Helen Wyman blog: Women's cyclo-cross is in rude health

At the beginning of the season I was going to write a comment on the sport based on what changes have or haven’t happened and how that felt to me as a racer. I’m so glad I waited as today, for the first time, I have actually realised exactly what all the recent progress in women’s cross really means.

This afternoon I went to my local gym. I haven’t been since they changed ownership and there’s now a new guy working the reception. I asked him if he spoke English (I do speak the native language but it’s safe to say my gym membership questioning vocabulary is poor to non-existent). He said yes and took my card but with a strange look like he recognised me; turns out he did. As we continued our conversation about how the small girl (Jolien Verschuren) and I had a great battle yesterday in Ruddervoorde and did we actually fight, it suddenly dawned on me exactly how big a deal recent developments mean to me directly and my beloved sport.

It’s safe to say that I have never had a conversation about my race with a total stranger completely unrelated to me who just watched it on TV. Although this may not seem like a big deal, I can honestly tell you it is HUGE. I have always said TV brings the sport to the masses; full live coverage gives us a showcase for our fantastic sport but until now I have never really experienced exactly how HUGE this is.

When I think back to the times when the likes of Hanka Kupfernagel and Daphny Van Den Brand campaigned for the women to have a World Championships it genuinely gives me goosebumps to think how far we have come in just 15 years. These women, alongside many others, have driven the sport forward and allowed me to have the chance to continue at, comparatively, light speed!

I’ve probably said this a lot in the past that cross is a legitimate career path if that’s what you want to do. Today more than ever I truly believe it and I have more hope than ever that the female under 23 generation of today can stay in the sport and can make money. I know I have chosen this course in my life because I love it so much and my life is hugely rich in experience. I have never been under any illusion that my bank balance would match. I have every confidence that this, for the likes of recently crowned u23 European champion Femke Van Den Driessche, will not be the case. Her, like her equally talented peers, will be able to have the best of both worlds and I hope they can see this too.

Someone asked me on Twitter the other day what has changed. I have always maintained that you cannot judge what happens today on the decision the cross commission made yesterday but you can judge us tomorrow (technically 2-3 years). One simple rule change on race day program has led to every major series in the heartland of cross having overall prize money, start contracts for the top women and live TV coverage. The BPost bank trofee series has always been one step ahead and maintains this with full series TV coverage. For the second year Koppenberg had equal prize money supported by Twenty20 cycling. I’m certain this is a major contributing factor to having 57 women on the start line compared to just 37 men.

Women from other disciplines are standing up and noticing how good this sport is, and it’s no surprise that Eva Lechner is currently leading the world cup. I guess €20,000 for winning the overall cyclocross world cup is a pretty large carrot for anyone.

The top 50 World Cup qualification rules have not only helped the men but have removed power from federations who previously may have denied riders entries. Even yesterday a rider asked me about the world selection rule, as she may need to use it to get to worlds. Both things changed for the good of the sport to ensure, irrespective of gender, racers can always do their job and she will be there in the sharp end of the race come worlds.

If I added up all the prize money I would have made over the last 10 years and compare it to the prize money the next ‘me’ will make in the next 10 years I honestly have to pinch myself (and ensure I don’t get disappointed at what I’ve not made). Cyclo-cross is making a niche for itself for women’s sport and I’d guess no other women’s cycling discipline has had as many hours of live TV coverage as we’ll have this season. This can only equate to more opportunities for us now and progressively in the future. The recent independent report for the UCI suggested that women’s cycling holds the key to growth of cycling across the world and I believe cross is showing that is true, one step at a time.

Of course a world of full equality in cross is still a few years off, not for want of trying I assure you. However, huge progress has been made in the last few years that brings us ultimately back to my conversation in the gym. I promise further huge progress is already on its way, and I will keep pushing for more as long as I have anything to do with it!

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