Austin Killips’ victory in the women’s edition of the Tour of the Gila in the United States is the biggest cycle race won by a transgender rider so far and has reignited debate around safeguards for fairness in women’s competitions.
Telegraph Sport examines how and why some of the biggest sports remain at odds after years of argument around a toxic and divisive issue.
What is cycling’s policy and does it differ from other sports?
While swimming and athletics have effectively banned athletes who have gone through male puberty from women’s elite competition, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has only partly toughened its rules on trans women’s participation in the female category. The British cyclist Emily Bridges was prevented from entering the British national omnium championships last year after testosterone rules were tightened at the 11th hour.
However, the rules continue to allow trans women to compete if they have had reduced testosterone levels of 2.5 nanomoles per litre for the previous two years.
Victory for Phillips this week at the Tour of the Gila, the premier road race in New Mexico, was immediately described as the sport’s “Lia Thomas” moment – a reference to the American trans swimmer. Killips, who took up cycling only in 2019 before starting on hormone replacement therapy, earned almost £8,000 for finishing top of the women’s general classification, plus an £800 bonus as “Queen of the Mountains”.
Are rules likely to be toughened again?
While some LGBT activists still allege an ongoing clampdown amounts to discrimination, other campaigners maintain the rule change last year did not go nearly far enough. Maria Blower, who represented Great Britain when women’s cyclists were first permitted in the Olympic Games in 1984, is among campaigners to say new categories are the only solution as trans women will have already been “bathed in testosterone” prior to transitioning.
Blower does acknowledge, however, that the issue has to be dealt with carefully. Bridges, who was on British Cycling’s senior academy in 2019 and came out as a transgender woman in October 2020, said the spotlight placed on her had taken a considerable toll on her mental health. “There’s so much hate and criticism that I just don’t look at it,” she has previously said. “I know it is happening and I try to have that drive me, but that’s easier said than done.”
British Cycling has been reviewing the situation for more than a year and there is speculation the body will be tougher on the subject than the UCI.
British Cycling’s head of Olympic programmes, Sara Symington, was among the signatories to a letter to the UCI last year arguing that trans women must not be allowed to compete in female events in order to “guarantee fairness for female athletes”.
Why do sporting approaches remain at odds?
Differing approaches owe largely to Olympic chiefs ruling a “one size fits all approach” would not work across sporting disciplines. In November 2021, the International Olympic Committee issued a “framework” on the issue, leaving eligibility decisions up to individual sports bodies, but adding that “until evidence determines otherwise, athletes should not be deemed to have an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status”.
In the two years since New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics in a different gender category than assigned at birth, most of the major sports have reviewed rules.
Some sports opted to allow trans women to compete if they lower their testosterone levels to similar levels that have been seen in cycling in recent years. However, with emerging science showing that transgender women retain an advantage in strength, endurance, power and lung capacity, World Athletics joined World Rugby, World Aquatics and the Rugby Football League in announcing tougher rules.
The World Athletics president, Seb Coe, accepted that the decision would be contentious but said his sport had been guided by the “overarching principle” of fairness.
“Decisions are always difficult when they involve conflicting needs and rights between different groups, but we continue to take the view that we must maintain fairness for female athletes above all other considerations,” he said. “We believe the integrity of the female category in athletics is paramount.”
What about the grassroots?
While the likes of Hubbard, Thomas and now Killips have attracted most attention at the elite end of sport, there is unlikely to be much change for women playing lower level non-contact sport. Most of the international rule changes across sports affect only elite competition, with national governing bodies given the autonomy to implement their own rules at domestic events.
The Government has said in recent years it is less concerned with the involvement of trans competitors in low level women’s sport. However, there have been recent tensions within the grass-roots. Glenique Frank, a biological male who identifies as a woman, apologised for competing in the London Marathon in the female category, having allegedly exploited a loophole in UK Athletics’ updated transgender policy to take part.
Profile: Who is Austin Killips?
Transgender cyclist Austin Killips won the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico just two years after committing to the sport full-time. “My big dream is to one day ride the Tour de France Femmes,” the 27-year-old, from Chicago, told the Cycling Tips website last year. “I would love to race Roubaix and the cobbled classics. These races are institutions and I have watched them for years. Right now, I am orienting myself towards those races.”
Killips completed a mechanic’s degree at a trade school in Oregon and initially worked in a bike shop. She first bought a cyclocross bike to compete on in early 2019. She was also reportedly taking hormone replacement therapy that same year as part of her transition in gender.
She described a “slow creep of something feeling off” while taking the drugs but her times saw her rise rapidly through the ranks in 2021, prompting selection for the Jingle Cross World Cup.
However, her emergence on the cyclocross circuit was part of the reason Hannah Arensman, a 35-time winner on the national cyclocross circuit, retired from the sport recently.
Killips’ name came to wider attention in March, after being cited by Hannah Arensman in a Supreme Court filing explaining why she was retiring from the sport at 24. Arensman had lost out on a podium place to Killips in the national finals in December, later accusing her transgender opponent of repeatedly shoving her during the race – a claim Killips denied.
“I have decided to end my cycling career,” Arensman said. “My sister and family sobbed as they watched a man finish in front of me, having witnessed several physical interactions with him during the race. I feel for young girls learning to compete, who no longer have a fair chance at being the new record-holders and champions in cycling because men want to compete in our division.”
Killips, however, has previously said “I am not an activist but I can’t divorce myself from my identity and how I will be perceived by others. There are trans athletes and folks that I connect with. There are people coming up to me telling me that what I do is meaningful and matters to them.”
On Sunday, Killips – who started racing in 2019 and also competes in cyclocross – won her biggest race yet, finishing eight seconds ahead of Mexican rider Marcela Prieto on stage five, and topped the general classification by one minute and 29 seconds. Killips rides for the Amy D Foundation – an organisation set up in memory of American cyclist Amy Dombroski which “encourages and supports young women through cycling”.
She said on Instagram after winning the tour: “After a week of nonsense on the internet I’m especially thankful to everyone in the peloton and sport who continue to affirm that Twitter is not real life. I love my peers and competitors and am grateful for every opportunity I get to learn and grow as a person and athlete on course together.”