Natalie Church grew up surrounded by bikes. Her parents owned a bike shop and, once she began racing bikes competitively at age 14, achievement came naturally. By her senior year of high school, Church had eight different state championship titles in Arizona, had raced for Arizona’s top under-23 bike teams Arizona Devo and Hatch Toyota Racing, and even placed in the top 10 for national and international races.
But the women’s bike racing community is much smaller than male cycling, so Church had to compete in groups with very wide age gaps. Some believe that the small community for women’s cycling is due to concerns about their safety; others point to the women’s Tour de France (the Tour de France Femmes) only recently regaining attention, while others don’t find the long, physically demanding sport appealing for a multitude of reasons. Church, however, loved to push herself and felt motivated by competition so she continued to bike despite being only a teen.
While working to earn points for nationals during criterium races at age 17 — against women twice her age as well as professional cyclists — Church found herself also competing against a man identifying as a woman.
“I think they were 40. And the first time they showed up, the other ladies were like, ‘Hey, haven’t seen you in a while. Where have you been?’ And they said, ‘Oh, well, I had some medical stuff. I’ve been getting procedures. I’ve been moving along in my journey.’ So they hadn’t been riding for very much lately,” Church said.
When the criterium race began, Church watched as the biological man, who identified as a woman, took off in the front. Many of her fellow female bikers had to work together — though not being on a team — just to get closer to his level.
“We were just draining ourselves to get him. Well, the last lap comes, and we all are going for the sprint. And he takes off and just gone. There wasn’t a chance in the world,” Church said. “I just crossed the finish line, and I was like, what the heck? I am a 17-year-old girl racing a 40- year-old biological male, and they’re saying that this is okay?”
After the race, Church posted her video of the biological male crossing the finish line and tagged USA Cycling in an effort to convey how unfair she felt the race was, but the organization was not receptive. Another opportunity came up for Church to race a week later, and she shifted her strategy to attack off the front right away to see if she could pull ahead. Despite her best efforts, Church finished 10th because of exhaustion from exerting her strength earlier on.
“It was just very frustrating training 20 hours a week on the bike, going to school, going to college, working, and then knowing that I will never have a chance at really being competitive with this guy,” Church said. After that experience, Church felt defeated and only raced five more times.
Church tried contacting USA Cycling directly and posted on social media to convey her feelings about the inherent unfairness of biological men cycling against biological women. But the organization didn’t appear to care. Instead, USA Cycling insisted that they would continue to allow biological men who identified as transgender to compete against women. Church even suggested the organization establish a third, separate category so that athletes who identify as transgender could still compete, but her input was ignored.
Now a mother, Church doesn’t competitively race bikes anymore but remains part of the cycling world. Her family is still involved in competitive races, but as more athletes who identify as transgender begin competing, such as Lia Thomas who was nominated for NCAA Woman of the Year, and Rachel McKinnon who has taken cycling awards from numerous women, Church fears for the future of women’s sports. She knows first-hand what it’s like competing against a biological male, and how that can discourage an athlete from competing altogether.
“Women’s sports are already so underfunded and appreciated rather than men’s sports. And now they’re just getting pushed to the side even more,” Church shared. “There are so many girls [who] are just training their whole life. And then one day, a guy could come in and decide that they’re going to be a woman and race them, and they’ll never win again. So it’s very depressing, honestly.”
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