n order to provoke real progress, to incite genuine change, people have to be willing to put themselves out in the open for their cause. Despite who they are or where they’re from, these difference makers must be willing to sit under the microscope day in and day out in service of what they believe. They have to be able to shoulder the monumental amount of backlash they’ll inevitably receive as they walk the path toward reformation.
In the case of transgender athletics, one of the most influential agents of change can be found right here at the College of Charleston, spreading her wealth of knowledge on the matter. Or, you may see her in the front of the pack in some of the most rigorous women’s cycling races in the world. This particular activist is none other than Dr. Rachel McKinnon, College of Charleston philosophy professor by day and world champion cyclist by night.
I was given the unique opportunity to speak with Dr. McKinnon on her experience as an elite transgender cyclist, and how things have changed for her since becoming a world champion.
To start, can you give a brief walkthrough of the early stages of your cycling career, and how it differs from a traditional career?
Yeah, so, for women, my cycling career isn’t too unusual. I’ve been riding a bike since I was a kid, we rode bikes everywhere. I got my first road bike when I was 18, and I thought about racing, but never did. I sold it a couple years later because I wasn’t riding anymore. My athletic career is that I’ve done lots of competitive sports, but before I moved to Charleston I was an elite badminton athlete. So the reason I chose Calgary for my post-doc is precisely because its a badminton hot-bed for Canada. When I moved here, there’s no good badminton at all. Mostly the only club practices at the College of Charleston, and that gym is just not a badminton facility. So I needed a new sport, and I suck at running. I took some spin classes down by the College, fell in love with it, decided to buy a bike with a tax return, and 3 months later I was racing. So that’s at 31 – 32. A little bit late to bike racing, but not completely unusual. Most women competitive cyclists don’t enter as juniors, most typically, it’s in college or a little bit after. I think, four months after I started racing, I won my first state championship, which I was really proud of. And then, it took about 2 years before I got to category 1 racing (You start as a category 4 or 5 racer, and the highest you can be is category 1). On the road, I was racing nationally at the professional level, even though being a professional women’s cyclist in North America means… nothing. You’re not paid… we only make what we win. So, being a professional versus being a non-professional doesn’t really mean much.
How big of a disparity is there between the earnings of male and females?
Massive. At the world tour level, it’s just obscene. The UCI is just now starting to think about a minimum salary for women – even though there’s been a minimum for men for decades.
Is that something you see kind of shifting in the right direction, or is it still a couple years out?
Oh, like, a decade out. Cycling is, in a lot of ways, stuck in the 1950s in terms of its beliefs about gender. Its improving, but kicking and screaming.
Can you talk about your path from road to track racing?
Two years ago, I was still racing road. Had a really great winter, had a really great spring season of racing, I was hitting all my goals, I got 4th in a pro race, and that was the season I won a pro race in Georgia. Then I just had a really shit summer, the worst season of racing I’ve ever had. I was just so disillusioned, and was just so sick of the harrassment I was dealing with, that I sort of made this radical shift to track sprinting. I hired a new coach and completely changed how I trained. So for the past 2 years now, I’ve been full-time training as a track sprinter.
Over those two years, was there a moment where you were tested the most athletically?
My first state championship, Fayetteville, NC. I was by far not the strongest person in the race, and so, for me, the race was about surviving and not getting dropped. I attacked with just under half a mile to go, and I held off the pack by a bike-throw, by a wheel. If the race were 5 meters longer, I would’ve lost. So that was my first lesson of how to survive a race where I wasn’t at my strongest.
Was there one that tested you the most personally?
There are two races I can think of as the most personally challenging, and they both happened two years ago. One was in Georgia, in March. So, it was a professional stage race, and I won the third stage. The very next stage was a mountain road stage, where I knew, I’m heavy, I’m a sprinter, we don’t go uphill very well. I was out in the back within a half a mile. It was 4 ½ hours alone, with lots and lots of going uphill. In fact, double the amount I’ve ever done in my life. Being alone and in pain, for that long, and needing to meet a time cutoff, based on the winner’s time. They were doing 35 minute laps, and I was doing 45 minute laps. My entire goal for that race was to not get lapped, which I achieved. Then I had to drive home 6 hours, which was terrible.
