After a strong start to the 2016-2017 season, Helen Wyman’s cyclocross campaign was derailed by an injury suffered at the European Championships. She returned from a broken collarbone to race at the World Championships and finished 2nd at the Superprestige Hoogstraten to end her season.
Wyman is no stranger to long journeys to success. During her four years on the UCI Cyclocross Commission, she has become a leading advocate for women in cyclocross and achieving equal payouts for both women and men. She caught our attention with a recent blog post on her website saying ‘thank you’ to Trek and World Cup Waterloo for being the first World Cup to offer equal pay.
While her work as an advocate is climbing the hills she set out to tackle four years ago, she announced Wednesday that beginning next year, she will have a new climb to navigate as a professional racer. Wyman said her contract with Kona will not be renewed for 2018, and she will be moving forward by putting together a personal program.
Cyclocross Magazine got the opportunity to speak with Wyman about her role as a leader in women’s cyclocross and her plans for the future post-Kona.
Please see the bottom of the post for full audio of our discussion with Wyman.
A Mega Journey to Equality
The issue of equal payouts for men and women is one Cyclocross Magazine has discussed since its inception and it has even reached the pages of The Guardian. It is also something Englishwoman Helen Wyman has advocated for during the four years she has served on the UCI Cyclocross Commission.
When Trek announced it would be hosting World Cup Waterloo this September, it also announced the World Cup in Wisconsin will be offering equal payouts for men and women. In her blog post, Wyman said she was inspired to say ‘thank you’ after talking to representatives from Trek.
When asked why she felt the money being offered by World Cup Waterloo is such a big deal, she said “It’s incredible not just because it’s the first World Cup, but they’ve actually gone off of their own back and added 29,400 Euros [32,800 U.S. Dollars] on top of what they have to pay already,” said Wyman. “World Cups are really expensive to run. In Belgium the model works because there’s all the spectators who pay to go watch and you have massive sponsors, but in America it’s much harder, and they’re still doing that. I think that’s incredible.”
She continued, “Also for the coming season all C1 and C2 races are equal. So the only races now that aren’t equal are the World Cups, which is a huge step. In the four years I have been working on the ‘Cross Commission to get there, it’s a huge step. And there will also be more money in the overall World Cup fund, which will come out in July, I think. Once that’s agreed, it will come out. That’s really exciting too because that’s getting really close. It’s really exciting times, and we’re really close to being equal.”
Living in Europe and being fluent in Dutch, albeit with a Queen’s English accent, Wyman has a keen insight into how the path to equality for women is also being driven by how women’s cyclocross is being embraced by Belgian fans. She talked about viewership for the women’s races in Belgium, “They had nearly a million viewers on Belgian television watch the national championships. Nearly a million viewers! There are only like four million people in Flanders. It was something like 68% of the market share, which is more people than watch EastEnders in the UK, which is a big percentage of people. So it was huge. Every year it gets better and better.”
They had nearly a million viewers on Belgian television watch the national championships. Nearly a million viewers!
Wyman was keen to recognize the significance of the growth of women’s ‘cross in Belgium, “That’s what gets us respect, because you know, the television is like ‘Well the figures for the men is like 1.2 million and for the women it’s like 990,000.’ It’s like, that’s not really that much of a difference, so why wouldn’t investors invest in the women’s race as an extra commodity?”
She also added “That’s great because once we have a value, that means other teams want to have women because they’ve suddenly got this extra 45 minutes or hour of racing they didn’t have before, and that’s an hour of commercial sponsorship and return. So we have a value, and every year they get that and every year we become saleable items, more and more women can make a career out of this. And that’s all I ever wanted from the very beginning, but you have to change things so slowly.”
All professional riders have the skills necessary to allow them to compete at the highest level. Some of those riders are blessed with communication and leadership skills – and in Wyman’s case, a charming English accent – that move them into roles of promoting cyclocross outside of race day. Wyman said that she became a leader among her peers because people were listening to what she had to say, “Initially, people seemed to listen. And if people are listening to you, then they might be acting on what you’re saying. When I was given the opportunity, when they added a woman to every commission, they asked if I wanted to do it. And because that opportunity was there, I was like ‘Yeah, definitely. People are prepared to hear me out and discuss what I am saying.’ At that point, I have a position, I have a responsibility to use my voice, basically, to make a difference in the sport.”
Wyman also had a big moment of success this past among her peers on the UCI Cyclocross Commission. “I was on the ‘Cross Commission for four years and sat in the meeting in February, and for the first time in those four years the guys were talking about women’s ‘cross as if it should be equal,” she said. I know it’s not equal, and I totally get that, and I know the prize fund in the World Cups isn’t the same, but they were talking about it with this huge respect that I didn’t see four years ago. If their minds have changed and their attitudes have changed, it won’t be long before we will get full equality. Even if I never sat on another ‘cross commission again, at least I am happy that their minds have changed and their attitudes are working in the right direction.”
People seemed to listen. And if people are listening to you, then they might be acting on what you’re saying.
A New Journey as a Racer
Wyman’s exciting news from Monday was followed up with a more somber announcement on Wednesday. After racing for the Kona Factory Team for eight years, the team informed her that her contract will not be renewed for 2018. Wyman said she is working on moving forward with an individual program and is hoping to put together a group of sponsors with the help of her husband Stefan.
When we asked about her plans beginning in 2018, Wyman was forthcoming, “I have had an amazing 8 years with Kona. They’re absolutely fantastic and I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said. “Sponsorship is a privilege and not a right, so I am very grateful. But moving on, I still want to be really competitive, and I honestly believe I still can. The numbers from training are higher than they’ve ever been, and I think riders like Katie Compton and Katerina Nash and Georgia Gould are proving that just because you’re 36 doesn’t mean that you’re done.”
Moving forward, she said she is going to go the route of an independent rider, “For me, I know that I want to keep racing for a long time yet, and so this is an opportunity to create a Wyman package. I’ve had a lot of sponsorship from individual sponsors away from Kona that are all happy to continue supporting me into my next project, so that’s really cool. Now I am just looking for a few more partnerships to come on board and see where we can take it.”
Wyman also said that a new beginning has its perks, “It’s an exciting thing. It’s sad to leave Kona, but it’s exciting because it’s a new project. Sometimes in life, a new project is a good thing because it freshens you up and you’re actually starting something different and it changes your perspective on different things. That’s really exciting. And there’s obviously the extra watch you get from a new team, quite excited for that. It’s a known fact.”
The numbers from training are higher than they’ve ever been, and I think riders like Katie Compton and Katerina Nash and Georgia Gould are proving that just because you’re 36 doesn’t mean that you’re done.
At age 36, Wyman is joining Compton, Nash, and Gould in what seem to be the prime years for women cyclocross racers. When asked why she still wants to deal with the stress of finding sponsors and training hard, she said, “I just love the feeling of achieving something. In the last Superprestige I did in Hoogstraten this past year, after breaking my collarbone, running with my bike it was so sore, but I still managed to get second in that race. To come from where I had been after the crash to there, that gave me such a buzz. And winning gives you such a massive buzz, it really genuinely does.”
As she alluded to by mentioning Compton, Nash, and Gould, her age does not mean her cyclocross is over at this point, “Winning is obviously the ultimate goal, but equally, achieving something that’s important to you still gives you a buzz. I can still do that,” said Wyman. “I am still capable of that. To get second in a Superprestige means I’m not done. There aren’t very many riders who share the podium places in European racing, so to be one of those riders, that shows that you still have the drive and the ambition and the ability. After the season last year, there’s no way I wanted to even consider ending my career on that. I still love it.”
Well, she loves most of it. Said Wyman, “I don’t love training. *laughs* Love is probably the wrong word, but I do enjoy achieving something when you do a top-end block or you go moto pacing or you get the fastest time you’ve gotten on a certain sector on the same route you use every year, it’s like ‘Ok, I can be better than I was last year.’ In training, I love the sense of achieving something.”
Wyman showing off the realness of her training struggle:
— Helen Wyman (@CXHelen) June 11, 2017
The Next Next Wyman
As her days on the UCI Cyclocross Commission draw to a close, Wyman said working with young riders one-on-one could be a future path to staying involved with cyclocross when she does retire from the sport. She started her mentoring last season with the NEXT Wyman project designed to sponsor young women riders looking to race professionally.
The first NEXT Wyman rider was Amira Mellor of Great Britain:
— NEXT Wyman (@NextWyman) September 20, 2016
The NEXT Wyman program gave Mellor the opportunity to do a solid block of races in the United States early in the season and learn about life on the road across the pond from Wyman. Unfortunately, the NEXT Wyman program will not be continuing for the upcoming season, but we imagine we have not seen the last of Wyman as a sponsor/coach/life educator/#murica tour guide.
We did ask her whose mini-me should would like to be if she were an aspiring 18 year-old cyclocrosser:
“My superhero is Hanka Kupfernagel. I have kind of a girl crush on Hanka Kupfernagel, so it probably would have been her, but obviously she’s not racing anymore.”
She continued, “But if it were a current racer, I think it would be quite cool to hang out with Sanne [Cant] for a while because she’s absolutely hilarious. She has a fantastic sense of humor. And I’d love to know how she gets her skills in sand. I would love to learn skills from her. That would be pretty cool. But in history it would definitely be Hanka because she’s just the coolest bike rider ever.”
I think it would be quite cool to hang out with Sanne [Cant] for a while because she’s absolutely hilarious. She has a fantastic sense of humor. And I’d love to know how she gets her skills in sand. I would love to learn skills from her.
Wyman will be getting a strong start to the 2017-2018 cyclocross season in the United States beginning with Rochester in early September. Stay tuned to Cyclocross Magazine for more on Wyman’s new team and how her early-season racing progresses.