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Lesbian cyclist Camille Balanche makes history

Balanche is the first out lesbian cyclist to win the UCI Downhill Mountain Biking World Championship.

Camille Balanche
Camille Balanche tastes gold after her historic UCI World Championship win
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Out hockey player and fencer-turned mountain biker Camille Balanche provided a moment tailor-made for LGBTQ History Month on Sunday when she became the first out lesbian woman to win the UCI Downhill Mountain Biking World Championship.

Balanche accomplished the feat by clocking in a time of 5:08.42, besting defending champion Myriam Nicole of France by more than three seconds, on a muddy and treacherous Leogang, Austria course. Balanche joins 1994 champion American Missy Glove as the only LGBTQ competitors to don the rainbow jersey that signifies a UCI World Champion. She is also the first Swiss woman to stand atop the podium in the event’s 30-year history.

The moment overwhelmed Balanche as she celebrated with her partner and fellow Swiss National Team member Emilie Siegenthaler both after her run and learning that she secured the gold medal. For them both, the win was a fitting milestone in their special story and friendly rivalry on the course and off.

2017 Crankworx
Balanche, shown here in an Enduro World Series event in New Zealand in 2017, has been successful multi-sport athlete since her youth
Photo by Mead Norton Photography/Getty Images

On paper they are an odd couple. Balanche is a wild “jill-of-all-trades”. She didn’t do a full season on the UCI World Cup circuit until 2019. Before then she was determined to play and excel in every sport she could find. She was two-time Swiss junior national fencing champion by age 9. She made the Swiss national Under-18 national hockey team, and in 2010 suited up for Switzerland at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Did we also mention playing kin-ball, inline hockey and volleyball at elite and professional levels as well? In fact, when the Swiss national mountain bike championships were cancelled earlier in October, Balanche used the down time to score a goal to help her inline hockey team, SHC Bienne Sealanders, win a national league playoff game the same day.

Cycling has always been Siegenthaler’s main game. Her father, Nicolas, is considered one of the top trainers in Swiss sport. A former racer who is a partner in an athletic training firm and a lead trainer for the Swiss Olympic effort. Like father, the daughter jumped on the pedal at a young age. She’s a 13-year veteran of the mountain bike downhill event, with 5 Swiss national championships and dozens of World Cup podium (top 6) finishes.

A friendship formed as Balanche was making the mountain bike a priority and by 2017, they were a pair off the course. In the last two seasons especially, the couple have developed a close rivalry in competition. According to stats by RootsandRain.com, the two have been finished within 3% of each other nine times over the last two seasons. Siegenthaler has finished higher 5 times to Balanche’s 4.

“My competitive spirit follows me in everyday life,” Siegenthaler told the Swiss daily 24 Heures in May about competing with her talented partner. “I am a very perfectionist, sometimes obsessively. I can be very hard on myself. Over the years, I try to take a step back, but it’s not always easy. ”

The 2019 season saw their relationship ride out a roller-coaster season. Siegenthaler was fighting through a rough season and nagging injuries. Balanche was in her first full season on the circuit and was a true privateer effort. She rode the her bike, wrenched her own bike, and she had to handle her own press and PR all out of a van borrowed from her partner.

It was also a successful season for them both. Camille Balanche won the European Championship on a dusty, sunny afternoon in Portugal, added two World Cup podiums, and got a team contract for 2020. Despite her battles with injuries, Emilie Siegenthaler fought through pain and struggle to earn podium finishes in 5 World Cup events, and said Balanche’s support was crucial in her late-season surge.

Hopes for greater rebound and success in 2020 were blunted by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Much of the competitive season was canceled or inaccessible until the fall. The world championship event itself was in question one day prior as an expected snowfall threatened to make the course entirely unrideable. The competition at Leogang went on as scheduled despite rainfall making the already difficult terrain more challenging to navigate.

Siegenthaler’s world championship weekend came to an end before it started. During a qualifying run on the Friday prior to the championship race, she crashed in the horrid conditions. Those conditions didn’t improve through weekend. The Sunday downhill final run was a muddy mess that saw many of a favorite take a fall.

Balanche handled a muddy track with measured approach to race to her first UCI World Championship
UCI

Balanche was the only cyclist to successfully navigate the soggy conditions without crashing, taking a slow and steady approach to the “Forest” section of the course that bucked all comers. She ended the day with the world championship her hands, and her partners loving arms around her.

Camille Balanche
Camille Balanche celebrates in the arms of her partner, Emilie Siegenthaier
YouTube

The couple’s embrace served both to warm hearts and put LGBTQ relationships in sports on full display, even if the broadcast commentary teams didn’t highlight their relationship in the same fashion as heterosexual relationships.

At the end of the day, it’s only fitting that the rainbow jersey found a home with a rising LGBTQ star. With this being only Balanche’s third full World Cup campaign in the sport this may be only a taste of things to come, even with a hotly competitive challenger living under the same roof.