Free to compete: Transgender cyclists look for acceptance in women’s peloton

So many times before when Anna Caterina Lisk jumped on her bike, she could leave the world behind with the stroke of a pedal. When the race whistle blew, she could escape an internal battle she had been fighting for years.

But at Saturday’s Race Against Time, the 46-year-old transgender cyclist from Tucson will be carrying relief and a sense of belonging in her jersey pocket; she will roll up to the line for her first Arizona road season race with her new AZ Women’s Racing teammates.

I’m doing what I love, for the team, with the team, said Lisk, who began her transition from male to female in June 2015.

Along with other male-to-female transgender riders nationwide who are now free to compete in women’s fields by following USA Cycling guidelines, Lisk is looking to continue being an athlete, find acceptance and break barriers as she races between them.

‘Under my own power’

Lisk, who was born in Tucson but spent most of her childhood in Paradise Valley, Ariz., said she had feelings about being transgender since age 7 and fought them throughout her life.

“I would try and suppress them by doing all the things society tells you to be,” Lisk said. “So I would do and act like a guy as much as I could. I also have older brothers and every time I didn’t act like they wanted me to be they would just be so hard on me, so I quickly learned how to conform and act like them. I got really, really good at it, so much so that for a while these feelings of wanting to be a girl were gone for a while.”

“I went through some really dark times with cycling.”

She said riding her bike was an escape for her since she was a child.

Lisk began racing bikes in 1999 at age 29 and competed as an unattached Cat 5 rider in men’s road races and rides such as the Tucson Bicycle Classic, Colossal Cave Road Race and El Tour de Tucson, though she said she didn’t take men’s racing seriously. It provided an escape from severe depression and the everyday stress of figuring out who she truly was, she said.

Lisk began to transition in June of 2015, and her family struggled with the change. Her son, 25, was “OK,” though it was hard for him, she said. But her 23-year-old daughter stopped talking to her, and Lisk and her wife separated, she said.

I understand where she is coming from; she basically lost her husband, Lisk said. Her dreams for our future, growing old together as husband and wife, it’s not going to happen that way.

“I can push and go as far as I want under my own power.”

Lisk said she went back to her bike as an outlet.

“It was hell, and so I would ride my bike almost every day to help relieve stress and anger and guilt and the pain of losing family and friends,” she said. “When I’m riding my bike I at times feel one with it, and I can push and go as far as I want under my own power. I can just be myself. Riding my bike helps me think and figure things out in my head.”

Lisk stopped competing in bike racing for a year while she began hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and going into her transition, she thought she would have to give up competitive cycling, she said.

But last spring, she realized that the International Olympic Committee and USAC opened up their doors to transgender people competing.

She joined AZ Women’s Racing and said she was ecstatic to be included and treated equally. The team is “cisgender,” a term used to describe people whose gender identities match the biological sex that they were assigned at birth.

Anna Lisk, fifth from right, joins her AZ Women's Racing teammates.

Anna Lisk, fifth from right, joins her AZ Women’s Racing teammates.

“I’m grateful for AZ Women’s; they took a huge risk allowing me on their team as a trans female cyclist,” Lisk said. “It was so amazing, I literally cried.”

Lisk said she feels that this level of inclusion is what the transgender community needs for transgender women to be treated equally to cisgender women.

“I just want to be one of the girls,” she said.

The Rule Book

After the International Olympic Committee changed their rules to include transgender athletes in January 2016, USA Cycling opened competitive cycling for transgender people to compete in their respective gender categories.

Andrea Gonzales Cinalli, a board member of USAC’s local association for Arizona, the Arizona Bicycle Racing Association, considers Lisk a friend. Gonzales Cinalli participated in group rides and in ChristianCycling Tucson’s December Crit Mas Series with Lisk.

“Why should a transgender person have to give up their favorite hobbies?” Gonzales Cinalli asked. “If they love to race, and are following all of the guidelines put forth by the governing body of that sport, why would there be a problem?”

