Foreword by Trevor Gornall, Editor.
Transitioning from a career as an elite athlete and the fiercely competitive arenas of professional sport is challenging enough for most people to cope with. Many retired sports people lament upon the irreplaceable loss of an adrenaline buzz that only competing brought them. Or how they miss the camaraderie of the locker room and those deeply rooted bonds between team mates that were forged under great stress, but helped deliver career defining rewards. Many simply miss the fame and adulation, and no doubt the salary and endorsement deals, that were perhaps taken a little for granted during the glory years. After hanging up their racing wheels, football boots, or cricket bat, they struggle to adjust to a more mundane pace of life.
On the flip-side, others seem relieved to quit, and actually crave the anonymity of a life more ‘ordinary’. They welcome the chance to step out of the limelight and embrace the ability to once again walk down the street without being stopped by adoring fans wanting autographs and selfies. For them, it’s more than enough to know who they used to be, without needing to prove it over and over again.
Philippa York strikes me as a person very much in the second category. For her, being exceptional at sport gave her a way out from the difficult hand she had been dealt as a kid growing up on the mean streets of the infamous Gorbals area of Glasgow. She appears to have tolerated being a pro rider rather than embraced it. A necessary means to an end. And retirement from racing perhaps came as more of a relief than a burden. But maybe the hurdles she overcame as a professional rider in the most hostile of sporting environments, served as an unwitting but effective preparation for the uninvited hostility that lay ahead.
In this fascinating and revealing interview, Suze Clemitson talks at length to the woman that once raced as Robert Millar, about her life now and the challenges of becoming Philippa York. In Part One, Philippa reflects on her days as a competitive athlete and her return to public visibility as a trans woman and successful journalist.
“So many things I would have done, but clouds got in the way.” At 23, Joni Mitchell reflected on the essential unknowability of clouds and life and love and potentiality. It’s a song that aches with a lifetime of wisdom and longing. But the real genius of Both Sides Now is to reach both forward and back, connecting potentiality and regret.
Look at Philippa York’s Twitter biog, and the line hits hard. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.” Because York has mastered the unknowability of clouds and no longer lets them get in her way. Like her biog goes on to say: “And this view is better.”
“I was an exceptional person before I transitioned. And I can try and be an exceptional person now,” she says. “And my daughter said a really good thing. She said, ‘You know, you don't have to have to have a public profile. But it would be a good thing to do’. And that's why I do it.”
York acknowledges that sometimes it's hard being visible again. “Because even though I have all those lessons I've learned as a writer and as a competitive person, it's still a lot more personal in the second half of my life.” We’re speaking via WhatsApp, and I’m still processing a combination of awe and respect. Fangirling the rider who lit up the earliest days of my long and complicated love affair with cycling, and admiring the woman who fights her corner with the effortless cool that was always part of the allure.
I ask her if she thinks she’s an activist, albeit a reluctant one. “Do I want to argue with somebody that I don't exist? No. I’ve been on Pride marches, but does that make me an activist? No. I look at the people that are gonna come after me in a similar situation. And I think, what help did I get? What help can I give them?” She won’t be waving a placard, she says. “But I will use my profile to compete for stuff that matters to me.”
York draws a series of parallels from her racing days: “So as a competitor, you go through the crowds, and people shout abuse at you, and your colleagues abuse you, and you abuse them, and it's a competitive environment. So it's not nice. Nothing nice about it. It's nice to be a bike rider and race fast, and that looks beautiful. But the actual competition is, no, it's horrible. But the same kind of words and nastiness that you hear as a trans person is a lot more personal.”
“Because the competitive thing is kind of tribal. So you're racing somewhere, and you've beaten the local, and everybody abuses you. Fair enough, it’s part of what it is. And you learn to deal with that through the psychological processes you develop. To take that in, absorb it, and then use it against those people. But you can't really do that when it's your normal life. So you kind of use the same things that you've learned, that knowledge from competitive situations.”
I wonder how much of what she learned about herself in the feral competitiveness of the peloton has equipped her for this second half of her life, where the snarling doesn’t come in the heat of competition but from spiteful strangers on social media?
“Being snarled at was an everyday race occurrence. Part of the mental gamesmanship. I’ve done it, I know I have, to intimidate people. Probably makes you feel better at the time.” She smiles and says that side of the sport didn’t affect her, that she’d sometimes take it as a compliment to still be thought of as competitive and relevant enough to be the target of someone’s mind games. “So I take those things from my previous life, and some of them apply to what happens to me now. There are people who say things to you to hurt you. And you can pretend that they don't hurt you. But you will never ever show that at all. You’d probably say I process it later. But to my face, it just doesn't affect me. You can't let it, not if you come from something as competitive as a peloton.”
