Entering into the world of cycling as a 31 year-old, Natalie van Gogh was initially hesitant about competing. As a child, growing up in Nieuw-Vennep, Holland, her parents had always encouraged her to play sport, but she had not felt confident enough to do so. Looking back, the 47 year-old now understands why. “I was uncomfortable with my gender,” she reflects, calmly, “and that makes it very difficult for you for as a child to really become a positive, strong person.”
Life after transitioning, however, was different. Inspired by the story of Canadian trans woman mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq, whose career was captured in the film 100 Percent Woman, Van Gogh found her passion for cycling. “It’s a feeling, something that gives me tremendous joy,” she says, shrugging her shoulders and laughing, “You crash hard, you can break your bones. It’s sometimes scary to go with 150 people down the mountain at 70-80km/hour.”
Dumaresq’s documentary is named after an incident at the 2006 Canadian National championships – which she won – when the boyfriend of second-place finisher Danika Schroeter leapt onto the podium to put a t-shirt on her saying ‘100% Pure Woman Champ’.
‘I was afraid of what the stories would be’
Given the history of trans women athletes in sport, it is little wonder that Van Gogh is hesitant speaking to Telegraph Sport. As a professional cyclist, Van Gogh entered the circuit with her eyes open, aware that she may face abuse from the sidelines, or the media.
“In the beginning, I was afraid of what the [media] stories would be. And I’ve seen some stories that they wanted to publish or have published that I’ve disagreed with, that were not well written and not well researched,” she says.
But, despite the initial backlash, Van Gogh found peace in the peloton – in large part thanks to the support she received from other riders. While in the UK the news of Emily Bridges potentially competing against cis women athletes has been met with opprobrium, GB Olympic Cycling chief Sara Symington signing a letter against trans inclusion, and GB cyclist Katie Archibald pledging her support for Bridges while simultaneously expressing her concerns around “fairness”, the response to Van Gogh’s competing was markedly different. Tokyo 2020 Olympic time trial champion, Annemiek van Vleuten, has been riding against Van Gogh since 2007, and remains unequivocal in her views.
“I had just taken up cycling and that criterium was the first race I ever won,” Van Vleuten told Dutch media outlet, Helden, of the Ronde van Lexmond. “Natalie did a good race there as well. I think she came in fourth or something. I can’t really remember noticing anything different. To me she was one of the women there.”
Annemiek van Vleuten: ‘Let the girl do what she loves doing’
“Being transgender is not a choice,” says Van Vleuten, “it’s not for fun. I only thought; let the girl do what she loves doing. When she started winning races, I was happy for her. I was worried about the reactions she got. I felt bad for her.” The 39 year-old describes Van Gogh as an “asset” to the peloton, “there are very few people who would still stand up straight after all she went through, and still occasionally goes through.”
In a career in which Van Gogh won two races – a one day race and stage one of the Lotto Belgium Tour in 2015 – as well as posting several podium results, the Dutch rider reflects emotionally on what it meant to be accepted. “Because of the support from inside the peloton, I was always able to say okay, I can do this. They don’t give a bloody f— about this,” she laughs.
But reading the coverage of Bridges’ participation in the UK has made her want to speak out about her experiences. “It feels almost to me like we’ve been, I’ve been there. I’ve been there done that. Why does it suddenly pop up? Now in other countries, the same stories, the same beliefs that were there 20 years ago?
“In the case of Emily, we’re not even giving her the chance to prove what they are believing is wrong. I think the UK is now maybe at the point where the Netherlands was 15 years ago.”
One of Van Gogh’s best finishes came in the 2017 Dwars door de Westhoek, a 131.2km race where she came second overall in a time of 3:25.49, 11 seconds behind the winner. “I am, as far as I know, the only transgender [woman] in 20 years who managed to win the lowest level UCI race that the UCI has,” she says now.
“I don’t believe [trans women] are a threat to women’s cycling like some people are worried about and signing petitions for,” Olympian Gracie Elvin tells Telegraph Sport. “Natalie raced like any other female professional in the peloton, I never felt like she was taking away opportunities from other riders,” said Elvin, 33, who retired in 2020 and says she is inspired by Van Gogh. “There needs to be rules in place to make sure that sport is fair for all, but when you really think about it sport is inherently unfair. I always knew that there was always going to be better athletes than me, but that I still had to try my hardest.”
‘We’re all physically different… everybody’s genetics are different’
Van Gogh retired in October last year, after she could no longer find a new team to compete, due to her age. But her commitment to cycling continues as she now manages the WV Schijndel under-23 women’s team. She says she would not describe herself as an activist, but she is passionate about people understanding the complexities around trans women. “We’re all physically different,” she says, carefully explaining that trans women are not a monolith, “everybody’s genetics are different. You can do good at one sport and you can fail at another sport, that’s one part of it.
“The other part is, especially nowadays, each transition is different. For the Dutch standards, 20 years ago, there was more or less only one possibility. And that was almost fixed by law and on how a transition should go. Nowadays, you have more ways to transition. And that does make the whole discussion on sport so difficult.”
Gender reassignment surgery is no longer required for an individual to transition, a fact reflected in the International Olympic Committee’s policy which updated the regulation after trans athlete Chris Mosier qualified for the US duathlon team in 2015. Hormone therapy is still necessary to compete in elite sport, but identifying as trans is no longer a single unified experience.
With current research so limited due to the tiny numbers of trans women in sport, Van Gogh believes that current policies are often based on assumptions of advantage and fear. “We are pushing away a whole group of people [with these policies], trans gender young people who just want to enjoy life and do sports, not even at a professional level,” Van Gogh explained.
“Let there first be a precedent on this. We have some rules now, let the rules be as they are and let it all play out. At some point, if we see if physically there are discrepancies, then we have to sit around the table to review what is going on. First see what happens, because I still believe that, in the end, nothing will happen.”