Liam Killeen arrives for coffee as he does on a start line, with impeccable timing. The 33 year old current National Elite Cyclo-cross Champion is arguably the quiet man of off-road cycling, unassuming but totally focused on the chance of a second bite of the cherry.
Killeen was told by his surgeon that he would probably never compete at elite level again after his crash at the London Olympics, like many he thought that chapter of his life was at a close. For the three times Olympian and five times National MTB Champion it looked as though his professional cycling career was all but over.
“I had some dark times after London, post injury I was able to ride but not for too long or with much high force intensity. I had to look at channelling that frustration into something else, so I began to work with a few young riders from Malvern Cycle Sport, to maybe give them a few training ideas both on and off-road.”
Killeen still lives in Malvern and often rides with his local club and - alongside Tracey Moseley - has helped develop the next crop of talent including Evie Richards, Hattie and Ross Harden, Stan Pritchard, Josh Brooks and Dave Creber.
“I remember being their age and know how much it meant to have Simon Burney's leadership, Gary Foord, as coach and then training partner and also the way in which a few local guys, including Ben Dale and Ed Moseley who were experienced mountain bikers, helped me when I was starting out. So it was the right time to give something back. These young Malvern Cycle Sport riders are pretty special - and it’s not just me helping them, they have helped me get back to where I am today. If I haven’t the motivation to go out, I’ll give those guys a call and we get a group ride out.”
“I used to train pretty much alone, but the likes of Evie (Richards) and Ross (Harnden) can make me hurt on a bike and I have had to raise my game again!”
With training so important in modern day sport, Liam has mixed views on the subject, did he think about a new venture into the industry?
“I do find the subject interesting. Nutrition interests me and I have completed diplomas in anatomy and physiology. I do have a training business but it is fairly low key at the moment. As for training gizmos, I’ve always had a heart rate monitor and used a Power Tap and power cranks, on and off- but I’m still a soul rider at heart.”
Killeen’s ‘comeback’ race was in 2014 at the 24 hour Mountain Mayhem at Gatcombe Park with Malvern CS, which the team won and he posted the fastest lap.
“We rode the 2014 event as a ten man team, I’d done a few before, the first one was in 2002 with Gary Fisher and I rode Eastnor for Team Hope in 2011 but I rode Gatcombe purely for fun and we did pretty well. It was my first race experience using lights. I set off on the night lap and as I hit the first wooded section the lights went out - so I pretty much did the whole lap on feel and moonlight. I’ll always remember that race. As the laps ticked away I started to feel stronger and although I had the injury in the back of my mind that race certainly helped me recover mentally.”
With five silver medals to his name at Elite Cyclo-cross, Killeen must have thought he would never get to the top step at domestic level even though with names like Nick Craig, Roger Hammond and Ian Field beating you, second is still a respectable result.
“I remember them all, although the race in 2005 with Nick, which was pretty muddy, doesn’t seem 11 years ago. And the two races with Roger, he was a clever rider, I could put him under pressure technically but he knew where he could save his efforts and if it ever came down to a sprint ,Roger could always out sprint me. More recently, Fieldy - we’ve battled on and off over the last few years and he is a great rider.”
Arguably, one of the most exciting cross races in the past few years was at the penultimate round of this season’s National Trophy on a muddy Bradford course. Ian Field was looking for his fifth straight win of the season to take the series but with Killeen starting his first Trophy race of the campaign, the race wasn’t going to be an easy stroll round the park for anyone. As expected, the race would be between Liam and Ian and as the race settled the two started to gap the rest of the field, with Ian on the front. But Liam attacked the series leader and started to put space between them both. Entering the pits for a bike change, Liam’s pit crew didn’t have a bike ready due to a technical problem with the jetwash so he had no choice but to jump back on the same mud- laden bike and hope for a change on the next half lap. Liam went on to win the race but was DQ’d at the finish for what was deemed an infringement of the pits rules.
“I went into the pits to change my bike but the crew weren’t ready for me, so I had to carry on riding the same bike I came in on and I was not too sure whether there would be a clean bike ready for me half a lap later. There was definitely no advantage to be gained – but I already had a clear lead. I was focusing fully on my effort that day and it was great for my confidence. The DQ was very frustrating at the time but looking back, it was just unfortunate – and the commissaires had little choice on the day.”
