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Michael Engleman, race director of the Tour of the Gila, has issued a withering rebuke to cycling’s governing bodies after transgender rider Austin Killips’ victory in the women’s event sparked a global furore, warning: “This could kill the sport.”
In an impassioned interview, Engleman argues that unless the International Cycling Union (UCI) acts decisively on the crisis sparked by biological males competing in female races, both athletes and sponsors could walk away from cycling en masse. “I know how hard it is to get people to put money into a women’s team, at any level,” he says. “And now they’re asking, ‘Is this something I can touch? What if an athlete says the wrong thing? This is harming the sport. It’s a reality that somebody has to speak about.”
Engleman has spent the past week in the white heat of sport’s transgender debate after Killips, who only took up cycling in 2019 before undertaking hormone replacement therapy, prevailed decisively at the Tour of the Gila to become the first trans winner of a UCI stage race. A top US national rider in the 1990s, he has agonised over the decision to speak out but feels compelled to do so because “our federations are letting us down”.
The abuse suffered by Engleman and his race staff since Killips’ win has been so severe – “the world changes,” he admits, “when you get a message from somebody saying, ‘We hope you get shot in the face’” – that he spent two days hiking in the Colorado mountains to clear his head. “I’m no hero here,” he tells Telegraph Sport. “There are lots of other people distressed and making threats to quit. I think we’re all thinking, ‘If we decide to give an interview, is this our last day in the sport? But you have to do this sometimes.”
His overwhelming frustration is that the UCI, by repeatedly kicking the trans controversy down the road, have left others to cop the flak. Engleman asked USA Cycling to put out a statement on Killips’ involvement, but the request was refused “because it was so sketchy to talk about”. Now he fears that the UCI’s suggestion of a trans policy U-turn in August could just be a stalling tactic.
“They have fallen down on the job,” he says. “This has grown and grown, and they hoped it would go away. I had somebody from one federation tell me, ‘Let it blow over for a week and then worry about it at the next race.’ That’s not a sustainable model. I don’t know why we have to reach a crisis point before we want to deal with things.”
Engleman’s emotions are heightened by the fact that he served as the director of US women’s cycling development for six years. While he is wary of criticising Killips personally, he is clearly perturbed by the cyclist’s sudden surge to dominance and by the psychological effect a trans rider’s successes could have on promising female riders.
“I have worked with some of the best female cyclists in the world, and I saw them do extraordinary things right from the beginning,” he explains. “And here’s somebody who nobody has ever heard of, who in a first UCI stage race [the 2022 Tour of the Gila] comes third. It hardly ever happens. Austin was also third in a time trial on a non-time trial bike. So, it makes you wonder. I’m a performance person. You look at that and you say, ‘That’s not right.’”
Engleman, 64, worked especially closely with Amy Dombroski, a US champion in multiple disciplines, who in 2013 was killed during a training ride in Belgium at just 26, after being hit by a truck. Killips, in a vivid irony, won last week’s race in the team colours of the Amy D Foundation, set up by the late rider’s family with the explicit aim to “empower young women through cycling”.
Racing with a trans cyclist, Engleman suggests, risks accomplishing the opposite, especially when no justification for the decision has been offered. “If a team comes in and does something the world doesn’t understand, I expect that team to say why they did it,” he says. “For the life of me, I can’t understand what their point is, beyond winning a race. I knew Amy super-well. I helped her all through her career. I remember exactly the spot where I was on the road where I heard she died. This trans issue had ticked Amy off, but she had to be silent. Everyone’s going to say, ‘You can’t speak for Amy, she’s dead.’ But the point is that everybody saw this moment coming. And nobody in power who could have helped the sport chose to do anything.”
Given that Engleman’s peak coincided with the rise of Lance Armstrong, he acknowledges that he has a visceral reaction to any perception of unfair advantage. “Sometimes, whether it’s doping or anything, you see issues that nobody will address. Women should not be underdogs, but the reality is that they are, particularly in the economics of world sport. I know that there are athletes now who may decide that the writing’s on the wall.”
Tempting as it might be to resort to fatalism, Engleman is adamant that cycling’s code of omerta on the trans debate must, in the wake of the Killips case, be challenged. “It’s interesting how even people who are friends will pretend like this isn’t an issue,” he says. “Everyone’s too scared to touch it. But if we’re talking about change, we have to speak. There are some of us who need to make a stand.”
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