Becoming Philippa York - Part 1.3

York was recently photographed at the Robert Millar mural on the Crow Road in her native Glasgow. It’s a defining snapshot of the mutability of the body and spirit, the then and the now, the will to live a complete life. Time and hormones have softened her body, but her mind is as sharp as those era-defining cheekbones. Always slight and bird-like, Millar was the perfect physical manifestation of a mountain climber, with the heron-like profile of Coppi, the panache of Pantani, and Gaul’s urge to escape the very confines of the sport in the solitude of the highest peaks.


Philippa York at Robert Millar mural Crow Road

In Mountains of the Mind, Robert McFarlane writes, “This is the human paradox of altitude: that it both exalts the individual mind and erases it. Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.” To fall in love with climbing to those oxygen-starved heights requires physical gifts and mental toughness. York has described the art of winning at altitude:

"One brutal acceleration might be enough, or it might take five or six, but when the elastic snaps and no one can follow any longer you’ll be on your own – and believe me, there’s nothing more a climber can ask for than dancing away at the head of the race alone. Alone against nature, no numbers involved."

York says that when she first arrived at the pro level, “everyone's a champion of something.” She says you have to work out how you’re going to deal with that level of competition, your place in the hierarchy. How you’re going to deal with your ego, and how to learn what makes you tick. “So your talent takes you so far, and you kind of learn where you might end up in terms of your physical performances, but mentally, you haven't really been tested to your limits yet.”

It’s a balancing act, she says, controlling your weaknesses without letting your strengths become dominant. “Because you're being aggressive, but you need a certain level of aggression and competition, otherwise you just get eaten. But you can be overly aggressive, so you have to control that. You have to learn to control all the parts of your emotions, the kind of mental capacities that you have and work on your weaknesses as well. And some of those weaknesses, you will never get right. And you have to accept that you will never get them right and learn how to control the emotions and the other kind of feelings that come with that.”

Illustration of Philippa York by Cachetejack

Normal people, York says, aren’t generally taken to their absolute limits. “Unless it’s an emergency, a life or death situation, people are rarely taken to the physical limits, almost never taken to the mental limits. Whereas when you do pro bike racing, you're taken to it most days. Quite often, you go beyond. That’s part of the deal. And the people that sit at the top, they deal with that, and it doesn’t eat them.”

She espouses the Eastern way of thinking about energy, of only having so much for each activity and running into trouble when the qi runs out (York is a second dan black belt in Taekwondo). She says it explains “why I’m kind of lazy now. It’s a consequence. It’s being a bike rider for fifteen years as a pro. You’re going to have a sore back and physical problems.” She pauses, and then adds “It’s part of the deal. If you want an easy life you go and work in a shoe shop.”

I ask if being a trans woman gave her a greater insight into the hyper-masculine world of professional cycling, but she simply shrugs and says no, that’s just her character. “So the things that I like to do are probably overanalyzed, and I’d be really meticulous, right? And things that I'm not interested in and are probably very important to most people, I’ll just go whatever, I don't care.” She laughs and breaks the mood.

It’s one of the criteria for getting to the top of the sport, York says. Not to be intimidated by criticism or the things people snarl at you. She cites the example of Thibaut Pinot’s exchange with Jonathan Vaughters after the Frenchman had blown a chance for success in the Giro. “It was beautiful, just classic,” she laughs, “A perfect response because he knows perfectly well who he is.”

Thibaut Pinot v Jonathan Vaughters on Twitter 21 May 2023

York knows all about perfect responses and landing a pithy truth bomb. In tandem with her cycling career, she’s worked as a journalist since the 1990s, penning funny and insightful columns for a range of cycling publications. She says she tries to give observations that embrace the positives, not the negatives. And she has a keen eye on how the racing cyclists brain works - for example, this on the French hero Pinot:

“It’s clear that the parts that are damaging him as a person are not worth the pain. What he's getting out of that life is not worth putting up with the pain. Because he can step outside of that cycling world and back into the real world. Because he’s observing the suffering and cruelty during the race, and afterwards he gets to reflect.”