Austin Killips smiling near the finish line at BWR Asheville
(Photo: Brad Kaminski)

Austin Killips Just Wants to Ride Her Bike

The cyclist has become a focal point for the debate about trans women in sport

Austin Killips smiling near the finish line at BWR Asheville
Brad Kaminski
emma zimmerman headshot in front of a red background

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“I’m only taking press opportunities if we talk about Simone Weil essays,” says Austin Killips, referencing the 20th century French intellectual and activist. It’s a joke, but not entirely. Although Killips has recently captured much public attention as a prominent transgender athlete, the 27-year-old cyclist prefers to keep a low profile—and would much rather talk about her favorite philosopher than herself.

On April 30th, Killips made history: she became the first transgender woman cyclist to win a professional road stage race sanctioned by the sport’s international governing body, the Union Cycliste International, when she was victorious at the 254-mile, five-day Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. Killips crossed the final finish line with her mouth wide open and fists raised in celebration. But soon afterwards, she faced an onslaught of online attacks, both via Twitter and news outlets like the New York Post and OutKick.

Notably, tennis player, Martina Navratilova, took to Twitter, expressing her disapproval and misgendering Killips in the process. “Women’s sports is NOT THE PLACE for trans identified male athletes,” she wrote.

But Killips was well within her right to compete. Until recently, the UCI, cycling’s global governing body, stated that a transgender woman may compete if she has suppressed her testosterone to 2.5nmol/L for a 24-month period. Killips abided by these rules, but that didn’t stop her adversaries from speaking out. While the UCI originally defended Killips, the governing body changed its tone after the race concluded, announcing plans to revisit the rules later in the summer. On July 14th, the UCI released a new policy: starting on July 17th, transgender women who transitioned after puberty will be banned from competing in the women’s category at all UCI-sanctioned events.

In response to a policy that will halt her career, Killips stayed calm and thoughtful. “I expected to feel more defeated in the wake of this but I keep coming back to how much joy I’ve found in cycling,” she wrote in her Substack newsletter, Estro Junkie. “I guess what complicates all of this is the sense that it is fallout from something I did.”

To Chris Mosier, a multi-sport athlete and well-known transgender rights advocate, the impetus behind the UCI’s tone-change is clear: “The UCI is buckling to political pressure and sending a message that transgender people are not welcomed in the sport of cycling,” he says. Notably, the UCI’s policy on trans male cyclists has engendered no debate: trans men may compete upon providing written and signed declaration of gender identity to the UCI Medical Manager, a rule in-line with the policies of other sports.  To Mosier, the outsized response to Killips’ win sends an obvious message: trans athletes may compete, but not win. “Trans athletes train hard just like any other athlete, and if a policy allows us entry, it should also allow us to do the very best we can on that day,” he says.

For Killips, and all elite transgender athletes, the landscape is rapidly changing and continually uncertain. When I met with her over Zoom, at the end of June, the UCI had yet to release their newest policy ban on trans women, and she still felt “cautiously optimistic” that they would uphold her right to compete in the women’s field.

“It’s certainly difficult and confusing to feel like the living test case of the rules,” she says. As Killips spoke, she sat at home in Rhode Island, clad in a trucker hat, geometric earrings, and a muted orange button-down, her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. It was late-morning in Rhode Island, and a soft glow came through the window. When she’s not traveling, she lives in a house owned by Nice Bikes, a nonprofit with the mission to support women and LGBTQIA+ professional cyclists. (Killips has historically received financial support as one of six Nice Bikes athletes). The rent-free lodging is not part of any contract but, rather, a testament to the relationship Killips has built with her team. It’s a living arrangement reminiscent of a sitcom: a ceramics studio in the basement and a revolving door of professional cyclists and artists who love each other like family.

