Deep in the heart of Catalunya, surrounded by medium mountains and with the towering Pyrenees to its north, the small town of Manlleu hosts a cyclo-cross event and Helen Wyman goes through her warm-up routine before taking to the start line for gridding in the crisp cold air.
Wyman is one of the sport’s biggest stars and has been for over a decade. Selfies are taken; lots of handshakes; a guy wants a photo with Helen, as his wife, who also races, “will not believe that you are here!”
A woman doing practice laps the day before – and struggling – was taken under Wyman’s wing and shown the right lines by one of the best in the business. Post-race, after Wyman had duly shaken off one persistent pursuer to take the win, the newcomer rushed up to proffer her congratulations and gratitude for the assistance.
This is cyclo-cross at its best. The friendliest branch of cycle sport, with one its most approachable and dedicated practitioners doing her thing.
“People appreciate you coming, and being approachable. They like that,” she says.
Yet Helen Wyman has no contract next year.
Kona, after eight years of backing Britain’s best performing ‘cross rider – twice European champion, nine-time British champion, World Championships bronze in 2014 – has decided not to continue with Wyman.
She remains tight-lipped and stoic on the subject, always careful to thank Kona for their support over the years, but it clearly hurts.
What, you might wonder, is she doing racing in Spain when her career could be coming to an abrupt halt in a matter of weeks?
The story starts with last year’s European Championships in France. Wyman and similarly-talented Brit, Nikki Brammeier, collided within seconds of the start and crashed heavily, both sustaining bad injuries and concussion. For Wyman, it was a broken collarbone that effectively ruined the rest of her season. In a sport where serious damage is rare, a high-speed get-down on tarmac is an altogether different and more painful beast to landing in soft mud.
“In 12 years of racing, the only injury I had was a stitch in my lip!” she says. “I can’t complain. There’s nothing Nikki or I could have done differently.
“Since I crashed last year and got concussion, I have struggled when things are happening quickly in a race – lots of short sections in quick succession and I can’t process it quickly enough. I have been doing brain training games. But when the courses slow down, it’s no longer a problem.”
The course in Manlleu is rock hard, one of the fastest ‘cross races I have ever seen, but the opposition is no match for Wyman’s skillset – mud or no mud.
This race is the latest in a points-gathering exercise towards the aim of lining up on the front row of the grid at the World Championships in Valkenburg, The Netherlands. Last season’s crash and subsequent layoff saw Wyman’s world ranking position plummet to 30th.
Now, following a fine run of form, including her fourth Koppenbergcross title, World Cup podiums for the first time in two years – runner-up to Sanne Cant at both Bogense and Zeven – and a handful of race victories, Wyman has clawed her way back to her rightful position and is knocking on the door of that eight-woman front row in Valkenburg.
“I think my power is better than it’s ever been,” Wyman believes. “My best years in terms of results were probably the 2013 and ’14 seasons – that’s when I got my Worlds medal and won the Euros twice – but that doesn’t mean that you’re better than you were then. A lot of the riders have moved on a lot in the least three or four years. They have really upped their games too. So to come second to Sanne [Cant] by 15 seconds in the last two World Cups is okay.
“I think I am pretty strong right now, and I can get stronger. I have still got stuff to work on for the Worlds, which is exciting. When the mud arrives, I know I can do well.”
What beggars belief is that one of the finest women ‘cross riders in the world is struggling for backing next season: a sponsor’s dream, who goes out of her way to give back, not only to the money people but to the sport itself.
During Wyman’s four years as athlete’s representative at the UCI, she has campaigned for radical transformations for women that have been pushed through.
How much did she win for the first Koppenberg title? “€350,” she tells me. And for the latest?
“€1,400. Three years ago was the first time we got equal prize money by getting 20Twenty Cycles to invest in the race. It was a way to show that it really means something to all of us in ‘cross. They knew me. I didn’t think they understood how much impact that would have globally. It also brought a lot of attention from the mainstream press in Belgium.
“The catalyst for change was already there, but it showed people that we weren’t taking away from the men, but adding to the racing. And I think it helped to get the equal C1 prize money that we have now.
“Television coverage is a consequence. I went to the cyclo-cross commission four years ago and said you need to change the rules and make the women’s race immediately before the men. It’s free, it costs nothing, but while we are racing at 10:30 in the morning, nothing is going to change.
“I am really proud of what I have accomplished. The only two things I have not got through is an under-23 World Cup series and equal prize money in World Cups. The overall World Cup prize is now €23,000 for the women and €30,000 for the men, whereas it was about eight for the women previously. So it is getting there.
“The thing I am proudest of is that when I joined the commission, some of the people there did not have the same respect for the women as I know they have now. Changing minds makes it better for the future.
“You look at the TV viewing figures in Belgium and 60 per cent of the market share are watching the women’s race – only 100,000 difference from the men’s. Who doesn’t want a piece of that?”
Indeed. Who doesn’t want a piece of that? Or to help Wyman grab a few more pieces and titles, trophies and massive Koppenberg cobbles? Husband Stef, who had carved out a beautiful display area for the three trophies in their old stone house in south-west France, is currently scratching his head over how to accommodate a fourth, as well as the more pressing business of keeping Helen on the road.
They tell me they have “irons in the fire”, but are unable to comment on anything concrete currently. It was looking dire until the surge of good form in November. They are determined to stay in the game they love.
“I was accepting of the fact that come December 31st, I would have to retire,” says Helen, “but following my recent good results and interest surrounding that, I have registered for the national championships and will carry on. I can’t really reveal anything until the New Year.
“From the first of January, I am on my own.”
And that, Rouleur readers, is a travesty.