Transgender cyclist Austin Killips wins women’s Tour of the Gila – next stop Olympics?

Transgender cyclist Austin Killips - DAVID PINTENS/BELGA
Transgender cyclist Austin Killips - DAVID PINTENS/BELGA

In what has been described as a “Lia Thomas moment” for cycling, Austin Killips, a 27-year-old transgender rider, has won first prize for women at the Tour of the Gila, the premier road race in New Mexico.

It marked the most significant result yet for Killips, a trans-identifying biological male from Chicago, who also won a medal in women’s cyclo-cross at the US National Championships and who is now tipped to challenge for a place at the Tour de France Femmes and at next summer’s Paris Olympics.

This year’s running of the Tour of the Gila marked the first time in the event’s 36-year history that equal prize money had been offered, with a total purse of $35,350 (£28,145) in both the men’s and women’s races. Killips, who only took up cycling in 2019 before starting 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”.

“Austin is cycling’s equivalent of Lia Thomas,” Inga Thompson, a three-time US Olympian and five-time national road race champion, told Telegraph Sport. Thomas won a US women’s collegiate title in swimming last year, in the 200-yard freestyle, having been ranked 554th in the country in the equivalent male category.

“This really highlights the issues that are happening to women in cycling,” Thompson said. “We have more than 50 transgender women in the sport. And what’s going on in the background is that women are just quietly walking away. They think, ‘Why bother, if it’s not fair?’”

Austin Killips crosses the line to seal the overall win in the women’s Tour of the Gila - Transgender cyclist Austin Killips wins women's Tour of the Gila – next stop Olympics? - Tour of the Gila
Austin Killips crosses the line to seal the overall win in the women’s Tour of the Gila - Transgender cyclist Austin Killips wins women's Tour of the Gila – next stop Olympics? - Tour of the Gila

Killips’ name first came to wider attention in March, after being cited by former cyclo-cross champion 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.”

Amid the Killips controversy, Thompson, who came third at the women’s Tour de France in 1986 and 1989, argued that the pattern was becoming more common. “These women are young, and there’s a lot of bullying,” she said. “They get cancelled, they get silenced, their jobs are threatened. They get put on the TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] list. If they say anything, they are eviscerated. And so, instead of fighting this, they just walk away.”

Killips is a candidate to make the US Olympic women’s cycling team in Paris next summer, should the UCI, the global governing body, maintain its policy of allowing transgender riders to compete so long as they suppress their testosterone levels below 2.5 nanomoles per litre over a two-year period. The average testosterone level for women is between 0.5 and 2.4 nmol/l, while the British Journal of Sports Medicine has suggested that trans women are stronger and maintain better heart and lung capacity than women, even 14 years after taking hormone therapy.

“I expect Austin to win the Joe Martin Stage Race [in Arkansas] this month, then potentially to go on to the Tour de France Femmes and the Paris Olympics,” Thompson said. “That’s just common sense. After all the UCI races, the national championships, why not? The Olympics just aren’t spoken about yet, because there would be a really big backlash.”

With results rapidly improving, Killips is allowed to compete as a consequence of the UCI’s liberal transgender policy, which stands starkly at odds with World Athletics’ approach of banning all post-puberty males from the female category. It also comes in spite of sustained lobbying by female riders for an outright ban: last year, Marion Clignet, France’s triple world champion, presented the UCI with a survey showing that 92 per cent did not agree with trans athletes racing in the women’s peloton.