The second worst was that same season, in June, up in Minneapolis in a pro-only stage race. Having my really bad summer, in the road race, I got dropped about 10 minutes in, which actually surprised me. It was hot, I didn’t have a team to get me enough water or food while I was out there, so I was just dying alone in the heat. I came in very well behind the pack, completely dehydrated. A cop sent me the wrong way, back down a hill that we had already done. So I realized I was going the wrong way and had to go back up the hill to fix it, and that was just the lowest I had ever been. You just have to keep going. I definitely wanted to quit, but, you know, you’ve got to make it back to your car anyways, so you might as well just finish the race.
Since winning the UCI World Championship, how have things changed for you? After being thrust into the spotlight like that.
I was already in the spotlight to some extent, but nothing like this. Certainly already on some people’s radar who really, really love to hate me, but everyone covered that championship. I mean, they didn’t cover the championship, they didn’t give a shit about the race. They just cared about me winning, and how that fit different people’s narratives.
I think it was the Daily Caller who covered it first. And, the really funny thing about right-wing media when it comes to trans issues is they seem to think that just accurately reporting what we think seems… stupid? They think that just accurately reporting what I think about trans athlete rights just makes me look stupid, so the right-wing reporting is actually really accurate, which is surprising.
So I sort of made alt-right BINGO, with the Daily Caller, FOX News, Alex Jones and Infowars and Breitbart. It’s a bit of an activist level up for Alex Jones to be screaming about you on his show, so that was hilarious, and Tucker Carlson had a whole ten-minute segment on me, which I didn’t watch, but someone told me.
I was doing about ten hours of interviews a week for the first month, from all around the world: Argentina, Brazil, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, England, Germany, Canada, the US, it was all over. So, the media attention was pretty amazing. There were some positives, I was asked a bunch of times to write. I did an op-ed for the Washington Post, I wrote for the CBC, which is like Canada’s NPR.
So that was nice, it was a lot of positive exposure and opportunities to present what I work on, which I think surprised a lot of people. They didn’t know I was also an expert on these sorts of issues, so I think a lot of people just wanted to hear the athlete’s perspective, and then I give them a half-hour explanation of physiology.
So that’s been good, but of course, there’s the hundreds of thousands of hate messages and physical hate mail at the College, and that’s all the shitty stuff. Getting hate mail isn’t new for me, but the amount of it was like two or three orders of magnitude higher, that is what surprised me.
Amongst your colleagues and competitors, at both the College and in cycling, do you find an abnormal amount of backlash? Or would you say they’re more acceptable places?
I have heard next to nothing from people at the College. Well, positive or negative. Which is, I think, a little unfortunate. I would’ve hoped to have heard from more people. In terms of racing, there are a very small number of people who oppose trans athletes and the media overwhelmingly gives them attention, but they are massively outnumbered by the supportive people.
Has that brought your academic life more success, or has it hindered what you actually wish to get across?
So, the fact that the right wing, who use me as everything that’s wrong with the left, because they think it’s so stupid what we think, that they’re accurately reporting what I think, thats awesome. It’s such good exposure for them to accurately report it. The opportunity to write a Washington Post op-ed where I make the argument for why trans athletes have a right to compete, that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t won the world championship. It absolutely has boosted my career. We’re in talks right now for me to go over to Japan for a very well-paid speaking tour this summer, because of the 2020 Olympics coming up. So absolutely, this has given me opportunities to present what I do, what I work on.
What advice would you leave a young athlete going through the same transitory stage and a lot of the same hate that you go through? What would be the best advice you would give them to kind of combat that, or ignore it?
The most useful thing is to reach out to other athletes who have been there before. That’s certainly something that I did. Other elite trans athletes, when I was first starting, and first starting to get good, I reached out to. Christian Wordley, Michelle Dumaresq and a few others. Chris Mosier, for example, has been really helpful with how to handle the media attention recently, after the victory. But the best advice is to find a community, and if you can’t find one, make one. That’s what we did with Foxi Moxi racing. There’s this gap in terms of support for trans racing cyclists. So let’s make that gap thin.