The new laws also come just as northwest Arkansas is establishing itself as a premier cycling tourism destination.
The new laws also come just as northwest Arkansas is establishing itself as a premier cycling tourism destination. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty)

Will Anti-Trans Laws Upend Cycling in Arkansas?

Tourism and marquee events may face a boycott unless the cycling establishment can find an effective way to respond

The new laws also come just as northwest Arkansas is establishing itself as a premier cycling tourism destination.
Luc Claessen/Getty(Photo)

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Next January, cycling fans will converge on Fayetteville, Arkansas, for the World Cyclocross Championships and the rare chance to see some of the sport’s brightest stars, like Mathieu van der Poel and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, race on U.S. soil. Ordinarily, you’d expect someone like Molly Cameron—an elite athlete, team manager, and well-known fixture in Portland, Oregon’s cyclocross scene—to be there.

But she’ll skip it. Cameron is transgender, and in late March, Arkansas state legislators passed a trio of laws targeting trans people, including one that the ACLU’s Chase Strangio called the “most extreme anti-trans law” ever. That law, H.B. 1570, bans transgender minors from accessing gender-affirming medical care even with parental consent. Another forces transgender athletes in scholastic and intercollegiate sports to compete as the gender assigned to them at birth. The third law, which lets medical providers deny nonemergency treatment to any patient if they have a moral or religious objection, isn’t explicitly anti-trans but is widely seen as such. To Cameron and other trans athletes I spoke with, the legislation sends a clear signal: they’re distinctly unwelcome—and unsafe.

The new laws also come just as northwest Arkansas is establishing itself as a premier cycling tourism destination. In response, cyclists on social media called to move elite events like Cyclocross Worlds out of the state or to boycott them—and other travel to the state—if organizers refused.

The debate was intense, and it still might lead to a boycott. But there’s now cautious hope about the chance for a thoughtful conversation between advocates and the cycling industry about how to best support the vulnerable LGBTQ community, in both cycling and Arkansas. Whether that happens seems to hinge on one thing: how the cycling establishment responds.

Northwest Arkansas’s journey to cycling hotbed began in earnest around 2007, according to Brendan Quirk, cycling program manager for the Runway Group, a private holding company behind a substantial chunk of the outdoor recreation development in the area. That’s when the group started building what are now 300 miles of trails in the region, garnering awards from cycling advocacy organizations and an influx of cycling tourism. The development also attracted major events like Life Time’s Big Sugar gravel race, two U.S. Cup mountain bike events, a Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Cyclocross World Cup scheduled for October 2021, and, of course, the Cyclocross Worlds. “Leading up to COVID, we felt like, ‘Yeah, this is all clicking,’” Quirk said.

The driving forces behind the region’s cycling development are hardcore riders and Runway Group co-founders Tom and Steuart Walton, two grandsons of Walmart co-founder Sam Walton. Through vehicles like the Runway Group and the Walton Family Foundation, the Walton brothers’ vision—and millions of dollars in direct investment—has transformed outdoor recreation in the region.

The Walton family is well connected to the bike industry via its generous foundation support for USA Cycling, the governing body of bike racing in the United States, and controlling stakes in companies like cycling clothing brand Rapha, whose North American office is in Bentonville, Arkansas. Quirk also sits on USAC’s board.

Cyclists calling for action know all that, which is why they’re looking to the Waltons to lead. Last week, the Walton Family Foundation released a statement that it was “alarmed by the string of policy targeting LGBTQ people in Arkansas” and urged government leaders to promote inclusiveness. 

The bike industry was both slow and cautious in its response, including major companies that are prominent race sponsors.

Most calls to move Cyclocross Worlds have targeted USA Cycling, but whether or not to move the event is up to the UCI, cycling’s world governing body, which owns and operates Cyclocross Worlds. USAC plays only an advisory role in decisions about the event.  

Still, even USAC understands that it fumbled the initial response, most glaringly when CEO Rob DeMartini told Singletracks that he didn’t believe a boycott was the proper response because USAC athletes weren’t affected by the anti-trans legislation. In a narrow, technical sense, he’s right: elite events like Worlds exist beyond the draconian restrictions of the law targeting youth sports. While DeMartini later claimed he had been quoted out of context, he acknowledged that his comment—which led to calls for his resignation—was “very poorly worded.”