From left, cyclists Marion Norbert Riberolle, Denise Betsema, and Austin Killips pictured on the podium after the women's elite race of the 'Kasteelcross' cyclocross cycling event, in January 2023 in Zonnebeke.
From left, cyclists Marion Norbert Riberolle, Denise Betsema, and Austin Killips pictured on the podium after the women’s elite race of the ‘Kasteelcross’ cyclocross cycling event, in January 2023 in Zonnebeke. (Photo: David Pintens, Belga Mag/Getty)

Throughout our conversation, Killips brought a philosophical bent to each topic, whether it was cycling, media discourse, or queer coming-of-age. Often, she began speaking on one topic and drifted to another: a discussion of policies affecting transgender folks led her to ruminate on state-sanctioned harm against vulnerable communities, which led her to reference various books and films. Killips thinks deeply about the way people of marginalized identities are perceived and politicized against their will, and also about the solidarity that exists in spite of all of that. “We find ourselves in other people,” Killips says. “That’s why death and loss are so destabilizing, and also why being in a community has this incredible power to recreate and shape us.” To her, the recent discourse on transgender athletes cannot be understood in isolation from history. And yet, she never anticipated she would play such a central role within it.

Growing up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Killips shuffled through the usual sports: soccer, basketball, and ice hockey. But she found her most secure footing in freestyle skiing and rollerblading. To create a sizable cohort of rollerbladers, a group of ragtag kids would pile into someone’s parent’s car or ride their bikes to a local skatepark. This community was especially enticing to Killips, who was homeschooled and missed the impromptu social interactions commonplace in standard high schools.

After receiving her GED, she moved to Chicago to attend Shimer College, a liberal arts school with a nontraditional approach to higher education, known for accepting promising students without high school degrees or standardized test scores. To Killips, Shimer was a “magical island of misfit toys.” There, she found a community of rigorous thinkers who were “constantly talking about everything they were reading. Kids wouldn’t shut up about [German philosopher] Hegel,” she recalls, smiling. It was a community that affirmed all parts of Killips–both her gender identity and penchant for deep, philosophical inquiry. “I remember leaving school feeling grounded, and in a much better [mental] place than when I started,” she says. At the same time, she took a job at a local bike shop and bought a fixed-gear bike, which she used for transport and enjoyment. “The bike was an Unknown Combat,” she recalls, scrolling through iPhone photos to jog her memory. “I don’t even know if that brand exists anymore,” she adds, laughing.

After her second year of college in 2017, Shimer closed and integrated with another school. So, Killips dropped out and traveled to Portland, Oregon, where she enrolled in trade school for bike mechanics and began training more seriously as a cyclist. When she returned to Chicago at the end of the summer of 2017 she got a job at another bike shop, and upgraded to a Felt Bike, more appropriate for her enhanced mileage and speed.  In 2019, her friend and fellow mechanic, Lauren Wiscomb, encouraged her to enter a cyclocross race, the Half Acre Cycling’s CX Eliminator in Chicago. The format—cyclists race laps on grass, mud, and dirt, and must often dismount and run—appealed to Killips. She entered 21 more races in 2019, including the Illinois State Cyclocross Championships.

To an onlooker, Killips’ rise to competitive cycling may appear fast. In just her first season, 2019, she won eleven cyclocross races. And yet the roots of her cycling career can be traced back to when a teenage Austin donned a pair of rollerblades and discovered the unique sensation of pushing her body in the outdoors. It’s the same passion and love for the training grind that drives her today. “When I’m doing intervals or racing, I think about how special it is to be engaged in a process that is so physically and psychologically taxing that any problems of the material world melt away,” she says.

Since that first cyclocross race in 2019, Killips has always raced in the women’s field. She started hormone therapy before her first competitive season. Like many transgender people, Killips identified as trans long before undergoing hormone treatment, and there was no clear point when she “came out.” (Importantly, many trans folks choose to not receive hormone treatment or other gender-affirming care). When Killips reflects on her transition, she focuses less on timelines and medication, and more on the intricacies of gender and identity. Not always does a person’s gender fit neatly into the checkboxes found at race registration, nor stay the same throughout time, she points out. “Gender and sexuality are fickle, funny things,” she says.