The next major race after Bradford was the National Championships at Shrewsbury, with Killeen still looking for his first national cross title and Field looking for his fifth. The general buzz for the Championships was heightened by the Bradford race. Was the Malvern rider ready for Shrewsbury?
“I remember the interval sessions I did after Bradford, I’d turn the screws just that little bit more on the last couple of efforts just because I had that race in the back of my mind and I wanted to be sure I’d done enough training. Going into the race I was prepared to sprint it out if it came down to it. Ian wasn’t going to throw the towel in but I knew I’d done the training and the right amount of races beforehand. I knew there was going to be a lot of local support for me which added more pressure - but I used that as positive pressure. It was quite vocal at times, especially in the woods and it did help me.“
Killeen hit the front of the race early at Shrewsbury, which is uncharacteristic of the rider.
“Yeah, I wanted to see the front of the race from lap one and not be on the back foot, as the laps ticked off although that’s the part of the race I enjoy, the final third of a race when everyone is on their knees. That’s when you need to dig in. I knew I was physically solid and I knew I had to have a safe race with no mechanicals or crashes, but the last two laps were actually quite emotional. I was trying to focus on the race but in my mind I had those numerous second places, the injury, the ups and downs of the last few years, and I had the race to polish off as well. There were a few times in the last twenty minutes where I really had to concentrate, I knew it could still go wrong so I had to find some focus.”
Taking the title at Shrewsbury saw a call up to Team GB to race the World Championships in Zolder (31st January). It was the first time he had been selected to ride cross as a senior for GB.
“I rode as a junior but this is the first time as an Elite, yes. The jersey always escaped me so I never really had the chance to go. If I had won the title early on then I would have honoured the jersey so to speak. I would have raced the World Cups and hopefully been picked to ride the Worlds - but looking back , the mountain bike was my priority of course, so I never really pushed cross in the off season. Now, my priorities have changed and I don’t have that pressure now of riding MTB World Cups so I’m going to take that opportunity to race in Zolder."
Talking of honouring the national jersey, will we be seeing Liam riding a few more cross races next season?
“Oh yes, I’ll ride the Trophy and maybe a few races on the continent if I get the opportunity. It’s certainly not out of the question.”
Many people bemoan the attention that cyclo-cross and mountain bike lacks from the sport’s governing body (British Cycling). Has Liam any thoughts on the future of the two disciplines?
“I think both MTB and cross will always play second fiddle to road and track in terms of support, but I look at Evie’s generation and there are riders who have the potential to perform at the 2020 Olympics and beyond. Apart from Grant (Ferguson) I don’t think we have any breakthrough riders for Rio. Grant is solid but we haven’t any real depth at present, so realistically Tokyo has to be our focus.”
With many riders announcing their retirements on a certain date or after a certain race did it ever cross Liam’s mind to think about hanging the wheels up after the London Olympics?
“I struggle with a definite time for retirement, I think I’ll always have a race in me. I can’t see myself slowing down, I think I’ve gone through my lowest point but hopefully that is now behind me. Just look at Nick (Craig), I’d love to emulate what he does, he’s been with me all through my career as a rider and I’d love to, and I hope will be, racing in the vets and going for the title and maybe the senior title also. Nick is like the Duracell bunny, he still loves to race and takes it seriously, but not too seriously.”
The opening day of the Championships sees the Veterans and the youth take to the stage. Each race will be hotly contested but non more so then both the male vets races.
In the over 40s it will probably be clash between the current national Champion Nick Craig(Scott Racing) and Rob Jebb(Hope Factory Racing) who have both taken wins in the National Trophy this season but you can never discount a serious challenge from Jim Bryan(www.Zepnat-Lazer), Ride Coventry’s Darren Atkins, who is no stranger to the sharp end of a race and Carl Sturgeon(team Jewson), all three capable of a serious challenge to the favourites.
In the Over 50s the season has really been about 2 riders, Tim Gould(www.zepnat-Lazer) and Chris Young(Pedlesport CC), Gould who took the 2015 title at Abergavenny has got stronger as the season has progressed but both riders have raced against each other for many years and know each other’s weak points out on the course. With Phil Roach(Team Jewson) and (Steve Davies)Hargroves-Ridley) thrown in the mix it promises to be an electric clash.
