To celebrate International Women’s Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days
Words: Maria David
For a period of 12 years Helen Wyman was a hugely dominant force on the cyclocross scene. On top of winning 10 British National Cyclocross Championships, she also won two European Championships and a string of races across mainland Europe and the United States.
At domestic races she was seen as the one to beat, and she enjoyed a long head-to-head rivalry with her chief challenger, the also talented Nikki Brammeier.
Since her retirement from competition in 2019, Helen has remained active in the sport, coaching riders and continuing her work to improve conditions for women in cyclocross – be it securing equal prize money in races or supporting young riders via the Helen 100 initiative.
So what got her interested in cyclocross in the first place? Helen takes up the story:
‘My family have always been into cycling – starting with my dad who used to do time-trials and grass track racing, and also did LEJOG (Land’s End to John O’Groats) with my mum. My brother used to race when I was a kid, and that’s why I started racing – because I wanted to beat him!
‘It was when I won a National Trophy cyclocross race in the UK in 2004 that Steff [Helen’s husband] suggested I become a full-time racer.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I had competitive sport in my life from when I was 13, I don’t think I would have made it through those troublesome years of being a young woman and not having an outlet
‘At the time, British Cycling needed people to ride with the national road team ahead of the Olympics that summer. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and so I rode with them, doing stage races and some of the biggest women’s races in the world.
‘When I came back to cyclocross after that summer I was finishing sixth or seventh in every UCI World Cup race. It was that opportunity to ride with the GB road team that taught me what I could and couldn’t do. It was like a switch was flicked and I realised that bike racing was something I could be successful in.
‘So I set off from the UK in a donated £100 Peugeot 205 to go and live in Belgium and start this biking adventure in cyclocross!
‘Sometimes I didn’t know where money for my rent would come from, but I still carried on because I believed I would get there in the end.’
Helen subsequently became a two-time European Champion and won bronze at the 2014 World Cyclocross Championships while riding as a pro on the Kona Factory Team. But her greatest run of success came in the British National Cyclocross Championships, which she won every year bar one from 2006 to 2015, before adding a 10th title in 2018.
‘Sport is something that doesn’t define my life, but it has made me who I am,’ Helen says. ‘If it wasn’t for the fact that I had competitive sport in my life from when I was 13, I don’t think I would have made it through those troublesome years of being a young woman and not having an outlet.
‘If I had a bad day at school I would just go and ride my bike, and I used cycling throughout that time to make me happy.’
Wanting to share her passion for cycling and improve conditions for women in the sport, Helen has also become a campaigner through her work on the UCI Cyclocross Commission, and in 2018 she set up the Helen 100 initiative.
‘I set up Helen 100 to pay the entry fees for 100 Under-23 women to take part in the 2019 National Cyclocross Championships. I focussed specifically on this category because there are huge differences between the support these riders get compared to the senior elites they’re racing against, and there was a high dropout rate from the sport.
‘From there we took the idea to Belgium where, with support from the women at the 5th Floor racing team and the Rapha Foundation, we put on the first UCI Under-23 race and a junior women’s race. The junior race had 48 women competing from 12 different nations. For 2020 we expanded that to a four-round series, which was won by Fem Van Empel.
‘It led to her being spotted by a pro team, who signed her as an Under-23 rider, and she went on to win the Under-23 World Championships this year. Having a specific Under-23 race was what allowed the opportunity for her to be spotted.
‘Working with renowned race organiser Kris Auer, who donated funds to ensure equal prize money for male and female riders at the Koppenberg Cross, we are now taking Helen 100 to the US, offering to pay the entries of up to 50 riders and to support a UCI Under-23 race.
‘People say, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and I guess that works in cyclocross. If you don’t see cyclocross you can’t be it. Now, a young rider can go to the World Championships and see people her own age racing her peers rather than getting her butt kicked by the senior elites.
‘So when someone like Fem Van Empel wins your series then wins the Worlds the following year, that’s a massive success story. It’s so inspiring, it gives me goosebumps.
‘I’m equally happy if a young rider doesn’t get to ride the Worlds but enjoys cycling, and gets from it the self-confidence to pursue whatever they want to do. It’s great that they have taken something from the sport I love.’
For more from Zwift this International Women’s Month, visit here.