Killips began to catch the eye of sponsors after her 2019 success in Illinois cyclocross. At the end of 2020, Killips was contacted by Max Pratt, technical director at Nice Bikes, with a sponsorship offer. In early 2022, she quit her full-time job as a mechanic, and began working part-time for online coaching company TrainerRoad and focusing more intensely on cycling. In the summer of 2022, she quit that job and turned her focus entirely to racing. With regards to her financial stability, “I’m scraping the razor’s edge,” she says, laughing. She has been able to support herself thanks to relationships with Nice Bikes, bicycle component manufacturer SRAM, and Hunt Bike Wheels. She hopes to acquire a more sustainable team contract in the future, which could offer more security than her current set of sponsorships. But the controversy surrounding trans athletes complicates an already challenging career as an elite athlete.

Killips was subject to online hate when she began racing, but the backlash intensified as she began to have greater success. At the end of 2022, she placed first in the pro women’s category at the Northampton International Cyclocross race, and third at the National Cyclocross Championships. Once she stood on the podium, the criticism from athletes and media outlets ramped up. Killips was disconcerted by the backlash, but she never believed it would lead to a meaningful policy change in the sport—or that those changes to cycling’s rulebook would seem to hinge on her success. “I guess I’m always aware that people have a political agenda and are looking for opportunities to spin the results in the worst way possible,” she says. “But I had no clue that I would be the next vector for the discourse on transgender athletes.”

One of Killips most vocal critics has been Inga Thompson, retired Olympic cyclist and ten-time national champion. Following Killips’ win at Tour of the Gila, Thompson took to Twitter, accusing the UCI of “killing off women’s cycling.” Over the phone, Thompson told me she was “concerned for the future of the sport, the grassroots of our sports. We’re watching children walk away.” Thompson’s claim that girls are dropping out of sports due to an influx of trans women remains unbacked by research, and neglects the real factors proven to threaten girls’ sports, such as unequal funding and resources. It also ignores the dire impact of exclusion on trans girls.

According to data compiled by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing LGBTQ+ youth suicides, over 50 percent of transgender and non-binary youth in states across the country considered suicide in 2022. In Arkansas, where anti-trans legislation has proliferated, 59 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth considered suicide, 68 percent experienced symptoms of depression, and 83 percent experienced symptoms of anxiety. Importantly, the impact of excluding trans people—in sports and society—goes beyond mental health, contributing to an epidemic of fear and violence. According to a 2018 study in the American Journal of Public Health, transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to be the victims of violent crimes.

As a young trans person, Killips wasn’t sure if she’d live to adulthood. “I didn’t think I’d exist at 22 or 23,” Killips recalls. “I just couldn’t conceive of it.”

Thompson and other vocal critics of trans inclusion want to make the current debate appear to be about preserving the integrity of women’s sports, says Wiscomb, now the head mechanic at Nice Bikes. “But if we’ve learned anything from women in sport, we should have learned what it feels like to not be included,” she says. When Wiscomb speaks about Killips, her voice is assured, and pride is palpable in her words. She is most struck by Killip’s intellect—“she just stimulates this part of my brain,” she says—and the two discuss literature and philosophy as often as they discuss bikes. Wiscomb watched Killips develop from a fellow mechanic working diligently to get faster, to an early-career professional athlete “putting her heart and soul into every workout,” and into the champion she is today.

At the end of May, Wiscomb watched Killips take second place at the Belgian Waffle Ride gravel race in Vancouver. Belgian Waffle Ride has grown into one of the largest gravel series in North America, with six races. “Watching her go from Austin, my friend who I drove to a gravel race, to my friend who is on a podium was pretty surreal,” she recalls. In pictures, Killips stands on the podium with her head held high, and her hand on the back of first-place winner Haley Smith. While Wiscomb always knew Killips risked public criticism as she improved in the sport, “I was hoping Austin could just show up and race her heart out,” she says. “Because that’s what Austin deserves to do.”