Yet not all female cyclists are ready to accept transgender competitors.

Semi-pro racer Judah Sencenbaugh said she sees the inclusion of transgender women in women’s categories as an uneven playing field. The 23-year-old rides for Iowa State University and is a female cyclist who is currently working to become a professional racer.

“Even if your hormone levels are in range or whatever, I feel that does not make a difference,” Sencenbaugh said. “I feel as a woman cyclist myself, it’s simply an unfair advantage.”

Sencenbaugh also said that regulations should be in place for transgender people in competitive cycling.

USAC guidelines follow the IOC for Cat 1 and 2 riders: “The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L [Nanomoles per Liter] for at least 12 months prior to her first competition, and must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category,” the IOC’s official rules read.

The average testosterone level for men is 10-35 nmol/L.

The IOC also includes that any failure to stay within the required range of testosterone results in a 12-month suspension of eligibility for female competition. The athlete must also declare her gender identity is female, which cannot be changed for sporting purposes, for four years. Gender reassignment surgery is not a requirement. The NCAA also implemented similar policies to USAC and the IOC.

Anna Lisk competes in ChristianCycling Tucson's Crit Mas series in December.

Anna Lisk competes in ChristianCycling Tucson’s Crit Mas series in December.

But for riders Cat 3 to 5, like Lisk, who currently is Cat 4, Gonzales Cinalli said, ABRA is following USAC’s policies as closely as possible, which is a two-pronged policy, allowing transgender riders in Cat 3 to 5 to self-select gender.

These riders do not need to prove their hormone levels but may be subject to investigation if a claim is brought against them. In that case, a doctor’s note or valid driver’s license showing the person’s gender may be required.

Women’s Cat 3 to 5 riders do not need to prove hormone levels to USAC.

“We are very proud to allow self-selection for our transgender athletes,” said Chuck Hodge, USAC’s technical director.

Hodge added that USAC would also look at the following factors for Cat 3 to 5 women:

  • Does the member’s consistent gender identity in their eeveryday life match his or her racing gender?
  • Has the member obtained civil documents with his or her racing gender identified (i.e. state identification, driver’s license, birth certificate)
  • Confirmation of gender identity from a medical professional

“We are only going to investigate if we believe there is an egregious violation of the policy,” Hodge said of Cat 3 to 5 riders.

As of Tuesday, Hodge said he was working with USAC officials to post the policy on the organization’s website.

Lisk said she is working closely with her doctor.

“I currently meet the hormonal guidelines, having to run blood work to show my [testosterone] and estrogen levels and send them to the USAC,” she said.

These rules are only applied to male-to-female transgender individuals. There are no regulations on female-to-male transgender participation in men’s division races, according to Hodge.

Travis Rabbit, a track cyclist who formerly raced on Yale University’s cycling team identifies as “a person who doesn’t have a constant gender identity,” they said. Rabbit said she is biologically female and prefers “a mix” of pronouns. He is an elected member of the USAC Collegiate Sport Committee and active member of the USAC women’s advisory board.

She races in the women’s field despite not identifying as female and does not take hormones, he said.

“I approached [my effort to help transgender inclusion] as an open-book thing,” Rabbit said. “I volunteered lab results. I was willing to go through a painful and invasive process to make sure no one else would have to.”

Off the track, Rabbit works in the medical field as a physician assistant.

“It doesn’t really matter what your state ID says,” Rabbit said. “What does matter is the [amount of] testosterone in your body and how long you have had it.”

Are hormones enough?

For critics, disclosing hormone levels isn’t enough to prove that transgender women and cisgender women are equal on the bike, though at least one study has shown otherwise.

“Hormones don’t change lung capacity. Hormones don’t change the advantage that males have in the angle of the leg bones. It’s time we start getting the truth about what these biologically male trans athletes are doing to women in sports, said a user under the screenname Commenter2016 in the comments of CyclingTips.com’s coverage of transgender athletes in cycling.

