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Elite trans cyclist racing for something bigger than just winning

Trans athlete Evelyn Sifton has found acceptance in fixed gear cycling and realizes that being out is the key to acceptance.

Evelyn Sifton is a Canadian elite cyclist.

I awoke in a haze, to the steady beat of my pulse as it played over a monitor. I was in a hospital. But I couldn’t remember why. Assuming the worst, I turned to my nurse and asked, “How’s my bike?” The nurse looked confused. Then I remembered. I hadn’t crashed. I had just undergone Gender Reassignment Surgery.

At first, the doctors told me it would be at least three months until I could bike again. But that wasn’t soon enough for me. Two months passed and I went for a check-up. I was told “[Biking] will hurt, but it won’t do any damage” The next day I was back on a bike. Four months after my surgery, I was racing in the world’s largest fixed gear criterium — Red Hook Crit Brooklyn.

I came out in the summer of 2014 and began Hormone Reassignment Therapy in 2015. Coming out wasn’t easy.

I had grown up in small, conservative Snowball, Ontario, and, until leaving for university, I had only been exposed to negative depictions of transgender people. I was convinced coming out would be the end of my athletic career.

It was while I was in university that stories began to emerge of out transgender athletes. Their stories inspired me and gave me the strength to finally come out myself.

I was still racing university triathlon at the time; I was the president of the triathlon club. So, I called a captains’ meeting. I let my team know, “I am transgender, and my name is Evelyn.”

Following IOC rules, I did not compete in any events during my last year of university. I remained the president and trained with the team, but did not compete for the WADA/IOC prescribed one year.

In the 2017 season, when I had returned to competition, a friend had asked me if I wanted to compete in a fixed gear crit. Cycling had always been my favorite segment of a triathlon, and I’d been riding a fixie bike as my commuter. I figured why not.

A “fixed-gear crit,” to the uninitiated, is similar to any bicycle criterium. It’s a multilap race on a circuit between 1- to 3 kilometers in length, with races usually spanning between 30 to 80 minutes. They are fast, technical and known among cyclists for the crashes.

On the drive to the race, I was scared — not to try a new sport and not the standard pre-race nerves. I was scared that I wouldn’t be accepted.

After a grueling 45 minutes, I finished third in my debut fixed gear crit. I was excited, but that fear remained. But then, nothing happened. On the contrary, I was treated with respect. By athletes and spectators alike.

After that first race, I was hooked. I canceled my plans to race several triathlons that season. And instead filled my calendar with bike rides and races.

While racing, I began to document my journeys on social media. Being a hobby photographer, Instagram is my platform of choice. I began sharing my stories, about racing, training, and living as a #transathlete.

I wanted to share my story with others, the way that those who inspired me had shared theirs. I wanted to share with people that coming out, and even a medical transition, didn’t mean the end of a life in sports.

Then the most incredible things started to happen. People, young, old, parents, and children, would approach me at races, or sometimes even in public. To tell me that my story had inspired them, their partner, their child, their friend.

Gradually, I realized I was no longer just racing for results. Win or lose, podium or not, I was racing for something bigger. Awareness. Representation. Just like I thought my athletic career was over when I came out, so did others. Every race I did, I was showing others that they can do it to.

All that said, it’s still nice to win. Racing while on HRT and then while recovering from Gender Reassignment Surgery was hard, mentally and physically. It was six months after my surgery that I had my first big win. It was the final stop of the Fyxation Open Omnium, in Chicago.

Up to that point, I had finished on every other step of the podium except for first. Whoever won the final stage would win the overall. There are very few other sporting communities where riders from other teams would risk their results to help an independent, but in fixed gear, it’s par for the course. Four riders, from three different teams, did all they could to deliver me to that top step. In a photo finish, I took the win, the stage and the series.

I can’t begin to describe the emotions that came over me — I cried. I had come so far; not even a year prior, I had undergone life changing surgery. Yet, here I was with the first win of my career. And unlike my first time on the podium, I wasn’t scared. I was proud stepping onto that top step with “trans-athlete” written across the chest of my race suit.

Winners of the women’s double down award pose for a portrait at Red Bull Last Stand in San Antonio on Oct. 13. (Evelyn Sifton on the left).
Jeff Zielinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Last season I had my sights set on Red Bull Last Stand in San Antonio, but due to complications with changing my documents, I was left without a passport and unable to make the race. This year, with all my documentation sorted out, I had the privilege of guest riding (a temporary contract of sorts) the event with the incredibly strong team: The Meteor // Hey Allez!

Red Bull Last Stand is a unique race. After a qualification round, riders race a lap circuit race in which, at the end of every lap, the last rider to cross the line is eliminated. The eliminations continue for as many laps as there are riders, until only one remains victorious. This race is also unique as there is both a Fixed-Gear and a Geared race category. There is a separate podium for the Double Down, or best combined result of those that raced in both categories.

Our goal for The Meteor // Hey Allez! was to get our team leader, Ash Duban, to the top spot in the Double Down. On race day we did exactly that. With the help of our other teammate, Nicole Mertz, we got Ash to second place in both races. With myself taking fourth in the Fixed-Gear race and ninth in the Geared race. This result not only put Ash into first in the Double Down, but also myself in second. We showed up to the race at The Alamo Plaza and did exactly what we wanted to.

From my experiences in the world of cycling, nearly everyone I’ve met has been welcoming and accepting. However, transphobia still continues to exist in this sport. In Texas, I had a racer approach me to tell me that in the past, she had been unsure as to how she felt competing against me.

She at first questioned if it was “fair.” This feeling led her to research the rules and regulations surrounding the inclusion of trans-athletes in cycling. Ultimately, research lead her to accept and respect me as her competitor.

This experience was a first for me. For someone to come forward and say that, by being out and lining up to race, I was able to foster acceptance in our sport. That is an incredible feeling. Because representation is important.

Every time I line up at the start is a statement. Every race is political. Yet, when the race starts, I forget all that. I love bike racing, and I’m so thankful that every race I can compete as my authentic self.

Evelyn Sifton is a Canadian elite cyclist and transgender rights advocate. You can follow Evelyn on Instagram at @evelyngelion and on Facebook.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski