Two years ago I was afforded a unique opportunity that allowed me to dress as one of my favorite and all around amazing cyclocross racers for our Halloween cyclocross race here in Chicago. The “costume” was complete with one of that pro’s actual skinsuits. What made it more interesting was that racer was in fact a woman. At the time it was just a cool thing I got the opportunity to do. Dress up as someone you’re a big fan of. Later I reflected on it and saw that in a way I was making a statement about what’s become so “right” about cyclocross in the US: to us the women’s race is just as popular as the men’s if not more so and our favorite athletes are women as often as they are men.
I believe that a lot of that popularity has to do with the fact that we have been allowed to know more about the athletes and their back stories. It helps us as fans and allows us to invest more in the race and it’s outcome. It also helps that the entire women’s elite peloton tends to be amazingly approachable, intelligent, enthusiastic, and supportive of other racers and fans. In essence they have become the ultimate spokespeople for the sport itself.
I resolved to approach a pro woman cross/road racer every year offering to wear their skinsuit in our Halloween cross race to help spread both specific knowledge of that athlete within the fan ranks as well as to serve as a platform for spreading more awareness of women’s racing in general.
This season I approached 33 yr old 2 time European and 8 time British national cyclocross champion from St Albans UK, Helen Wyman. Not only did she graciously agree with a “will post it in the morning”, but she also agreed to answer a few questions to allow me to share a little bit about her with everyone. Enjoy.
PSIMET: You began racing bicycles at a much earlier age (14) than most of the women in the US do. Do you believe that was mostly due to your environment or was there someone who helped fuel your earlier interest in the sport?
Helen Wyman: This was entirely down to my family. We always went on cycling holidays and used our bikes as transport. But because my brother wanted to race and I idolised him I HAD to race too. Luckily I was quite good at it ha ha!
PSIMET: What are your thoughts regarding all of the women who seem to be coming into the sport for the first time in their early to late 30’s?
Helen Wyman: I think its fantastic. My old team mate Wendy Simms was world number one in cross at 36 years old and had started in the sport in her late 20s. In a sport where strength is such an important factor the endurance you get with age is a bonus. Although skill is really important you just have to be brave to learn it the older you are!
PSIMET: You mentioned on your personal webpage that time constraints seemed to select the discipline of Cyclocross for you, but what is it about Cyclocross that you find appealing compared to other disciplines like road, mtb or even track?
Helen Wyman: Its just so much fun, it hard fast tough racing with less tactics than any other cycling discipline and when you were a kid sliding around in the mud it felt great right? So as an adult I can legitimately call this my job, who wouldn’t want that?! Ha ha
PSIMET: Here in the US we’ve been lucky enough to see you quite a bit over the last few seasons. Being that you’re from the UK and do still call Europe home, what is it about racing cross in the US that has seemed to draw you back so many times?
Helen Wyman: Three things, firstly my team, Kona, secondly the friendliness of the racing scene here and thirdly you guys have the whole equality thing dialled!
PSIMET: Would you say that there is a competitor out there that is almost your favorite to race against?
Helen Wyman:I love racing Sanne Cant as she is technically very good, I am a bit stronger but when we are both good its such an exciting battle to be in, she always outsprints me but I can drop her and when the crowds get behind such a great battle the noise is just incredible.
PSIMET: Is there someone out there that you would prefer to not have to toe the line against for whatever reason?
Helen Wyman: Ha ha what does that mean? Someone I want to beat? I haven’t beaten compton in a straight fight for ages and when ever you beat Vos its like you’re a hero so that feels good too!
PSIMET: If you could control it – what would be your favorite cross course/weather/conditions?
Helen Wyman: Mud, mud, glorious mud!
PSIMET: Are you optimistic with regard to where you see women’s racing headed?
Helen Wyman: For cross definately there are so many good things happening like equal prize money at Koppenberg cross from the american bike shop twenty20 cycles. Like increases in prize funds from races like the BPost bank troffee series and like the rule changes happening at the uci level.
PSIMET: Is there any difference at your level between the general environment for women’s racing between here and Europe? If so what differences do you prefer or think will help develop women’s racing in the long term?
Helen Wyman: The main differences relate entirely to attitude. Racing in America majority of races have equal prize money, any event with live streaming streams both elite races, any tv internet productions show both equally. All riders are riders irrespective of gender. In Europe the race organisers see the elite men first then every other race as a side event. In my opinion its about change attitudes and opinions to get organisers to see theres an entirely new arena for alternative sponsorship they haven’t even looked at with the women’s side of the sport.
PSIMET: You mention in a recent blog entry picked up by Cyclingnews that “I’m now on the UCI commission and I’m using that role to try to move forward equality within the sport. “ Could you expand on that a little bit and tell us what commission you’re on, what your role is and if possible at this point where you feel the most opportunity for moving equality forward within the sport exists?
Helen Wyman: I am on the UCI cyclocross commision. So far we have increased the amount of time women can race for from ’40 minutes’ (some races in europe last year were 36 minutes) to ‘minimum of 40minutes up to 50 minutes). So far Ronse was 47 minutes, Valkenburg 46, Rochester 49.
We have set a timetable for equalising prize money which starts next season. This couldn’t start immediately due to when race organisers bid for a race.
We have moved all the rules relating to the elite mens in line for the elite womens, so if you are top 50 in the world and top 3 for your country you are automatically qualified for worlds. Stuff like that.
We are working on the youth category currently as when you are 16 you race against everyone women, so me, Vos, Compton, Miller etc. To me as a 16 year old I would imagine it’s pretty scary!
Stuff like that.
PSIMET: If you could change 1 thing about the sport with regards to how it impacts women what would it be?
Helen Wyman: To me I would wave a magic wand over equal prize money. Because in reality a lot of the problems for developing our beautiful sport in europe relate to opportunity. If everyone had the same opportunity to race for the same prize money irrespective of gender there would be such a huge strength in depth of women at the top of the sport. If you could win 1600 euros in one race, thats 5 months rent payed, you get second the next day 1200 euros, thats food covered for the same time. When you get to the point you can live off of prize money you can go full time, you can get better and better results, you get picked up by a team, you get payed, you can now afford training camps and coaching, you get better. Everybody around you has to raise their game to beat you, it brings the level of the sport higher and higher over time.
It shouldn’t have to be a struggle, riders should get paid but in reality thats harder to change than equal prize money and not something as a commission we can effect. But opportunity we can! (All my opinion obviously and feel free to disagree at any time ha ha)
I’d probably also wave my magic wand over tv time cause that provides greater exposure for our sponsors, increasing our value, increasing the opportunity for better pay leading to the same increase in the level of the sport.
PSIMET: If you could change 1 thing about the sport in general what would it be?
Helen Wyman: You know I really don’t think i would, maybe put a bit more ‘world’ into the world cup series. But its a really exciting, fun sport already. It has a great format that isn’t really broken. Could just tweak it a little!
PSIMET: In all honesty what are your thoughts about this chubby guy in Chicago dressing up in your kit? Do you feel it helps further awareness of issues in women’s cycling and/or what in particular would you like for all of the Chicago cross community to know?
Helen Wyman: I think its fantastic and good on you. I think you are very brave for accepting an all white skinsuit although i have no doubt you can pull it off!
I think people talking about us raises our profile in every way If people within the sport see riders of either gender spoken about in a similar way it becomes normal to see us as equal. Katie Compton is probably as famous in America as Jeremy Powers because you guys are doing it right. You guys don’t see a problem and that is the world that I want to live in. So thank you for highlighting me and I really need to see pictures ha ha ha.