Research of transgender athletes showed that hormone therapy does more than just suppress testosterone, according to a Washington Post article.

Published in 2015 in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities, the study showed that as testosterone levels approach female norms, transgender women experience a decrease in muscle mass, bone density and other physical characteristics, according to the article.

“Together these changes lead to a loss of speed, strength and endurance, all key components of athleticism,” the study’s author, Joanna Harper, wrote in The Washington Post.

Harper, who is chief medical physicist at Oregon’s Providence Portland Medical Center, a transgender athlete and a participant in the IOC meeting that overhauled the transgender guidelines, explained to the Washington Post that it’s not the anatomy that matters, it’s the hormones.

After a year of hormone therapy, for example, female transgender distance runners lose their speed advantage over cisgender women, the article explained.

Lisk win Crit Mas

Anna Lisk (middle) wins the Women’s Cat 3/4 crit at ChristianCycling Tucson’s Crit Mas series in December.

So far, Lisk has competed in nine races as a Cat 4 rider, according to her USAC race results. Of those, the biggest field she’ss competed against included a total of eight riders. She has won or landed on the podium the majority of races she has competed in.

Lisk said she believes that she is equal in athletic ability to her cisgender teammates, and that any suggestion that transgender people have an unfair advantage is inaccurate.

“I have a team member who is three years older, and I can’s beat her,” Lisk said.

Rabbit doesn’t see characteristics like previous bone and muscle mass as advantages in cycling.

“You can’t change your skeletal structure,” he said. “But being a very large person is actually not that beneficial on the road.”

‘No idea they were riding with a trans woman’

When Jillian Bearden placed first in the women’s 106-mile event at El Tour de Tucson, an annual charity ride, she was met with “tons of good vibes.”

“They had no idea they were riding with a trans woman,” Bearden said.

Bearden, 36, placed first with a time of 4:36.07, just one second ahead of second-place winner Anna Sparks, 35, a female cisgender professional cyclist and one of Arizona’s top bike racers.

It wasn’t until the next day, after news of a transgender woman winning in a cycling race began to circulate in headlines, that a backlash came in the form of online comments.

The pronoun “he” rained across comment boards, with users deliberately misgendering Bearden to show opposition.

“Just who are these deranged people who think a guy with a boob job and his package cut off is anything other than a mutilated man?” asked user “SteveThomas” in the comments of an article on Bearden in the Washington Times, a right-leaning political newspaper based in Washington, D.C.

Jillian Bearden goes on a ride.

Jillian Bearden goes on a ride.

Bearden was described as “vulgar” and “delusional” in the comments on the article posted about Bearden’s win on Tucson.com.

“How is this fair? Every time a trans athlete joins women’s sports they dominate,” said another commenter on the Tucson.com article.

Bearden said she had to stop looking at comment feeds.

“Psychologically, the first couple days it was very tough,” Bearden said. “I didn’t get to celebrate my victory right away. I didn’t read the comments [since the first day] because I know it is all false and people are just being negative.”

Lisk added that she read the negative comments in response to articles about Bearden, and they frightened her.

“I was scared and worried, and I had to stop [reading] after a while,” she said.

Rabbit said he has also faced discrimination and intimidation as a result of not having a constant gender identity.

“I was physically assaulted at a race,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to elaborate on what happened. “That really screwed my racing up for a while.”

Trans-national team

Bearden traveled to Tucson from her home in Colorado Springs to ride for the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance to promote inclusion of transgender people in competitive cycling.

Bearden has spent her time as an elite cyclist in road racing, but also enjoys mountain biking. Bearden started cycling at an early age, and she used it as an outlet to curb her suicidal tendencies in early days of navigating her gender identity, she said.

“Cycling saved my life before my transition,” Bearden said. “I was on antidepressants for years and years until my late 20s, when I picked up biking more, it helped me get off my medication for my antidepressants because I just started falling more and more in love with cycling. It saved me from killing myself because I was able to go out on a ride and get out my feelings.”

