Philippa York can be the trailblazer who hauls cycling into the 21st century – The Guardian

Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell. Robert Galbraith. George Eliot. Since Charlotte Bronte declared that she and her sisters “had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice,” talented women writers have chosen to use a male pseudonym. More recently, when Catherine Nichols submitted a manuscript under her own name and then under a male nom de plume, the results were predictable. The problem, she concluded, wasn’t the manuscript but her gender.

When introducing her new name to her readers at CyclingNews, York wrote: “Various articles and blogs have been published using my former identity of Robert, well that was then and this is now.” This reminded me of all the women writers who have used a male identity to confer an authenticity or authority on their opinions that would be dismissed under their given name. But York’s opinion on cycling carries the weight of lived experience. Where once she was that exceptional being, a pure mountain climber who could soar when the road turns towards the skies, the fragile bird-like physique is now that of an elegant woman finally allowed to be comfortable in her own skin.

On the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, cycling is having its Caitlyn Jenner moment. York’s interview with William Fotheringham and a host of opinion pieces throughout the cycling media have been met with an overwhelmingly positive sense that perhaps, finally, cycling is ready to move away from the hyper-masculinity so recently expressed by Jan Bakelants and into the 21st century.

York seems sanguine about her transition, saying simply that “the life I was living wasn’t the one I felt I ought to be having,” highlighting that there is no one transition narrative. Instead, in the years since she dropped out of sight, she has become her best self and continued to provide her unique insights into the sport under her pseudonym Robert Millar.

It’s difficult to overestimate how powerful this moment should be for the sport. As York says herself: “It’s a fairly ridiculous situation that there are no prominent gay people in the mainstream sports. It’s a crazy situation that the rest of the world has percentages of gay, lesbian and trans people and yet sport doesn’t. It’s been the case that anyone thought to be different has been singled out for ridicule or presented as some kind of danger and yet outside of sport that attitude isn’t tolerated.” Yet only now, as she acknowledges, has society reached a place where gender issues are no longer a subject of ignorance and intolerance, where she and her family and friends are no longer subjected to the “archaic views and prejudice that some people and certain sections of the tabloid media held.”

Although Willy de Bruijn was perhaps the first cyclist to transition – and was happy to exploit his previous identity as world champion cyclist Elvire when he opened his cafe – the world of men’s professional cycling, as with many male professional sports, has shut the door firmly on variance in gender or sexuality. None more so than the Tour de France, whose creation myth is explicitly bound up with tales of suffering and heroism. The image of the hardman who is capable of withstanding everything that the road and the elements can throw at him to emerge unscathed is deeply embedded in the sport’s DNA. It’s an outmoded expression of what it is to be a man, but in a peloton that is overwhelmingly white and European there is no true mirror of society at large.

The You Can Play Project is seeking to change all that. Dedicated to ensuring “equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” the social activism group is trying to spread a simple and powerful message: athletes should be judged solely on their performance, not their gender or sexuality.

I spoke to Craig Brownstein, who does advocacy work for You Can Play and runs the PuckBuddys blog – “for boys who like boys who like hockey” – with his partner. Brownstein managed to wangle a month’s sabbatical to join the NBC’s team at the Tour de France in 2015, so he knows something of how the culture of cycling compares to ice hockey. He says that, despite the hyper masculinity of hockey, players, teams, fans and league officials have embraced a culture of acceptance and inclusiveness and are proud of it. He believes cycling will eventually follow that lead. “As we’ve seen in other professional sports, all it takes is one trailblazer, one hero to lead the effort. And cycling now has its own hero, Philippa York.”

Ice hockey found its hero in Brendan Burke, a student manager for the Redhawks hockey team and son of Brian Burke, Stanley Cup winner and manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the US Olympic team. Burke came out to his family in 2007 and to his Redhawks team in 2009. With the full support of his family, in particular his father, Burke became a passionate advocate for LGBT athletes in hockey and the wider sporting world. Burke’s coming out and subsequent advocacy had a deep impact on the sport he loved. And his sudden and brutal death at the age of 21 on a snowy Indiana highway became the catalyst for You Can Play.

Despite a heartfelt letter from fellow former cyclist David Millar – who will co-commentate with York during this year’s Tour – the ranks of professional cycling have remained as silent as they did after another Scottish cycling legend, Graeme Obree, came out in 2011. But the response from fans has been overwhelming, a rush of love for a rider who was a hero, an inspiration and an idol – a rider who faced down the overwhelming odds of being an outsider in the continental peloton and emerged with the Polka Dot jersey and almost the Vuelta, until it was stolen by collusion and trickery. Bravery, panache and the gift of flight combined in one slight figure, who carried our hopes and dreams into the thin mountain air and is now returned to us as her best self.

Brownstein believes the real beneficiaries of York’s decision will be young riders who may share similar struggles. “They’ll see it can be done – they can live their lives honestly and openly with their team-mates and perform at the highest levels of their sport. If you can play, you can play. If you can ride, you can ride. If you can climb, you can climb. If you can attack, you can attack. Vive le Tour! Vive Philippa!”

Kristen Worley is a transitioned athlete who understands this space and has fought a decade-long campaign for the human rights of athletes to compete healthily across sport. A cyclist herself, Worley was aware of York’s story in what has been one of the best kept open secrets in the sport. For Worley, York’s story is not simply one of gender but of “creating greater diversity and inclusion across the sport so that cycling can embrace both XY and XX women and XY and XX men.” And perhaps that’s the bigger picture. That the overwhelmingly positive welcome shown to a returning hero can begin to open the doors for every athlete. Chapeau, Philippa York.

This article is from 100 Tours 100 Tales
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