USA Cycling and the UCI released statements after the Singletracks controversy opposing the laws and noting that they already have policies allowing transgender participation. USAC said it is “unequivocally opposed to any legislative effort that aims to limit an athlete’s access to competition” and announced it would hold an Inclusion Summit that will bring the industry and advocates together in Arkansas in the coming weeks to discuss plans, such as legislative action to push back on anti-LGBTQ laws. In statement emailed to me, the UCI said the laws have “no justification on medical grounds, nor when it comes to sporting fairness, and must therefore be qualified as discriminating,” but didn’t mention moving Cyclocross Worlds out of Arkansas, saying only that the UCI will “continue to follow the situation.”

After two weeks of wrestling with the issue, Brook Watts, a longtime cyclocross event promoter who led the Worlds bid and was due to direct both UCI events in Fayetteville, resigned his position Wednesday and posted a statement to Twitter saying he had “sincerely, but unsuccessfully, attempted to work out my concerns and differences with constituents” and would no longer be involved. The race’s Instagram account has disappeared, and its website now reads that it is “undergoing maintenance.” Watts, a member of the UCI Cyclocross Commission, didn’t elaborate on the issues that led him to leave the race organization (and said he would not be making further statements), but he added that he would continue “to use my position of influence in the cyclo-cross community to fight for equity in racing, and to ensure that the sport is accepting and welcoming to all.”

Elsewhere, the bike industry was both slow and cautious in its response, including major companies that are prominent race sponsors. “A few big brands have reached out, but dozens of others have not,” said Cameron, who said she’s had a number of industry conversations, but “not as many as you’d think.” She’s a little angry, quite exhausted, and “very, very disappointed in my colleagues’ silence.” That’s not to say companies are ignoring the issue. “I’ve had a lot of calls,” said Chris DiStefano, a longtime member of the bike industry who’s worked in product and event marketing for brands like Shimano, Rapha, and now Cycle Oregon. He’s also the father of a transgender woman. A few calls essentially boiled down to “What’s the minimum I have to do?” he said, while most were sincere attempts to learn more. But so far, specific responses have been rare.

Advocates hope that the people with money in cycling, like the Waltons, Shimano, and Life Time, can make their voices heard with one goal: repeal the laws.

In a notably decisive response, women’s cycling brand Liv stated in an Instagram post that it would not attend a mountain bike festival it had agreed to sponsor and instead donated $5,000 to the ACLU of Arkansas. But in terms of action, that was an exception. In a statement provided to me, Rapha opposed the laws and noted that, as of 2021, at least 60 percent of its foundation grants and 50 percent of sponsorship money go to BIPOC, female, and LGBTQ organizations and athletes. The company said it would “redouble our efforts” to support the LGBTQ community. Specialized, a Cyclocross Worlds sponsor, responded to my request for an interview by sending a short statement that it would sign the Human Rights Campaign’s business pledge about LGBT rights and that the company opposed the laws, stating, “Policies that limit human rights, especially those targeting youth, are wrong.” But instead of a boycott, it added, “We feel the best way to support riders and push for positive change is to remain an active participant in the growing cycling community in Arkansas.”

In interviews, representatives of Big Sugar promoter Life Time reiterated the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies and pledged that the company would ensure equal access to medical treatment for any participant. Public relations manager Amy Williams said Life Time stands for “fairness and equality in sport,” but, citing company policy, representatives declined to take a position on the laws themselves. Shimano—a UCI partner, Cyclocross Worlds sponsor, and Big Sugar event partner—declined to comment.

The silence from Shimano in particular disappointed people like Tara Seplavy, a transgender cyclocross racer and formerly a longtime brand and product manager in the bike industry. She pointed out that Shimano recently released a short documentary called All Bodies on Bikes, starring self-described fat cyclists Marley Blonsky and Kailey Kornhauser. (As it happened, the film was posted the same day Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson signed two of the laws.) Seplavy called it “amazing…the most inclusive piece I’ve seen in cycling in years. For Shimano to not then follow that up with a statement saying, ‘No, all bodies on bikes means all bodies on bikes’…” she trailed off in perplexed disappointment.

Being overly cautious can have a cost. On April 13, the New York–based Century Road Club Association, the oldest and largest bike racing club in the country, with more than 800 members, stated that it intended to separate from USAC unless the governing body took clearer steps to support and protect LGBTQ members. That would be a major blow; membership—in decline for years, and then further hit by the pandemic—is USAC’s largest source of revenue.

