Transgender Rider Challenges USA Cycling’s New Policy

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The civil rights of transgender individuals – people whose gender identity does not correspond with the sex registered for them at birth, or trans for short – has been a thorny issue ever since they and others in the LGBTQ+ community began demanding equal rights under the law. Some of the specific issues have been especially contentious, such as what public restroom should a trans female –  a man who now identifies as a woman – be able to use, the men’s or the women’s?

The broader issue has also become a problem in sports, especially when a trans female enters a women’s competition, because although that individual may have undergone hormonal treatment or even surgery to have a body appropriate to their gender identity, male physical advantages including size, strength and muscle mass usually put non-trans women at a big competitive disadvantage.

When in May of this year transgender cyclist Austin Killips won the women’s Tour of the Gila, a UCI Tour of America 2.2 stage race held annually in New Mexico, it sparked a significant social-media uproar. For example, former MTB cross-country world champion Alison Sydor tweeted: “The current UCI rules that allow males to compete in female cycling events are not fair to female athletes. Time for UCI to admit this current rule situation is unsustainable and leaving a black mark on cycling as a fair sport for females.”

The UCI reacted. As a result, starting on  July 17, 2023, “female transgender athletes who have transitioned after puberty will be prohibited from participating in women’s events on the UCI International Calendar – in all categories – in the various disciplines,” cycling’s governing body said in a statement.

Austin Killips
Killips is the first transgender woman to win a major race. © Profimedia

But that had no effect on most US cycling competitions. USA Cycling was forced to react when, in May, the talented cyclocross rider Hannah Arensman announced her retirement from the sport because she had finished fourth, with a female trans rider beating her to the podium, in the 2022 US National Championships in December. She said that it “has become increasingly discouraging to train as hard as I do only to have to lose to a man with the unfair advantage of an androgenized body that intrinsically gives him an obvious advantage over me, no matter how hard I train.”

However, USA Cycling’s attempt to find a regulatory solution has stirred up another controversy. But this time it was a transgender cyclist who protested. “Outing ourselves for amateur sanctioned racing does not make us feel safe or welcome,” said the cyclist, whose identity has been withheld for her protection. “Instead, it shines an uninvited bright light on our private life, further threatening our safety, as well as our rights on a federal and state level. This rule change creates an exclusionary environment, sets a dangerous precedent and opens a Pandora’s box for organized amateur sports with transgender athletes.” She has filed a complaint with the state’s Attorney General’s Office, asking Attorney General Bob Ferguson to file an injunction against USA Cycling. She also filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

The solution put forward by USA Cycling, called the Transgender Athlete Participation Policy, aligns the body with UCI regulations for international competitions, in that it prohibits female trans riders from participating in those events. For non-UCI-sanctioned events, the body has come up with a two-tiered system that it says aims to find a balance between fairness and inclusivity.

Without going into the full complexity of the plan, we can say that it forces trans athletes to complete a detailed evaluation process. Starting on January 1, athletes will be divided into Group A and Group B. Group A athletes, who are those racing in Pro, Category 1 or Category 2 competitions, must undergo an “elite athletic fairness evaluation application” 90 days before a competition and demonstrate with medical documentation that their testosterone level has been consistently at a prescribed level for at least 24 months. The requirements for Group B athletes, who compete at the lower levels, including Novice, are significantly less demanding.

The female trans rider protesting against this new protocol was active in racing in the state of Washington for four years and said that during that time “no individual, organization or local USAC official harassed or required me to out myself, nor was a complaint filed against me. Many people were aware that I was transgender because it is a small community. I trained just as hard as other female athletes and still did not have a competitive advantage. In fact, most of the time, I rarely finished in the top three in Cat[egory] 4 races.”

It remains a difficult issue and the various bodies regulating cycling and other sports have almost certainly not found the optimal solution yet. In the US, the new policy has not put an end to the controversy. For example, in October the female trans cyclocross rider Jenna Lingwood won several races. The tweet announcing those victories was met with widespread outrage and mockery.

In July of this year, after the UCI introduced its new trans regulations, retired American Olympics cyclist Inga Thompson spoke to Cycling Weekly about the UCI policy and the issue in general, and described the problem very succinctly. “We have to find a way to have fairness for women and fairness for transgender women,” she said, “and to acknowledge the biological differences between the two.”

We are clearly not there yet.