Jillian Bearden works with the International Olympic Committee to test her VO2 Max and FTP.

Jillian Bearden works with the International Olympic Committee to test her VO2 Max and FTP.

Bearden, who is a full-time electrical designer when she isn’t cycling, also works alongside the IOC, enduring rigorous testing and producing data from before and after transitioning to show the effects of hormone therapy on her athletic performance.

“[I have had] the opportunity to work with doctors across the U.S. and working with the IOC to make it all a fair competition. I am going to put myself out there and produce the science,” Bearden said.

Bearden explained that her athletic ability declined by 11 percent from beginning her HRT in 2014 and demonstrating an average power of 338 watts in an eight-minute test on a stationary bike pre-transition, which declined to an average power of 300 watts by 2016, two years after beginning HRT.

Bearden’s cycling team Trans National Women’s Cycling Team, the first transgender athletic team in the world she said, is set to be unveiled the last weekend of April 2017 at the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic in North Carolina.

Bearden, who founded and developed the team, said she has recruited about 30 transgender women, including Rabbit, from across the country to represent the team. For the privacy of the women recruited, Bearden did not give the names of others joining the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team.

Proposed kit design for the Trans National Women's Cycling Team

Proposed kit design for the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team

However, team members will have custom kits with the transgender flag on them to represent and spread awareness, Bearden said.

“It’s all about visibility on this team and creating a place for these women to come together,” Bearden said.

Statistics on the number of transgender cyclists are unavailable due to the possibility of people in cycling not being openly transgender. This is a void in data that is stratified across all sports.

Lisk also rode for Team SAGA at El Tour de Tucson on the day of Bearden’s win. But she will not be joining Bearden’s team, arguing that doing so would be counterproductive to efforts to include trans women in cisgender divisions.

“[Bearden] is giving [transphobic people] exactly what they want,” Lisk said. “It’s not the right way to go about it, and it sends the wrong message.”

Grateful

Despite having to make extra efforts and doctor’s visits to prove eligibility to compete in women’s races, Bearden, Lisk and Rabbit all expressed gratitude for the opportunity to race in a division they identify with.

“Having the IOC open up a policy [to include transgender cyclists] and to have the USAC open it up as well is amazing,” Bearden said.

Even after the thick of the attention Bearden received from El Tour, a calm in her voice radiated through the phone during her 6 a.m. commute to work.

“I’m too busy as a mother of two, working full-time, and training to sit in this,” Bearden said. “I rode for SAGA, and I rode my heart out, I trained up for that race, and that was my first place all year long. I can walk away knowing that I can celebrate my win.”

Lisk said she is grateful for a sense of belonging and kinship that can only be found in cycling.

“It’s overwhelming, [the support for me in the cycling community],” she said, adding she is open to talking to others about her transition.

On display

These days, Lisk said her nerves on race day don’t necessarily come with the competition; it’s standing on the podium afterward for a sea of eyes to see her on display.

Lisk recalled her first race as a transgender woman, where she placed second in her category, as being an equally exhilarating and nerve-racking experience.

“I was very nervous [right before standing on the podium],” Lisk said, pausing to reflect on the moment and gain composure. “I was excited and everything, but having some of my teammates around me who raced also was a huge help.”

Lisk said she can’t comprehend why people would assume being a transgender woman is a choice.

“Who the heck would want to choose this and go through all this and risk losing everything?” Lisk asked. “It’s been hell, literally.”

Despite entering her first race season after transitioning with excitement, Lisk said 2017 will be her last year of racing. She said she wishes to take time to focus on completing her transition and continuing to work at Performance Bicycle, a cycling shop in Tucson.

“2017 is going to be great,” Lisk said. “I still wake up sometimes and pinch myself because I can’t believe this is all real and this is happening.”

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that Travis Rabbit said he uses hormones. Rabbit said she does not use hormones.