Corporate resistance to a boycott may stem from a misunderstanding that riders like Cameron were calling for that as a first action. As Cameron made clear in an op-ed for Bicycling, “I said we need to talk about a boycott, and the industry went, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to hurt our events!’” she said. “No, guys: it’s about getting the people with money to pay attention.” Cameron and other advocates hope that the people with money in cycling, like the Waltons, Shimano, and Life Time, can make their voices heard with one goal: repeal the laws. If that proves impossible, move events out of state. Only if the industry refused would a boycott come into play.

Repealing the laws is easier said than done. “There’s a simple construct that if you have a lot of money, you can snap your fingers and create the reality you want,” Quirk said. “That’s simply not the case.” Community will and support are also vital, he added. Arkansas is no more politically monolithic than other states. Little Rock and Pine Bluff are solidly progressive, as is Fayetteville—home to the state’s flagship university and its largest Pride parade. But all three laws easily passed the Republican-dominated legislature and were supported by six of northwest Arkansas’ eight state senators.

Repeal efforts may fail for another reason. The anti-trans bills in Arkansas are so-called model legislation, written by lobbyists and replicated in two dozen states. Backers claim they’re necessary to “protect women’s sports” from a sudden influx of transgender youth. But as University of Pittsburgh historian Jules Gill-Peterson notes in the New York Times, there’s no new wave of trans kids, no urgent health or sports crisis to confront. Even Hutchinson admits that. The real goal? Conservative activists believe “this is the wedge issue that will bring suburban women back to the polls and increase their support for Republicans,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, in a Politico story. It also provides a potent fundraising tool.

Given those motivations, it’s not clear if even Walton-level influence could sway lawmakers, particularly if not backed by broader action from the bike industry. The best option—in the short term, at least—is likely one the ACLU is preparing: a court challenge. But that takes time and, even if successful, doesn’t undo the harm and hostility toward transgender people. “This low-grade anxiety that many of us had for four years, the second [Trump] lost the election, it went away,” Cameron said. “And now it’s been back this whole week.”

So, what’s the best way for the cycling community to respond? Opinions differ. Some favor increased advocacy and local engagement. “This whole topic was not a dinner-table discussion in many homes in the South until this year, but by God, it is now,” Quirk said. “We, as a nationwide community of cyclists, have an opportunity to use this situation to impact LGBTQ kids in Arkansas.”

“I had someone ask me if they had to have an opinion on every issue going forward,” DiStefano said. “And I said, ‘Yeah. What’s wrong with that?’”

That’s partly the idea behind USAC’s planned Inclusion Summit. No riders I spoke with would object to more engagement, but they do want the industry by their sides. “I’m invested in making the industry better,” Cameron said, “not burning it down.” But she isn’t sure she’ll attend and added that the industry doesn’t need a summit to know what to do: follow its own DEI policies and support the LGBTQ community through actions like hiring and marketing. For Patti Flynn, a transgender racer from Chicago, it’s direct action: “Donating money to LGBTQ organizations, pushing on legislators, helping the lawsuits,” she said.

“All these years, the bike industry has said, ‘We want more people on bikes,’” DiStefano said. “And then the time comes for us to step up and speak out, and we say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa—we’re just about bikes.’ This is a great example of the industry benefiting from the cultural currency of cycling but then not pulling through when things got hard.”

Still, DiStefano is encouraged by some of the conversations he’s had. Cameron points to the response from Ty Kady, promoter of the U.S. Cup. In early April, with the series opener just days away, he sought out Cameron’s advice and issued a statement with three key parts: it said that “hate has no place” at U.S. Cup events; pledged a donation to NWA Equality, a Fayetteville-based LGBTQ advocacy and service nonprofit; and secured a commitment from a local hospital that no attendee would be denied medical care for any reason. 

Advocates I spoke with are optimistic that the cycling community will coalesce around an effective response. What that is remains to be seen.  

But companies and sports organizations are increasingly facing two broad shifts in popular opinion. First, that boycotts are a statement of values as much as a tool for political change. Just as the U.S. State Department is wrestling with a possible diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Major League Baseball is yanking the All-Star Game out of Atlanta over voting rights, and corporations are suspending donations to politicians who voted to overturn election results, so too can cycling companies and sports organizations take a stand for what they believe.

The second shift is that, increasingly, they need to. “I had someone ask me if they had to have an opinion on every issue going forward,” DiStefano said. “And I said, ‘Yeah. What’s wrong with that?’ We can still talk about shift levers; there’s always time for that. But there has to be time to talk about other things, too.”

After almost a year of sustained discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion, most companies and organizations aren’t starting from zero. They have DEI policies, and many, like USA Cycling and Life Time, have DEI councils to help guide corporate action. The key is whether they’re listening.  

Lead Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty