British Cycling excludes trans-identified males from competitive female cycling

The ‘Female’ category will remain in place for those whose sex was assigned female at birth and transgender men who are yet to begin hormone therapy.

In April 2022, British Cycling made global news when it revoked eligibility for Emily Bridges, a Welsh trans-identified male cyclist, who was poised to make his debut in the female category. This would have been in a major-track cycling event, against one of Britain’s most decorated cyclists, Dame Laura Kenny. Emergency meetings with the international cycling federation, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), identified that Bridges, although meeting the then-current British Cycling regulations for testosterone suppression, had not completed sufficient performance testing to fulfil UCI regulations for eligibility

In response to a behind-the-scenes, but not exactly secret, revolt by female cyclists, British Cycling suspended its transgender policy and barred Bridges from competing in the female category, subject to further testing. 

Today British Cycling has released a revised policy for the regulation of transgender athletes in cycling events, to be instituted at the end of the current competitive season. 

The updated policy recognises that male development and sex matter in sport. British Cycling now mandates that all competitive cycling events at all ability levels – that is, all events that are timed, ranking or record-making – will be classified into ‘Open’ and ‘Female’ categories. In recreational cycling events, British Cycling recommends inclusion of trans-identified males into female categories via self-identification of gender identity.

British Cycling policy on competitive events:

“Those whose sex was assigned male at birth will be eligible to compete in the ‘Open’ category. The ‘Female’ category will remain in place for those whose sex was assigned female at birth and transgender men who are yet to begin hormone therapy.” 

Sex Matters welcomes this new policy, which protects the core sporting value of fairness for competitive female cycling. The proposal to introduce an ‘Open’ category to replace and rename the male category means that there is an inclusive category, with no need to declare one’s “gender identity”, for anyone who wants to race in it. Trans-identified males are not excluded from competitive cycling in any way. The Female/Open categorisation is a simple and straightforward solution that delivers both fairness and inclusion.

At a global level, cycling has been a strong advocate of testosterone suppression as a way to allow the inclusion of trans-identified males in the female category. In contrast, other sports such as swimming and triathlon have already recognised that this approach is discredited. Sex Matters’ response to a British Cycling consultation highlighted the flaws with this approach.

Sex Matters board member Emma Hilton says:

“The gap between male and female cycling performance, across all cycling disciplines and assessed by race times and power metrics, is large. Cycling is, in all forms, from BMX racing to the Tour de France, a sex-affected sport, and testosterone suppression does not remove or render negligible the male athletic advantage acquired during male development. Sex matters in cycling.” 

Jon Pike is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the Open University and a member of the Sex Matters advisory group. He adds:

“This policy from British Cycling is the first big crack in the cycling world. British Cycling has also, sensibly, ignored the incoherent International Olympic Committee ‘Framework’. Credit is due to British Cycling for looking at the science, and listening to female cyclists.” 

Cathy Devine is a sports policy researcher and also a member of the Sex Matters advisory group. She has fought for female athlete voices to be heard in this debate. She is “delighted that British Cycling has decided to uphold equal opportunities for our female riders”.

However, Sex Matters is disappointed that British Cycling’s new policy does not argue for fairness for female cyclists at the recreational level, where the regulations will be inclusion via gender self-identification. Cycling is a mass-participation sport, and there are plenty of non-competitive opportunities for trans-identified males to get on their bikes. But is unfairness for recreational females now an acceptable compromise for sports federations wrestling with this question? We say it is not. 

Mara Yamauchi is an Olympic marathon runner and member of the Sex Matters advisory group. Leaning on her experience of a very long road to marathon success, she is a vocal supporter of fairness in grassroots sport and in the developmental pathway from recreational to elite level. 

“I applaud British Cycling for adopting female and open categories in competition,” she says. “But it is disappointing that it has chosen self-ID at the recreational level. It breaks the development pathway from beginner to elite. Where does British Cycling think Britain’s elite female cyclists of the future will begin their journey?” 

At Sex Matters, we remain concerned about recreational cycling like the Breeze initiative for women to get back in the saddle and enjoy some non-judgmental female camaraderie. Advertised as women-only, and with smiling pictures of female cyclists in countryside locations, Breeze rides will remain inclusive of trans-identified males, although this is not evident on the Breeze website. With an unaccompanied age threshold of 16 years old, BC has left unaddressed a clear safeguarding risk for women and girls, who may believe they are joining a female-only cycling group that in fact admits males – who may not only join, but may also be the only other rider or instructor on a given ride. 

British Cycling should either insist that Breeze rides exclude all males, however they identify, or at the very least ensure that women and girls have all the information they need to make an informed choice and state clearly and publicly that Breeze rides may be mixed-sex.

This victory for British female cycling is to be celebrated, and we commend British Cycling for its commitment to female athletes. But the global picture is still bleak. Internationally, UCI policy permits trans-identified males to compete in female categories under conditions of testosterone suppression, allowing novice males like Austin Killips in the United States to sweep to victory in female UCI events and force female cyclists like Hannah Arensman to abandon their beloved sport. In response to the shocking number of trans-identified males now entering female cycling (Twitter user @i_heart__bikes has compiled a list), UCI has flipped hastily between stubborn defence of its policy to the promise of a new one in August 2023. 

As Jon Pike and Cathy Devine note:

“We now need UCI to follow suit and mandate dedicated female categories for female riders worldwide. And both UCI and the International Olympic Committee will need to reflect on why they got this so wrong for female athletes for so long.”