On June 11, Killips participated in the Belgian Waffle Ride event in Asheville, North Carolina, and scored an emphatic victory, finishing the 131-mile race with a four-minute gap on second-place rider Paige Onweller. After the race, the Belgian Waffle Ride Instagram was flooded with hateful comments. Onweller wrote online that, “In the future, I feel a separate category is appropriate,” for transgender riders.

In early July, Killips received some bad news: her win at Belgian Waffle Ride prompted the race organizers to change the rules for future events. Going forward, the female category will include only “racers who were born female.” On the same podium where Killips had stood in May, a toothy grin and arms around her competitors, she’d no longer be able to race in alignment with her gender identity. When I call Killips to discuss the change, she stumbles with words, as if trying them on for size. She’s not sure how she should comment, or whether she wants to comment. Can she have more time to think? Would that be okay? It’s a non-answer that, in a way, says more about Killips than any definitive answer could. She meets affronts with care and measured thinking. The only thing Killips does hastily is bike.

“That part of Austin that is incredibly analytic and passionately introspective, that’s what allows her to come off as calm and collected,” says Wiscomb. During our interview, Killips instead attributed her even-keeled mindset to Simone Weil. “There’s this essay, ‘Void and Compensation,’ that I come back to often,” says Killips, pulling a book off the shelf behind her. She begins to read aloud, tracing her finger along the page. It’s a passage about the futility of vengeance. “The only way to respond [to criticism] is to act in a way consistent with the world you want to see,” she reflects. “You can’t impart harm and expect it to resolve a conflict.”

But Killips has still struggled. In the weeks before the June USA Cycling Pro Road National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee, she was in a bad headspace. She had faced ceaseless criticism for a month and a half after the Tour of the Gila win. Five days before the national championships, she participated in a four-and-a-half-hour-long UCI conference call on policies for transgender athletes. Then, during the race, she met criticism face-to-face. One mile from the finish line in Knoxville, a group of people had gathered to protest her participation. She placed ninth, which wasn’t the result she had hoped for. Nonetheless, she was proud that she showed up, and she enjoyed the camaraderie among fellow cyclists. As for the protesters, she was less concerned about the personal affront, and more about the broader impact. “[Protests] have the capacity to distract other racers,” she explains. “My presence has consequences that I can’t control, and that’s a frustrating existential bind.”

Then, on July 14th, the UCI announced their new policy, dropped its bombshell rule, effectively banning Killips from all sanctioned bike races. The rule cuts her off from both her passion and her livelihood. Two days later, she took to her seldom-used Substack newsletter, Estro Junkie, to share her thoughts. Killips wrote about the fleeting nature of elite sport, how her love for cycling developed amidst controversy, and her respect for competitors. “The gratitude I feel when I reflect on my experience is so overwhelming,” she wrote. “Nothing can take away the friendships [cycling] has given me and the moments I’ve shared with so many people that I love dearly.”

“I thought my project was to be the best bike racer I could be but I’m making peace with it evolving into a shape I never expected,” she wrote. “We don’t get to choose where these things take us and that’s okay.” Aside from her newsletter, Killips has remained relatively quiet. She seldom responds to media requests, or replies publicly to anti-trans speech. To her, there will always be something uncanny about the attention she has received. “I don’t think a person is meant to be perceived that much,” she says. And yet she knows, for better or worse, she will continue to be perceived—and critiqued, questioned, and politicized. Recently, however, she has begun to reconsider how she engages with it.

“If I am in a position to agitate for what I feel is an important injustice, I don’t think it would be right to not take that up, in some capacity,” she says. “I just don’t know what that looks like yet.”