More rainbows in the mud? Future of British cyclocross in safe hands ahead of World Championships

A grand total of four British medals in the first 64 editions of the Cyclocross World Championships did nothing to suggest a muddy revolution was on the horizon this side of the Channel.

Five years later though and that tally has swelled to 11, including four golds.

At least one British rider has left the World Championships wearing rainbow bands in each of the last three years and the team heads to Denmark this weekend with a realistic shot at another two stripy jumpers.

In previous years a British September would herald a slowing down in the road season and attentions would turn indoors toward matters on the boards.

Nowadays though, social media is abuzz with pictures of knobbly tires and off-road adventures accompanied by #crossiscoming.

Ten-time national champion Helen Wyman has been at the forefront of the British ‘cross revolution for the last 15 years and, in 2014, she was the first rider from these shores to win a medal at the World Championships since Louise Robinson took silver in the first ever women’s elite race, in 2000.

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Since then, Evie Richards has won two of the three women’s U23 races to be held, there was a British sweep of the podium in the 2017 junior men’s race and Ben Tulett made it consecutive British wins in that category just 12 months ago.

The 18-year-old is back to defend his title in Bogense, with his predecessor Tom Pidcock the hot favourite for the U23 race.

And while Richards is missing after recently undergoing surgery on a troublesome knee that had developed a nasty habit of dislocating, 38-year-old Wyman is still in the world’s top 20 and can be counted on to perform on the biggest stage.

Wyman, a two-time European champion, is the senior presence in the British team and while she is making no mention of retiring she is now using her standing in the sport to try and ensure this current wave of British ‘cross talent is not just a blip on the radar of a sport so Belgian that beer and frites counts as nutritious post-race refuelling.

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The two-time European champion has hit the headlines this season less for her own exploits on the bike but more for her efforts in ensuring all female competitors, under the age of 23, in the 2019 British Cyclocross Championships had their entry fee refunded.

The product of a crowd-funding drive and collaboration with ‘The 5th Floor’ cycling collective in the aftermath of the 2018 national championships, Wyman’s #Helen100 drive even had enough money left over to fund the first ever international junior women’s race – the under 18s normally have to race alongside the U23s – held at the Loenhout event in Belgium between Christmas and New Year.

The Netherlands’ Sofie van Rooijen took the Helen 100 Trophy with Britain’s Harriet Harnden finishing second, and for Wyman this is just the start of her attempts to grow the sport from the ground up, giving young riders the opportunities that she didn’t.

“It was absolutely amazing to see that race go off. There were 44 women on the startline from nine different countries and they only had a month in advance to know it,” she said.

“A lot of people had planned their programme already and to change it was difficult because of the Christmas block, but it was an absolutely amazing race.

“There were three nationalities on the podium, so it was a proper international junior race.

“I was there, I watched it, it was so cold. And then I raced later in the day.

“It was genuinely amazing.

“Those girls have got the same skills that we have. They’re just young. There were people bunny hopping and ditch jumping. It was just absolutely fantastic.”

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Wyman’s pride only grew when watching the women’s junior race at the British championships just a fortnight later, knowing that all competitors had not had to pay for the pleasure of racing.

“When we were driving back from nationals last year, me and my husband were saying that because they had split out the U23s and juniors away from the elite women, and the vet women had their own category, there weren’t really many elite women racing – so how do you make that a bigger field?” she mused.

“We said maybe it’s actually that you need to grow the sport from the younger ages.

“If you can get them really interested at that age then they will stay in the sport – so how do you do that?

“We came up with the idea of trying to fund places for every U23 rider at nationals and to see if we could get enough for 100 women.

“It just grew from there.”

In the end more than 120 riders had their entry fee refunded and Wyman still has some cash leftover to fund the next stages of her plan.

Negotiations are still ongoing but she has a desire to put on more junior women’s races next season and to develop an online community to connect young female riders across Britain.

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“One thing I found when I was talking to riders was that being able to go out riding was a really hard thing to do when their parents wouldn’t let them go on their own and there was no-one in their area to ride with,” she revealed.

“I want to create some kind of way to connect everybody, so that they’re actually able to create more of a community than just saying ‘I was part of the Helen 100’.

“Some of the boundaries and barriers that you find for young women in sport are different to the barriers for young men.

“You need to chang attitudes of parents, by providing somewhere that is a bit safe.

“Because I do understand – would you want your 15-year-old daughter to go out riding on their own in your area? I don’t know. Would you? In England? I don’t know, I don’t have kids.

“I know at 15 that I probably wasn’t, I was probably riding with my brother and my dad.”

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Wyman also wants to put on skills clinics for riders still learning their trade, while her main rival on the British scene and the woman who just took her national title in Kent two weeks ago, Nikki Brammeier, is also doing her bit to educate young racers.

Along with husband Matt, former WorldTour rider and now coach at British Cycling, the pair have set up Mudiiita – a trade team allowing Nikki to continue to ride independently on the European ‘cross circuit but also a coaching setup for Britain’s best young talent.

“It’s really exciting to see that so many people have passion for the sport, Nikki and Matt clearly have that or they wouldn’t be doing it,” added Wyman.

“They’re more working with riders who will be going to World Cups, which is cool because those riders need people who have been there and done it and wasted time doing things wrong and have learned from their mistakes, and to learn from their advice.

“For me, and Nikki, we both believe that you can make a career in cross. What she is doing is helping the riders who are already the elite, chosen riders, for the top races.

“Then what I’m trying to do is provide an opportunity for everybody to be racing, and everybody to showcase what they can and can’t do, to then be picked as one of those elite riders – it’s kind of complimentary.”

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The recent successes of Pidcock, Tulett and Richards have led to more and more British riders being offered contracts at big European teams.

And while Wyman questions whether she will ever see the day where a British sponsor will see fit to set up a team to rival the likes of Corendon-Circus or Telenet-Fidea Lions, she would at least settle for a regular leg of the World Cup on these shores, giving other home riders the experience she enjoyed five years ago in Milton Keynes.

“We’ve shown we’ve got the ability to stick it out in Belgium, there should be no reason why teams shouldn’t select British riders,” she concluded.

“I would absolutely love to see a regular World Cup round in the UK. They had more spectators at Milton Keynes in 2014 than at Koksijde [the Belgian ‘cross Mecca], so I don’t see why it couldn’t be hugely successful.

“It was one of the highlights of my career.”

Main image courtesy of Brayn Delzeyne.

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