by David Evans
Anyone who has wandered around the paddock of a top level bike race has, at some point or another, stepped over, around or in a trickle of riders’ urine. A well-timed and discrete expulsion behind a team car is often preferred to skating across poorly tiled bathrooms on cleats (surely a sport in itself), making vigilance an asset for those who venture behind the barriers. And so it was after the Rapha Elite Women’s Criterium at the IG Markets London Nocturne that I counted six such obstacles as I searched for eighth place finisher, Helen Wyman, current British national cyclocross champion and habitually the best placed British rider in continental ’cross races.
The Nocturne provides London’s cycling fans with a heady combination of a ~50kph slugfest Kermesse, big names (Mark Cavendish and David Millar have raced in the past), and pubs. It inspires flurries of excited Tweets and artfully arranged Vimeo tributes – it is, in short, a fun and well-loved race. It flirted briefly with expansion to other cities – and surely will do again – and proved the market for the televised Halfords Tour Series of town crits. For racers, it gives an exciting and high-profile occasion to showcase their sport in close-quarters, and sponsors revel in the luxury of having three hours worth of undivided attention of a couple of thousand mostly inebriated and static spectators.
I noticed Helen Wyman shortly after the start of the women’s race, closing a gap that helped to separate her and the leading ten women from a strung-out and seemingly traumatized bunch. The organizers clocked the speeds of the racers down the finishing straight – and covering that move at a nippy 47kph secured her the speediest average for most of the night.
With the selection formed, the race fell in to a high-paced pattern. A rider or two would attempt to escape on one of the two straights, a reaction would transpire a handful of nanoseconds later, gaps would appear between wheels, the pace would bump 50kph, the group would reform, breathe, and do it all again. It made for excellent viewing. Wyman took one such flier at the start of the penultimate lap, cranking a big gear out of the saddle up the righthand side of the breakaway from five wheels deep. If anything, the effort was a little undercooked, but dangerous enough to warrant the attention of eventual winner Hannah Barnes (Team Ibis Cycles) and preferable to towing a bunch of sprinters to their victory.
I eventually found Wyman spinning an easy gear on her turbo post-race – stem slammed and Powertap reading 111 watts – right on the edge of the back straight, facing out into the crowd and emerging break of Ian Stannard, David Appollonio (both Team Sky), Kristian House (Rapha-Condor-Sharp) and Niklas Gustavsson (Team UK Youth) in the men’s race. Stefan Wyman, husband, coach, and much else besides, busied himself bagging spare wheels for his Matrix Fitness-Prendas squad. Behind the railings on the other side of the street, pints were being consumed faster than they could be produced. With a thousand things happening around us, I asked Helen Wyman if I could bother her with questions for a few minutes and gawp at her equipment. “For Cyclocross Magazine? Anything.” The name goes far.
“These types of races, the crits, they’re just training in a way that is impossible to do alone. You have to explode out of every corner and can’t ‘turn off’ for a minute.” So is this the type of racing that she’ll be doing until the cyclocross season starts? “Hmm, almost. I’ve been doing OK in the Tour Series,” she says, which is an understatement, as she’s the 2011 champion and sitting in third overall with a handful of races left in 2012. “So I’ll finish those. But I have some fun things lined up too, like,” she turns to Stefan, who’s holding three quite expensive wheels in one hand and two bidons in the other, performing the functional pirouette of someone used to completing to a high level three unrelated tasks simultaneously, and checks with him what ‘fun’ races are coming up, “like, oh, the 24 hour Mountain Mayhem, and the Curlew Cup.”
I say that this schedule seems quite intensive, almost equal to that of a racer who has the luxury of not having to slog through Europe’s finest gloop from September till March. Wyman’s response is given as though we’re having a relaxed natter over coffee, not forcing our voices over the din of her turbo and the lead motorcycle’s repeated accelerations into the back straight. “Oh, I know, I’ve got a big rest planned before we head to the States. Last year I rode every single World Cup, every single one, and I was one of only three athletes to do that.” She told me the names of the other riders to accomplish this feat, but just as my slightly too blunt pencil met my tiny notepad (having never been a Boy Scout, I was without handheld recorder), Ian Stannard tried to force himself up against the lens of the camera hanging off the lead motorcycle, drafting so close that the cameraman noticeably tensed, surprised by a man who can accelerate faster than a motorcycle when the mood takes him, and by the time my attention returned to Wyman I was lost in the guttural sounds and fricatives of the presumably Dutch and Flemish names. “So by the time I got to March I was … stuffed, really, stuffed.”
Wyman was part of the much heralded British contingent that, attracted by prize money, great organization and proportional sizes of utter decadence, raced CrossVegas and many New England races last year. Will this be repeated? “Without a doubt. I know that Gabby Day – she has an American boyfriend now – and Ian Field [Hargroves Cycles and British national champion] are both going. We all loved it. Loved it.”
Why is that? “The racing is excellent, and the supporters are wild. Belgium is fantastic, too, but different. They only cheer for you, really, if you’re pushing the top five or famous or local. So if you’re neither famous nor local, or you’re having a bad day, they don’t cheer for you.” And the American crowds? “They don’t care who you are. At all. They just scream and shout for everyone.”
The question of prize money comes up, and how many US races match prize money for the top three in men’s and women’s events. “European cycling is currently run by the people who raced in the ’60s and ’70s, which is fine, but it means that changes take some time to happen. But in the States everything is new, so new, so the equality is already there. There is the question is: why not give equal money to the men and women? Why not?”
Americans, Wyman tells me, are like “funkier British people,” and the chain of Wholefoods supermarkets are unimaginably wondrous. Why? “Why? I can’t explain it. They’re fantastic. And on Saturday mornings you can taste anything, for free.” Anything? “Anything. For free. But only on a Saturday morning.” I tell her that if I get arrested for sampling the Wholefoods wares too liberally, I’ll be calling her for bail money.
Follow Helen Wyman @CXHelen, or through her website helenwyman.com, and Stefan Wyman @ds_stef. David Evans, to his continued disbelief at such goodfortune will be covering the “British Invasion” this coming autumn.