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Steals on wheels

Women are having their cycling podium places stolen from under their noses by trans-identified men

Last weekend a cycling event called Thundercrit took place at Herne Hill Velodrome. The organisers stress that the race “strives to be inclusive”. They’ve created two categories in the race (formerly the “men’s race” and “women’s race”) and called them “Thunder” and “Lightning” with a bizarre set of race category descriptions allowing for self-identification into either race. 

Thundercrit states that, “we realised that binary race categories are no longer fit for purpose”. Their women’s race is now, therefore, open to anyone “whose physical performance aligns most closely with cis-women”. 

With a dash of verbal wizardry, the organisers swept away fair competition for female people as “not fit for purpose”. “Women” are not mentioned in either race category; instead they are “cis-women”. This is an irritating, offensive reclassification of the sex of female people. Respect is afforded to those who “identify” as women but not to those who “are” women. 

As a result, the trans-identified male cyclists Emily Bridges and Lilly Chant, both of whom are still recorded as “male” on the British Cycling website, featured in an extraordinary podium photograph, which spread quickly to exasperated shouts of “cheats”. As Bridges and Chant congratulated each other with a kiss, the cyclist in third, Jo Smith, the only woman on the podium, cuddled her baby.

The photograph visually encapsulated everything that is unfair about male-bodied people competing against women in women’s sport. A woman, a young mother, is pushed into 3rd place when she might well have won, had this been a female event. In March this year Emily Bridges was prevented by UCI, the worldwide governing body for cycling, from competing in the women’s race at the British National Omnium Championship. 

As people expressed anger at the podium picture, Thundercrit issued a statement with a tone arrogantly dismissive of women and their concerns: “we will not be commenting further, especially to the media, or anyone who wishes to use our welcoming and inclusive race to push their narrative.”

The “narrative” presumably being that it is impossible for female athletes to have fair competition in a sport if it includes male people in the category of “women”. Women are left once again with the silencing “no debate!”

Chant’s time would have led to 41st place in a field of 51 men

Jo Smith released two tweets saying she really didn’t mind being beaten by the male athletes and that women should get on with other things, rather than minding about it on her behalf. This individualist thinking is both disappointing and foolish. A choice made by one woman to endorse the right of trans-identified men to snatch both podium and race places from women, is an act of betrayal whatever the motivation. Other young female athletes are affected by that stance and may see, vividly drawn in that photograph, a lack of hope for their future success. Bridges and Chant are perhaps trail-blazers, who will fling open the gates to other male cyclists identifying women, taking podium places from women when they might not otherwise manage to do so when competing, fairly, against men. 

On 8 June the cyclist Bev Sorsby came 3rd in the women’s race at HH Crit series, a cycling event run by British Cycling. Bev Sorsby, a trans identified male, is listed with British cycling as female. Sarah Weir, Sorsby’s team mate, was pushed into 4th place and another woman, Alice Smith was pushed into 5th place. I don’t know if these women mind being denied a podium place by biological men, because presumably no one bothered to ask them. 

A friend of mine won the men’s race at the same event. He would almost certainly have beaten the women and Bev Sorsby, unless he fell off. This is why he is, quite rightly, in the men’s race. It is the only fair place for him to compete. However, he’s in his forties and will eventually begin to slow. At some point it would be possible for him to enter the race as a female cyclist and begin winning once past his prime as a male. How will women’s sport fare when more men realise this as a possibility? 

Lilly Chant raced in the women’s category again on Saturday, 11 June in the RTTC National 25-mile Time Trial organised by Cycling Time Trials, the national governing body for time trials. Chant placed 9th out of 22 women with a time of 1.04.15. The men’s race was won with a time of 00.51.37. Chant’s time would have led to 41st place in a field of 51 men. 

When asked what he thought of a trans-identified male competing in the women’s event, the organiser Martin Williams told me, “Thank you for pointing that out to me. I was not aware. I embrace Cycling Time Trials and wish to promote this great sport and make it inclusive. As a Promoting Secretary I abide by the rules of Cycling Time Trials and so won’t comment further.”

Women are offered the opportunity of placing second or third

This doesn’t in any way address the problem for female competitors increasingly finding themselves competing against male-bodied people. A female competitor in that race, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me, “Men who have gone through puberty have bigger heart and lung capacity, and whilst reducing testosterone can reduce muscle mass it can never take away those advantages. It is the younger women I fear for, who will have to deal with this, the young women who will decide it is useless to come to a sport where they now have to compete against men.”

She added, “There are two junior women riding. Are they supposed to use the same showers?” Fair competition is not the only issue. 

In an ITV interview this week tactics of emotional manipulation were utilised by Bridges, who said, “I don’t want special treatment from anyone, I just want the same opportunities as my fellow female athletes.”

But, Emily, women are not “fellow females” to trans-identified men. As a trans-identified male, competing with females, you are given an enhanced opportunity of winning. Women are offered the opportunity of placing second or third. Or not at all. Some women are given the opportunity to stay at home altogether, as winning seems so unlikely. 

Jo Smith may find herself looking longingly at that 3rd space on the podium in a year’s time.

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