Helen Wyman hasn’t ridden with a number on her back since the end of the Cyclocross season in February, and she’s preparing for her first road race of the year.
The event in question is a town centre crit in glamorous Croydon: Round 3 of the Matrix GP Tour Series.
Having flown in from Belgium the previous day, she’s not seen the course, the start list or even the town centre properly yet, but she’s looking forward to getting stuck in.
“It’s my first road race this season which is pretty exciting. Sometimes getting back into the peloton takes a bit of getting used to again… but that’s more the pro peloton than the British peloton… We’ll see how it goes, it should be fun.”
Helen’s got a lovely bright nature and she’s clearly not nervous, but why should she be – as 9 time British Cyclocross champion she’s got enough kudos to her name to just get stuck in.
Whilst I chat to Helen, husband and Director Sportif Stefan works with their mechanic to set up the bikes – tyres are refreshed, transponders taped to the forks and recovery drinks are topped up, ready for easy access at the end.
Helen will be joined by fellow Matrix Fitness development rider, Lucy Shaw – the two have only just met and Lucy tells me she’s excited to race with Helen and learn from such an experienced rider.
The 17-year old is taking a well-deserved afternoon off A-level revision and tells me: “I’m here to learn, I’ve not done many Tour Series events so I’ll just get stuck in. It’s really exciting to race with Helen, she’s done so much racing so it’s exciting to get to learn off a rider like her.”
The race in question is a 40 minute criterium, and before checking out the course Helen considers the options – “If it’s pan flat you just wait for a bunch sprint, if it’s got a hill in it, I might try some stuff [attacks], if it’s dangerous I’ll definitely try stuff cos then you’re not in the mix with it. If you’re on your own you can only cause yourself trouble.”
Katie Archibald was definitely on her own when she broke away at Round 2 of the GP Series in Motherwell, but she’s not going to be on the start line today.
The Tour Series brings in a wide range of riders, some of whom are professionals, and some of whom are newer to the scene – and Helen explains: “The level of the ability of the riders in the race is a lot more varied. You find that some crashes are made by people riding outside of their skill ability, and some crashes are made by just silly mistakes, riders make silly mistakes when tired.”
Of course, the pro peloton sees plenty of those too, Helen adds: “Even strong riders can have no skill… I’ve seen plenty of elite riders who can’t ride bikes. Generally speaking in pro peloton you need [physical] skill and ability to stay there and if you don’t have the ability you ride off the back, if you have the ability but not the skill you ride off the back, then you don’t cause anyone any trouble.”
It’s about 90 minutes until the horn will sound the beginning of the race – and the wind is genuinely pretty strong, there was a moment on the way to the team car where I considered holding on to a lamp post to stay upright.
Helen isn’t fazed, and says: “It’s in a city and they’re big buildings either side of the course, so it shouldn’t be too windy in there.”
After a team briefing, she’ll head down to the course to ride a couple of laps, looking out for any areas to be aware of: “I’ll see what it’s like, if there’s anything special, check out any corners and any narrow bits. I’ll check out the conditions, any transitional areas.
“There were tramlines [on the course in Cryodon] before but they’ve covered them up so I don’t know what that’s going to be like, if the coverings will deteriorate during the race.”
After that, she’ll warm up on the turbo trainer. When I wonder through the warm-up areas I notice a lot of riders on rollers, but Helen says: “I never had a set of rollers, they don’t really interest me, I find that the turbo trainer is much more useful, you can set efforts and do specific power based efforts, whereas with rollers it’s more about leg speed.
“I can see rollers are really good for leg speed, and I can see they’re really good for suppleness, but I can do the same on my trainer. And you can put a lot more power through a turbo which is good for crits and cyclocross. They take up less space too.”
Warming up next to her, Lucy is a big fan of the rollers – and likes a solid pre-race effort to keep the nerves at bay. She tells me: “I suffer quite a bit from nerves so I like to break myself away from people and focus on my own race, and get a good solid warm up.
“The nerves disappear on start line, it’s more the build-up, just over thinking really. Having a solid warm up I always do just gets me in the zone, it makes me feel ready for the race. I usually do a progressive effort, then some hard sprints to open my legs up.”
Lucy has just two weeks of exams left until she can take her training full time, and the experience of riding with the team is helping her prepare – she said: “I’ve been able to do quite a few UK races with the girls, I’ve learnt a lot from them, it’s exciting to get out to Belgium, to Europe, once my exams are finished.”
The move to pro ranks hasn’t changed the ethos of the team, though, according to Helen – just given them access to more start lines, in more countries across the world.
Course recce’s complete, warm-ups done, the two head to the start line. In true pro style, Helen keeps her tights on right until the last minute, removing them just before the earsplitting horn which heralds the start of something big.
To the cheers and hording slaps of the crowds in Croydon, the race unfolds, the lead group whittling down lap by lap.
In the final lap, Helen leads the peloton, and I shout encouragement from the stands, but it’s not her day today and the win goes to Team WNT’s Charline Joiner.
Still, as Helen said 90 minutes before kick off: “it’s going to be fun” – and it certainly looked like it was.