Maddie Smith has dominated the Veteran womens races all year at a National level and is clear favourite to take the 2016 title but with the 2015 holder, Isla Rowntree(Islabikes) taking the start, it won’t be an easy ride for Smith. Helen Pattinson should be a podium favourite but the title may be a bike length out of reach of the Solent Pirates rider.
The Under-16s title is going to be too close to call with the Lichfield pairing of Lewis Askey and Toby Barnes going head to head. Askey can step up for the big events and is no stranger to National titles but Barnes may just have the edge on Saturday. In the Under 14s race the favourite has to be Emile Alexander who has been arguably a cut above in the National Trophy Series all season and may take another title back to Lichfield.
Poppy Wildman(Nottingham Clarion) has bossed the Under-16 category all season and is a clear cut favourite to take the National title but with Malvern Cyclesport’s Harriet Harden taking to the start it may be a close run race.
Ava Oxley-Szilagi(VCUK-PHmas) should take the Under 14s title but will be pushed hard by both Maddie and Anna Wadsworth(Beeline), both sisters have challenged the National Trophy Series winner all season
Shrewsbury’s Sundorne circuit hosts the 2015-16 British Cycling National Cyclo-Cross Championships this coming weekend and sees arguably the closest competition for many years across both days.The British weather has played havoc with most of the season, courses generally have been dry and fast but with the weather looking to worsen in the run up to the weekend, the Sundown course could prove to play a big part in the Championship titles.
Ian Field(Hargroves-Ridley) should take to the line as favourite in the Elite mens race, Field who has had brilliant domestic season will be looking to add to his recent series victory in the National Trophy but will be up against serious competition from a clutch of riders. Liam Kileen, 5 times runner up will be looking to take the top step from Field after beating him at Bradford in the National Trophy just before Christmas knows he has the legs to take the title from the current Champion. Grant Ferguson(Betch NL-Superior Brentjens) will have his first opportunity to race Field in the Elite category, the 2015 Under 23 Champion, who has had his best year on two wheels will not be giving Field or anyone an easy ride. Dave Fletcher(Pines Cycles-Felt-Envy) who has fought injury over the last two seasons is back challenging and is a serious threat for the top step and NFTO’s Ian Bibby, the 2010 Champion has been a threat whenever he has taken a start line and could prove to be the dark horse on Sunday.
Helen Wyman has proved time and time again why she is the UK’s top women’s Cyclo-cross rider. Nine British Championship titles to her name, the first in 2006 at Sutton Park and every year since except 2013 at Bradford where Nikki Harris took the title away so the Kona rider will be looking to take her tally into double figures on Sunday. Wyman won’t be given an easy race though, with Nikki Harris who arguably is in the best form of her career could take the title for a second time, Harris who will make her first UK outing for Boels-Dolmans will revel on the mud of Shrewsbury and after her first World Cup victory at Numar in December the Derby rider will be high on confidence. The final step on the podium will be a tighter race though, Annie Simpson(Hope Factory Racing) knows how to pull a top place from a race when it matters but there will be a strong challenge from team mate Adela Carter, Verity Appleyard(Brothertons Cycles), Diane Lee(MuleBar) and Isla Rowntree(IslaBikes).
With Grant Ferguson moving up to the Elite race this year, the race for the Under 23 will be wide open. Favourite to take the title must lie on the shoulders of Nick Barnes(Hargroves-Ridley) who has won fours rounds of the National Trophy this season but there will be a strong challenge from the current title holder Tom Craig(Scott Racing) and Seaford Wheeler’s George Thompson who has given Barnes a hard time in the National Trophy series. With 100%MEs Iain Paton and Mark McGuire in the mix the racing will be close.
