by David Einmo
When seven-time British national champion Helen Wyman approached the finishing straight of 2012’s European Cyclocross Championships in Ipswich, the crowd’s roar was deafening. Wyman grew up near this small English town where the local fans were now ecstatically cheering for their hometown hero. When Wyman shot around Dutch sensation Sanne Van Paassen on the short hill to the finish line, the crowd erupted. So did Wyman. Beaming with a smile wider than the English Channel, Wyman crossed the finish line half a bike length ahead of Van Paassen. But it’s a career highlight that almost didn’t happen. Had life events played out differently 11 years earlier, Wyman may have never focused on cyclocross.
In 2001, at the age of 19, Wyman enrolled into the University of Hertfordshire to study physiotherapy, a demanding program that required summer work placements. Suddenly the British bike racer, who had been racing road and mountain bikes since the age of 14, was faced with a harsh reality. Her summers were consumed with school, preventing her from road racing. Rather than quit bike racing and surrender, however, Wyman explored a new option.
“In the winter I could train enough to compete in cross. So I started cross instead when I was 19 years old,” Wyman says. “I was fourth in my first national event and was instantly hooked. I just love how cross is all about strength, speed and skill. Very rarely are tactics and teammates over-involved. Plus it makes you feel alive to go fast around a corner, or attack up a steep hill or descend like a demon in mud. Why would anyone want to do any other cycling discipline?”
That’s not to say Wyman hasn’t had success on the road as well. She has raced every major women’s road race, including three World’s Championships, the Tour de France, and Tour of Flanders. But it’s cyclocross that found and inspired Wyman. Seven British National Championships later, riding ’cross continues to be her passion.
We caught up with Wyman between World Cup races to learn more about her goals for this season, what it felt like to win the 2012 European Championships on home soil, a look at her secret weapon (husband and coach, Stefan Wyman), and a tell-all on her mythical Fish Sticks Sandwich.
Cyclocross Magazine: You won the 2012 European Championships in Ipswich, not far from where you grew up. What was it like to win this championship race on home ground?
Helen Wyman: It was truly awesome. It’s the first and probably only time in my career that I have been able to race a major championship on home soil. People always say it makes a difference to race in your own country and you always think, “yeah, yeah, whatever.” Then I got the chance at that race and the noise was crazy in the finish straight. Everyone was cheering for me. It definitely gave me the extra quarter of a wheel that I needed to win, ha, ha. A career highlight for sure.
CXM: In addition to winning 2012’s European Championships, you’ve won the British National title a record seven times and you are currently ranked second in the world. What’s next for Helen Wyman?
HM: First in the world?! Ha, ha. Every year I get new objectives and every year I achieve some, and not others. It’s not like I’m Marianne Vos just yet, so there are so many things for me to achieve. A World Cup win would be a nice start, a World Championship medal would be even nicer and then there are so many Belgian classic races like Aspere-Gavere, Loenhout, and Baal I have yet to win.
CXM: How do you deal with the pressure and expectations that come with success?
HM: I love my job more than anything else (excluding Stef, obviously). Expectations are part of that. But together, as a team, me and Stef manage those pressures and direct them in the right way. To me, expectations lie within and so any pressure on me is internal. The rest of the world can have its opinions on my results, but it’s what my “team” thinks that counts. This way you never get too “cocky” or too down on yourself.
CXM: Among your essentials, you cite “bike, shoes, helmet, husband.” Tell us about the role your husband, Stefan Wyman, plays in your cycling success.
HM: He IS my cycling success! Stef is my rock. Everyone needs a Stefan. He is my pit man, my mechanic, my driver, my coach, my social media coordinator, my psychologist, my logistics man, and above all, my biggest fan. There is genuinely nothing this man and Google cannot do from home-repairs to car-fault-finding to pep talks. Plus the bonus is he’s my husband so he knows and understands everything about me. He’s awesome on every level and I couldn’t do any of this without him. Only problem is when I retire I’m not sure I am physically able to do the same back for him!
CXM: Let’s go back to the beginning of your racing career at age 14. What got you into bike racing?
HM: I used to go on bike riding holidays with my parents, and we were out riding one weekend when we started talking to a guy from my local cycling club. My brother really wanted to race and as I idolized him I had to race too. I carried on through university and he discovered women and cars!
CXM: What keeps you motivated to race season after season?
HM: New experiences, success, and enjoyment—all the reasons I love racing ’cross for. Every year I travel to America to race as it keeps me fresh. There is so much equality at the races in terms of equal payouts, publicity, equal billing, etc. in the USA. Every time I race there it just reminds me what can be in Europe and why it’s important for me keep racing here and trying to increase the profile of elite women’s sport in the homeland of cyclocross.
CXM: What prompted the move to Oudenaarde, Belgium and how has it impacted your racing? Certainly it must be helpful being closer to the big races including the upcoming World Championships in Hoogerheide.
HM: I lived in Tielt-Winge for six years, which is a little town near Leuven. Oudenaarde is a much easier place to live as we live close to the center and have a lot more amenities on our doorstep. Plus it’s a beautiful little town. Being only a 10-minute bike ride from Koppenberg obviously has its bonuses, too. All but two World Cup races are within a two-hour drive of our house. That is a huge luxury.
CXM: You’ve built a reputation as an impressive bunny-hopper, jumping over barriers while still on your bike. For many riders, the first few attempts at bunny hopping can lead to epic crashes. How many times did you slam your wheel into the barricade on your way to developing your technique? Any tips for budding bunny-hoppers?
HM: Well, actually the video of the bunny hop is just one plank and it required approximately 200 meters of full gas sprint beforehand. Not exactly a replicable technique at a bike race and would lead to a “Joey” on the second plank. However, log riding, you can do simply by lifting the front wheel over then transferring your weight to bring the rear wheel over. This is much easier as you can even use the pedal or chain ring to balance with care and push over the log if it’s really high.
If you want to practice bunny hopping, I would suggest building barriers that collapse on impact, leading to less incidents of serious injury.
CXM: Rumor has it you are a gifted chef of the unconventional “Fish Sticks Sandwich.” What is this mythical meal and should those trying to emulate your speed consider this sandwich for post-training recovery fuel?
HM: Oh, the fish finger sandwich, a culinary delight. I have now upped the anti by making my own breaded fish sticks from fresh fish and Belgian bread. However, the lay person can make them with Captain Birdseye 100% fish sticks. Simply cook the fish, then butter up the bread (this gives a melted butter taste). Lay the fish sticks on the buttered bread, followed by tomato ketchup, followed by crisp green lettuce, followed by mayonnaise, followed by the top slice of bread. Squish down to complete and eat it. Post training, it does have protein and carbs, so recovery fuel… sure why not!
CXM: Some racers focus 100 percent on bicycling, where everything they do throughout the year is dedicated to hammering on two wheels. Others seek balance between racing and other facets of life. Where does Helen Wyman fit on this spectrum?
HM: Well Stef runs a women’s road team in the UK so I guess biking, biking, biking is my life for now. But I have a lot of fun doing it and wouldn’t change a single day. My life is truly amazing and I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who provides the best support from sponsors through to people’s time to allow me to do this. Every single day I truly appreciate everything I have.
CXM: If you didn’t race bikes, what would you be?
HM: I am actually a physiotherapist so I guess that. Or maybe a taste tester for Cadbury!