Does she feel that she’s left the competitive side behind now? She laughs and tells me that these days she lives in a very nice house with nice neighbours. “But I’m not competing with them.” I remind her of an old quote from the racing days about doing anything to crush the opposition. “So that’s the competitive side,” she responds. “That person would exist up until about an hour, two hours after the bike race was finished. And then I turned her off because I had to let go of it. Because I can't be that person all the time. And then, when I got up in the morning, I’d go back into that person, I shut off all the emotions and the characteristics that I don't need in that environment. Because somebody will take advantage of them. The Robert Millar persona wasn’t who I wanted to be all day, every day. It was a shield from what was happening.”
She describes the peloton as a jungle and says she needed to assume a persona that let her survive in a hostile environment where “you either eat or get eaten. But I always thanked my teammates when they had to do something because I messed up. And not every team leader or directeur sportif comes and tells you you did a good job.” She says some riders never let go of their competitiveness, and that when they finally stop, it takes them years to come down from that level of aggression and self-protection.
While York has an incisive understanding of the coping mechanisms required in a competitive environment, she says she’s rejected some of them completely. “I don’t need them,” she says, then smiles knowingly before adding, “When you’re less successful, you can review and see what lessons you can carry forward into your normal everyday life.”
The charmingly chilly roads of the Arctic. The hellishly hostile route up Mont Caro. Heart-breaking stories from the COVID frontline. Female champions who beat male champions. Female champions who became male champions. And magical BMX memories: from pulling rad crossed-up wheelies on the bonnet of your neighbour’s Vauxhall Viva to getting major air, courtesy of "Ramp Mum".
Conquista 28. You (still) don’t get THIS in Cycling Weekly.
Also available as a digital download here.
It’s easy to romanticise the past. But some things really were as good as you remember.
We Were Rad is a three-year project which aims to tell the story of BMX in the 1980s, when it seemed like every street in the UK played host to impromptu races, daring stunt shows and humiliating faceplants.
We Were Rad’s first product is a limited-edition hardback book which contains just a fraction of the 10,000 photos and hundreds of stories that have been collected from the people who were there.
We got a copy. And it’s fantastic.
Trevor Gornall gets all misty-eyed over the mag wheels, frame pads and trips to A&E.
In issue 27 we introduced you to the unlikely story of Čestmír Kalaš, who – in addition to being an elite-level rider and coach and a full-time electrician – somehow managed to found one of the world’s leading custom cycle wear companies despite living behind the Iron Curtain. In issue 28 Trevor Gornall brings the story right up to date in The Kalas Story – Part Two.
“La championne de Belgique de cyclisme était . . . un champion!”
The issue of transgender athletes rouses emotions like few others. But it is easy to forget that away from the politics and the posturing there are living, breathing human beings who just want to compete. And when they do, some of them – like Willy (né Elvire) de Bruyn (pictured, and the subject of the above headline) – change the world forever.
Suze Clemitson unpicks the tangled threads in Sometimes You Witness History.
Eddy Merckx called Beryl Burton “the boss of all of us.” The Soviet Union sent spies to figure out her training secrets, which mostly involved planting, tending and harvesting rhubarb. She ate like a horse, rode a million miles in training, drove her family up the wall and thrashed all competition out of sight.
Jeremy Wilson’s new biography Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete has already won admirers and prizes aplenty. And now, in the only review that really matters, Matthew Bailey gives it the once-over for Conquista.
With its mountains, forests and fjords, and an army of fans in fancy dress, the Arctic Race of Norway is perhaps the most spectacular recent addition to the racing calendar.
Marcos Pereda swaps the sun-drenched beaches of his native Spain for the WorldTour’s coldest roadside and asks: why didn't I bring my Big Coat?
No one had a harder time under COVID than the heroic staff of the UK’s National Health Service. While facing the suffering, the deaths and the fear of infection, surprisingly many of them found solace in the saddle.
Writer and photographer Justin McKie asked some of the Frontline Cyclists among the doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and administrators to tell Conquista their stories.
Finally, we welcome Trevor Ward back from his visit to Catalunya, where he cycled all the way up a bloody big hill just so that he could tell you all about what could be your worst nightmare in Mont Caro. Also, look out for a cameo appearance from our regular contributor Marcos Pereda.