Under 23 / Junior Women
The closest race of the day will be the new Under 23 race. Arguably there is no clear favourite to take the new jersey, Hannah Payton(Team Kenesis UK) has had another good season, leading the National Trophy Series Payton will not have an easy day from either Beth Crumpton or Amira Mellor(Oldfield-Paul Milnes), any one of the trio could take the title but with Alice Barnes(100%ME) and a future World Champion according to many, Evie Richards(T-Mo Racing) on the front of the grid the title could be heading back to Malvern. That race is too close to call. Sophie Wright(Renvale RT) is favourite to take the junior title, taking wins in the last two rounds of the National Trophy Wright is no stranger to mixing things up at the head of a race.
The Junior race will see a new Champion, with Tom Craig moving up to the Under 23s, the title will be up for grabs. Arguably the pre race favourite was Tom Pidcock but the Yorkshire lad will be away in Holland riding for Team GB so all eyes will be on Pidcock’s team mate Ben Turner and Beacon Wheeler’s Mark Donovan, both have been consistent in the National Trophy all season. A returning Dan Tulett(Specialised) can always carry off a big win when he has to and with a holiday period of Belgium racing under his belt could have the legs to take another National title. Harry Yates(Hargroves-Ridley) could be the dark horse though, Yates, who is relatively local to race will no doubt be mixing it up at the sharp end of the race.
Helen Wyman. 2x European Cyclo cross Champion, 8 x British National Cycle cross Champion, UCI Cycle cross commission member, married to Stefan and has three youngsters, Harry, Barney and Ratty who go everywhere with them.
Go to any cross race anywhere Helen Wyman is racing at, either in mainland Europe, America or the UK and you will soon find her or at least the other half of the Wyman team, husband Stef, Manager, mechanic, driver, coffee supplier and sounding board,milling around the Kona camper van. It is maybe not the biggest or the most modern in the car park but there is a constant stream of well wishers and autograph hunters waiting for a minute or two with the British National cross Champion and Wyman is a consummate professional when it comes to the job. A job in which she immensely proud of her achievements and rightly so.
"At the end of the day i am so privileged to be able to call this my job. Very few people have the opportunity to do what I do and even fewer women do. I am always racing to the very best of my ability and showcasing my beautiful sport to anyone that can see."
" I love wearing my National champs kit and feel proud everytime I put it on, so for me it doesnt really matter how many times I win it, what matters most is that I get to wear it all year"
The 2015 National Cyclo cross Championships will soon be upon us and Wyman has taken the title on eight previous occasions, the first in 2006 at Sutton Park, then it was every year until that run was broken on a cold, wet Bradford course where she lost the jersey to great rival, Nikki Harris. Retaking the title in 2014 at Derby's Moorland course, the 33 year old proved why she is the UK's top female cross rider with a dominant ride leaving most of the field wandering why the race had finished and they hadn't got going.
The 2015 Championships will see, arguable, pre race favourite Wyman taking the start line with Nikki Harris and Annie Last, who is coming into form after a long lay off from racing but there are some strong riders coming through the ranks, namely Amira Mellor and local girl Ffion James, who although juniors can maybe cause an upset on the day
"You never know what can happen at Nationals so of course they can but I do think the main protagonists though will be Nikki, Gabby(Durrin) and Annie.
Wyman is a forthright campaigner for rider equality at World Cup races and has written a couple of articles commenting on the subject highlighting the disparity between prize money for Elite men and Elite women and even only allowing Elite men onto a car park. The posts have certainly provided food for thought and the subject has been waiting for many years to brought to the table
"My recent post was simply showing the facts as they stand. There was no ranting I was purely saying "this is the prize money" is it right? No. Can it be fixed? Yes and here is how. At the end of the day the world cup is the best of the best men and women. The quality of the womens field deserves reward for the best, the same as the men get now."
TV coverage is arguably the most successful avenue to create sponsorship in any sport and cyclesport always seem to struggle to attract good quality television and cycle-cross, especially womens racing, where it is still portrayed in some circles as an add on feature to fill time.
"Of course increased coverage helps everyone, men included. If we bring more sponsorship into cross we increase the overall money in the sport which in turn helps the guys too. In a saturated male cross market you have to find something new and womens cross is a different angle which opens the door to previously uninterested sponsors. So yes obviously increased tv time is the key to this. However as it stands the UCI you tube tv channel already shows the entire womens and mens races live."
And if you go to the Nationals this weekend at Abergavenny, go and say hello to Helen and ask about the three youngsters.