Cyclocross may be incredibly popular, but it still has its problems. Enter Helen Wyman, the woman who would fix ‘cross.
Cyclocross is far from perfect.
Perhaps no athlete is more familiar with the sport’s problems than Helen Wyman. The 36-year-old has raced in the women’s professional field for the last 14 years, winning nine British national championships and two European titles. She also sits on the UCI’s cyclocross commission and helps the governing body address the various issues that spring up each season.
We presented Wyman with the following hypothetical situation: she has the power to solve cyclocross’s toughest problems with one wave of a magic wand. Here are the problems she chose to address, along with her pragmatic solution for each one.
The UCI World Cup has a major disparity in prize money between men and women. Per UCI rules, promoters must pay out a minimum €39,500 for the men’s field and €10,400 for the women’s field per World Cup round.
WYMAN: To me, this is a tough one to fix, because where do you find €30,000 per round? The races in Belgium ethically should do it because they have profits from each round. Races in Iowa, the Czech Republic, and Germany are different. For me, the solution would be to get an outside investor to support the races. You look at the DVV Trophy series for men and women. They were able to televise the women’s series when they went to an individual sponsor and got it specifically for the women’s series. They’ve used the women to bring in a new sponsor, and that is what the UCI should do. Why would a Belgian company not want another full hour of cyclocross viewing? The viewing figures are very close to the men’s. The average percent watching TV across the 30 races was like 54 percent of the market share. Why would you not want that? I’ve always said that cyclocross is saturated. But a lot of cycling disciplines are saturated on the men’s side. But the women can be their own product if you give them an opportunity.
The UCI’s current sponsorship structure does not allow companies to sponsor specific races or series, such as the women’s cyclocross World Cup.
WYMAN: There are good people working at the UCI on cyclocross. They have gone out of their way to get sponsors. Unfortunately, their hands are tied by the rules of the UCI. When [the UCI] signs a new big sponsor, it [applies] across all disciplines. So you sign Shimano for the road, but they are across all of the sports, even cyclocross. When you operate a World Cup, then they have a ton of banners out on the course because the UCI owns 40 percent or so of the advertising space. How does a World Cup organizer get extra cash for the women when they only own 60 percent or so of the advertising space? They also can’t have conflicting sponsors. They can’t go to SRAM and ask them to support the women’s race. Personally, I think this is fixable. You create a new structure and separate the other disciplines from the sponsorship sales. I just don’t think the people that make those ultimate decisions are prepared to do that. When we make a decision on the [UCI] cyclocross commission, it has to go through the UCI management committee, and they have to agree on it for us to do what we want to do.
There aren’t as many paying jobs for female racers as there are for men.
WYMAN: My solution is that if you want to be a UCI pro team then you have to have a woman. For the first time ever, we now have UCI ’cross teams. We made sure that in order to be registered with the UCI you have to have a woman, and that rider counts in your UCI team ranking. This means that teams need a woman, we hold a better value, and if you want to be high in the ranking you need a good woman. So this problem is fixed! It will take time for this to filter down to mid-pack riders, for sure, but when it does I believe more women will be on a salary. Right now Beobank-Corendon, Telenet-Fidea, Marlux-Napolean Games, Crelan-Charles, and ERA-Circus — all the big Belgium teams — have women on their rosters, among other teams. So Sanne Cant, Maud Kaptheijns, Laura Verdonschot, Alicia Franck, Jolien Verschueren, Annemarie Worst, and Ellen Noble are all on UCI ’cross teams now.
The UCI World Cup goes back to the same venues year after year.
WYMAN: It’s always Koksijde or Zolder or Hoogerheide. I could honestly race Koksijde tomorrow and nail the lines from lap one. I do appreciate that the money and the big teams are in Belgium, but I think we need to rotate the World Cup venues. Every two years we can come back to a location. From a rider point of view, it brings new energy and more interest back to the racing. The same old venues become mundane after 12 years. Everyone went to the [World Cup] at Milton Keynes [in Great Britain] in 2015 and loved it. It had huge reviews.
Outside of Belgium, countries have a difficult time developing cyclocross talent.
WYMAN: So the British juniors this year won worlds and finished second and third, so I’m not saying that there isn’t talent outside of Belgium. There is incredible talent. But when I go to America and I see the juniors racing there, I think it’s really sad that the juniors aren’t racing together in their own field but are instead racing against adults in the amateur fields. I understand that America is massive and it is hard for the best juniors to race against each other every week, due to the cost of travel. So instead you need to develop the cyclocross scene in your area so that you can have 20 or more juniors race in one race, or maybe even 100 of them on a race weekend.
In most countries, you can only race in a junior category. In England, you have a local race and the best women’s juniors would always race each other. That would be one separate category. In America, you have the juniors spread across three or four different races, which is crazy to me. Category 3? Category 4? How is that going to increase the competitiveness and make them better? How does that create a race that you can be really proud of? Because you didn’t beat the other juniors but instead raced Category 3 racers. You need to separate these juniors and have them race each other.
I’ve raced in the junior men’s category in Belgium and my best position was 13th. Daphny van den Brand, when she was European Champion, her best result was ninth in a junior race. That’s how fast they are. I just don’t think that racing a bunch of Cat. 3 racers is going to make [the juniors] fast enough.
Attracting junior participation to cyclocross is extremely challenging.
WYMAN: In the United States and Britain and Australia, cyclocross is very much propped up by the veteran guys. These are the guys in the lower categories that compete outside of the elite race. They are the ones who pay the money to make the events run because of entry fees. That’s not sustainable in my eyes.
You need juniors to come through even if they leave the U23 ranks; they will come back someday to race as veterans or masters.
You need to entice them in the beginning to love the sport. I see many people trying to develop the juniors, from Adam Myerson [in Massachusetts] to Jim Brown in Seattle. I think it’s something that needs to go into schools and colleges, honestly. Cycling and cyclocross needs to be promoted in the education system. If it’s a school sport, maybe you get more people in then. If I had my magic wand — and I have no idea how I’d do this — I’d make cycling part of the physical education program in countries around the world. Cyclocross would be the winter version — or it could be track — and people could have a crack at both. I know that this is hugely difficult and expensive. It would be very difficult.
Cyclocross is still a niche sport within cycling, and it needs to find a bigger audience.
WYMAN: I know this would probably be a love/hate thing, but I would put cyclocross into the Olympics. I think it would be fascinating as a part of the Winter Olympics. It would be completely different. Yes, it might seem more gimmicky. I would still put it in because that’s how you get the sport out there for more people to see. If it’s on the TV every four years for everyone to see, then that’s how the sport becomes as popular as road racing.