An interview with Helen Wyman, January 24, 2008
With consistent top tens in the women's Cyclo-cross World Cup races turning to consistent top fives, British champion Helen Wyman surely can't be too far away from her first major victory. Cyclingnews' UK Editor Ben Atkins caught up with the Swift Racing rider shortly before her successful defence of the red, white and blue jersey.
Helen Wyman's season so far shows that she's now knocking on the door of a big result. "Definitely," she predicts confidently, "last year I got two thirds in the World Cup series, this year I've got a second, so that's really good. We kind of did it a bit different this year, because last year I got third in the first World Cup and then third in the last one, but I was quite tired in the middle. I'd come into it quite quick and then levelled out a bit; I didn't really have a peak during the season. This year we're trying to make it so I'm stronger towards the end, where last year I wasn't quite so strong, and it's working I think!"
Working indeed. So much so that her first target of the year - Round 6 of the World Cup - turned out to be that career best result: "Milan was the first race that we'd planned for me to go really well at - and I did - so I was really happy with that. We've still two World Cups and the Worlds after the Nationals..."
Her increasingly strong results, coming into the beginning of 2008 and two of her biggest targets had given Wyman great confidence heading towards the UK National Championships - a race that she aimed to win for a third successive year. Seemingly, her major problem heading into the championships was the fact that all of her racing for the past few years has been in Europe while almost everyone else in the field races exclusively in the UK. All except one rider - potentially her biggest competition would be someone she knows very well.
"Obviously the weather makes a difference, but if it's dry it could easily be a bunch sprint again. And then anybody can win it!" -Wyman is hoping the fast course at the World Championships in Treviso plays into her hands.
"I haven't raced against anyone in the UK - in cross - since this race last year, so I don't know how good anyone is or how they're riding. It's only Gabby [Swift Racing teammate Gabby Day] I know, so I know how to beat her! (laughs) I know how well Gabby's going: she's going really well; she's had a fantastic season this year. She got her first top ten in Pijnacker, she got ninth in the WC and that's a big step forward for her. Obviously she's my closest competition that I know, but you can never discount some of the good old riders like Louise [Robinson], if she's riding, and Amy Hunt - I think she's down on the start sheet - she was good last year. You look at the results, but it's very difficult to tell, because even if they win, you don't know where they are against you."
In the end, the podium was an exact replica of last year's with Wyman once again retaining her title ahead of Day and Rowntree. This result, added to her steadily and deliberately rising form in the World Cup is helping to build confidence in her own chances ahead of the World Championships in Treviso. The re-crowned British champion now feels ready to better her fifth place of 2006 and ninth place of last year.
"I feel much fresher than I did this time last year. Only today I was talking to [husband, and Swift Racing team manager] Stefan and we realised there are only six races left in the season, and only four races to the Worlds, and it feels just like I've started the season. Whereas at this point last year I was quite tired, so yeah, I think it'll be good, and I'm feeling really keen and up for it."
Most riders on the elite circuit will be familiar with the Treviso course - having raced on it last year - but that familiarity doesn't necessarily mean that the result - or indeed the race - will be the same. "It was a World Cup last year, so we got to ride last year, and it was an 8-up bunch sprint at the end [won by then World Champion, Marianne Vos (DSB Bank) - Wyman was fifth], so it's fast - it's a really fast course. They're supposed to have put a few more bits in it to make it a bit slower - obviously the weather makes a difference, but if it's dry it could easily be a bunch sprint again. And then anybody can win it!"
Wyman's team - until this year going under the name of Global Racing - has been growing and improving steadily, and with Swift Motorhomes on board as a new sponsor, Swift Racing should be able to take that improvement further. "It's a really good sponsor, they're a motor home company based in the UK, based in Hull, and it's allowed the team... [pauses to confirm something with Stefan] they've said they'll support us for the next four to five years, until the next Olympics, so that's a really good thing for the rest of the team. It means you can build the team."
It's that steady, sustainable growth that the team is concentrated on, rather than the pursuit of big name riders. "We've built the team over the last three years, and the girls that are on the team all get on really really well. You could have the top 16 riders in the world on the road, but you're not going to have the best team in the world. If you've got five awesome riders, and you've got five riders who'll do anything to help those riders then you're more likely to win than with just 16 individuals. So the team has been built over time, and the riders that are staying on are those that really want to be there and want to support other riders and want to do well themselves."
