swiss ex pro, the Nys of his era), Peter Poelman (works for UCI, he’s the stats man, anything stat you want, boom, he’s on it), me and Mike Plant who’s the president – he’s a very successful sports manager type person, and has been working for the UCI for 20-plus years on the management committee.

We make suggestions, we agree changes, then it goes to the UCI Management Committee who meet twice a year, then they agree it (hopefully) and it becomes rules that are published in August-September time.

There were really nice to me, I was a little nervous because I didn’t know how they would be, but everything I said they totally agreed with and even had talked about some of the things in previous meetings.  It was really exciting.

PdC: So what were the suggestions you brought to the table?

Helen: My suggestions related to equalising prize money, creating a youth category for women, and race start times [having the elite women’s race just before the elite men for all series, rather than before the junior and u23 men].  Hopefully all the cost-free changes can happen for next season.  Prize money will take a lot longer, I think

PdC: Did you have a big long list of suggestions and have to pick four to put out there?

Helen: I had to pick three, but I encompassed the women’s points into one, so snuck in three more!

PdC: Hey, if you get two of the three sorted for next season, and money worked on for the future that's a bloody good result!  Did you talk to other riders about what to bring up?

Helen: I sent an email to all the women riders whose email addresses I could find and asked them to talk to me and tell me anything they think needs changing.  And I spoke to all the riders I could at races.  The responses were pretty much the same thing, prize money, race times and youth category, and I’ll mail again before the next meeting.

PdC: Do you think it makes a difference to riders, knowing they have a rep there?

Helen: I don’t think all the girls realise we are in such an amazing position right now, it’s not often you get the chance to change your sport for the better with people who actually want stuff to happen and in a time when women’s racing is at the forefront of the UCI's mind and public statements.  It will be a small window but we are all pretty skinny, so lets jump through it, and make massive changes now

PdC: And you're all good at navigating obstacles!

Helen: Exactly, some better than others, haha.

PdC: So what's been your approach this season?

Helen: Same as always really – pre-season camp in France, going to America for the first 6 weeks then into Euro cross racing

PdC: You had some clear targets to peak for, didn't you?

Helen: Yes, I really wanted to win Koppenberg and Euros (same weekend) and peak for worlds.  So far I have a 50% success rate [laughs]

PdC: This year's USA trip wasn't the all-conquering one of last year - but you came back with some great results - what was the best part?

Helen: Yeah, the courses were crazy crazy fast in America this year, so a bit too much for me - and Elle Anderson was flying.  Plus in Providence everyone rocked up and pissed right on the centre of my bonfire!!  But I love the Gloucester course, it would make an amazing World Cup venue.

PdC: We’ll have a British World Cup in your stomping ground this autumn, in Milton Keynes, won't we?  Is that confirmed?

Helen: Yes, and I am really excited, I love it.  I really hope everyone shows up to watch as it will be sooooooo exciting and apparently the course is rock hard.

PdC: What does it mean to you to have a World Cup on home soil?

Helen: I never believed it ‘til the European Championships in Ipswich, in 2012 - it really does give you an edge. There is no doubt in my mind I would not have won that sprint if it was not in my home country

PdC: Was that the first time you've raced an international race in the UK?

Helen: Yes, first time!

PdC: Wow!  Britain has three of the best women riders, and we're the no.1 country in the world in the women's rankings - so it's good for the UK to give something back to the sport

Helen: Definitely, and to inspire the next generation too, I hope.

PdC: Has the tv coverage make a difference to you this year?  Both the British Nationals shown on Eurosport, and the World Cups streamed on the UCI youtube cyclocross section?

Helen: It makes a massive difference!  It gives us an outlet to showcase our sponsors, and when we are able to do that we are able to increase our worth.  By increasing our worth at the top of the sport it trickles down, and more riders hold value, and when more riders hold value at the base of the pyramid, your pyramid gets bigger and the top gets better.  As they get better they push each other to get faster and so on.

I want there to be a legitimate career pathway in cyclocross for women and will not stop fighting for that until we do - despite it probably annoying people!

PdC: It's so great to see riders who love the sport, and want it to improve for everyone

Helen: Exactly.  It may never effect my career but it can keep the 16 year olds racing Worlds this weekend being able to race in cross until they are my age.  That would make me happy

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 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.

If you want to watch the women race the cyclocross World Championships on Saturday 1st February, I have a guide to watching the race on my blog - and of course, come back to the Café, where we'll have livethreads for all four Worlds races!