For a sport whose (male) participants shave their legs, wear tight, revealing clothing and are constantly obsessed with their weight, you would have thought that there would be more openly gay cyclists or at least a greater understanding, tolerance and discussion of LGBT issues.
Yesterday’s announcement from Philippa York (formerly the hugely successful TdF cyclist Robert Millar) that she is to join ITV4’s Tour de France commentary team as her ‘new’ self could well presage a sea change in outlook from a largely traditional and backward looking culture that has been the norm in cycling.
The only other well-known male cyclist to publicly declare his sexuality is fellow Scot and Hour Record holder, Graeme Obree, who came out in 2011. At the time he revealed that it was his anxiety associated with hiding the fact that he was gay that had led to two separate suicide attempts in 1998 and 2001.
The difficulty that gay sportsmen have had in being open about their sexuality is not a new one. In what is still regarded as a homophobic sport, footballer Justin Fashanu took his life after suffering great prejudice from that community in 1998. Thankfully the world of rugby has shown itself to be more accepting and former Wales captain Gareth Thomas has received plaudits for coming out as has the widely respected referee, Nigel Owens.
But cycling has no current well-known male professionals who are openly gay and there remains a conservative view of sexuality and gender. There is still a glaring disparity between male and female cycling both in terms of pay, prize money and length of races. Meanwhile British Cycling has been at the sharp end of allegations of sexism from the likes of Nicole Cooke and Jess Varnish. In what can be regarded as a male chauvinistic world where podium girls still totter in high heels to subserviently proffer the bottle of champagne to the winner, we are looking at a culture that seems thirty years out of date.
It was some thirty years ago that Robert Millar was forging a cycling career for himself on the continent. For many cycling fans of a certain age, it was Robert Millar who got them into the sport in the first place. He was the first Briton to win the polka dot jersey in the Tour de France. In all he won three mountain stages in the Pyrenees, came within a whisker of winning the 1985 Vuelta a Espana in “The Stolen Vuelta’ and came second in the 1987 Giro d’Italia. Along with fellow Celts, Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly he was one of a small minority of English speaking cyclists in the peloton at the time.
Since his retirement Millar went into coaching for a time but he has been best known for his journalism for Cycling News and The Guardian. His column in Rouleur, the ‘Magazine for the Discerning Cyclist’, is an institution in itself and his quirky, insightful analysis remain one of its most valued and read regular features.
Speaking to William Fotheringham of The Guardian, Philippa, or Pippa as she is known to those that know her, revealed that she has been “subjected to the archaic views and prejudice that some people and certain sections of the media held.” Now that her gender transition is complete and “gratifyingly, times have changed” and “gender issues are no longer a subject of such ignorance and intolerance, there’s a much better acceptance and understanding.”
Thankfully, Philippa can now write under her current name. More importantly she will be one of the few high profile trans gender former sports people to appear on national television. Her new fellow presenter Ned Boulting quipped that “The teas’s not great and the chairs are a bit uncomfortable – but it’s good to have you on board,” while David Millar (no relation) declared “Pippa York is one of the greatest ever British cyclists…Looking forward to shooting the breeze on ITV4 with you. Two old Scottish bike racers.”
The messages of support for Philippa on social media reveal the respect she has beyond the immediate professional world of cycling journalism in which she works. Here are a tiny selection of messages:
Euan Woodward: “You are the reason I fell in love with cycling in 1984. What a legend. I wish you health, happiness and fulfillment in this new phase of your life.”
Graeme Cook: “ Just awesome news to read this on so many levels…to get some insights from one of the UK’s true cycling legends will be amazing. Well done to Cycling News and ITV for making this happen.”
Matt Cope: “You’ve taken bravery to a new level. And in my eyes and heart you’ve never been away because you are the reason I love the sport so much. Every single pedal stroke by every single rider…you’re in the back of my mind. There is only one Philippa York.”
Philippa showed great courage as a bike racer and it’s that same bravery that’s on display now as she forges a new life for herself and hauls the world of cycling into the 21st century. As she told William Fotheringham, “Sport has generally lagged behind in its attitudes to anything other than the heterosexual norm. In that context cycling has been one of the sports most resisitant to change. It’ll catch up eventually.”