For a British sponsor to be committing for that period can be seen as a real coup for a cycling team, especially with London 2012 on the horizon. "It's really good and the sponsorship's allowed us to build that gradually over time, over the next four years, and hopefully by the Olympics we can have one of the best teams in the world."
With bigger budgets come invitations to bigger races, but the Swift philosophy will continue to follow the Global way, that is, to avoid doing too much and spreading themselves too thin. "The invites to World Cups are based on your team's ranking in the world, and that's based on UCI points of the riders added up. This year we've been to the biggest stage races in the world, and a couple of world cups: We went to the Tour de l'Aude, which is the equivalent to the Tour de France - it's a ten-day stage race and one of the women's longest ones. We got invited to every race we wanted to go to last year, and at the minute we've got similar invitations for this year."
Once again, the development and cohesion of the team as a unit is placed above chasing starts in all of the big races, especially with yet more new faces arriving. "You can go to every single World Cup, and the biggest races all the time, but sometimes you have to learn how to work as a team to the races that are the next level down, that aren't WCs and aren't the biggest stage races. We've had polka dot jerseys from start to finish in the Tour de Bretagne, we had at least one rider in the top ten of every single UCI stage race that we've done, so we've had some really good results this year. We've got some girls from NZ joining our team this year, and they were in the top-ten of most of the races we were in with them, so it's quite exciting really."
Last year, Wyman followed a far busier personal road calendar than ever before. Despite this, she still sees herself as primarily a cyclo-cross rider and is mindful of the dangers that trying to concentrate too much on both disciplines can present. So, while she will once again be taking to the tarmac this season, it will be with the months at the end of the year that she will be focusing on.
"It's going to be more tapered towards the cross - towards the end of the season - than it was last year. Doing the full season on the road and a full season on the 'cross is quite hard on your body, so you have to take time off at some point. Marianne Vos said, after she'd done 'cross last year, that she's not going to do 'cross this season, because it's so hard - but she's decided to do track instead! Obviously you're not outside though, so maybe that's the difference!" (laughs).
"But it is hard, so you have to be careful, and you have to rest when you need to rest, but I think my season will probably be the same number of days racing, but it'll just probably be in a slightly different way."
An increased budget, and an influx in quality riders means that the Swift Racing team will be less reliant on Wyman herself: "Because we have even more good girls on the team this year, it means that I don't have to ride every race, and every girl can have a bit more of a pick as to what they do. We have got riders who are capable of getting in the top twenty of races, so there's kind of more of a fight to get the places. Which is a good thing! Which is healthy!"
On the subject of competition for places, 2008 is an Olympic year an many riders are going into this season with half an eye on selection for their national squad. Somewhat surprisingly, Wyman is not thinking much about it. "I don't think that there's much opportunity there. You can have three riders, in the women's race it's three for every country: Nicole [Cooke] and Emma Pooley, and that leaves one third space."
"It's not really something I'm thinking about, I want to do really well for the team next year, because it's really important for me that our team gets a really good name. We've got quite a good name already, but equally you need to build on that. The team's the most important thing for me. It's my career. It's my job. I won't be doing much racing before the Olympics so I don't see much chance of selection..."
A new all-British team, Halfords-Bikehut, has recently been launched and is built around national champion Nicole Cooke. This, says Wyman, is an exciting development for women's racing in the UK: "It's really good, because two years ago there was one UCI pro team from the UK and that was us; last year Rapha-Condor came in, so there was two from the UK; so now there's three so that can only be a good thing... it's really good for Britain that there's three UCI trade teams because it gives us more of a standing in Europe."
Many of the riders in this new team cut their European racing teeth at Wyman's Global Racing last year, and she sees a great future for her former team-mates. "The young girls that were on our team last year: Lizzy [Armitstead], Katy [Cutis] and Jo [Rowson] were brilliant. Lizzie is incredibly talented, and Katy and Jo are very talented too and really hard working - and they're good fun, they fitted in well in the team. It's really good that you've got young talented riders coming through."
As far as young talented riders coming through are concerned, at only 26 years old she should add herself to that list. As the cyclo-cross season heads for its climax in Treviso at the end of this month, so Helen Wyman's form should be reaching its peak.