Racers prepared to tackle the Spanish peaks and desert on a cold, chilly Saturday morning in Trinidad. Lee Buell felt nervous on the smooth, gravel terrain of The Rad Dirt Fest.
Buell has been racing for 12 years. But, this was the first time they felt like themselves in a race.
“It's just nice to be able to enter and be authentic to who I am and to be appreciated,” they said.
The Des Moines, Iowa, resident was the lone competitor in the nonbinary category in The Rad.
“Gravel loves everybody. It doesn't matter how you identify. It doesn't matter your skin color. It doesn't matter your age. Gravel has always been grassroots and inclusive.”
The 60-year-old started identifying as nonbinary earlier this summer. They competed in female categories in the past. But, Buell says, it never quite fit.
“Once I realized what nonbinary was, I understood that that's what I've been my whole life, which is why I never felt like I ever fit in any category,” Buell said.
“There's a lot of nonbinary people who are friends of mine and they don't really feel like they belong at an athletic event or race,” Buell said. “So, the fact that this is now offered is allowing more nonbinary folks to realize that there is a spot for them. They can be themselves, they can show up, they can ride, and that everybody's gonna treat them just like anybody else who rides regardless of what category or gender that they assign with.”
LifeTime first introduced a nonbinary category in 2021
The Rad is one of 30 off-road cycling and triathlon events organized by LifeTime, Inc. Known mostly for its 150 resorts across North America, it also organizes the Leadville Race Series in Colorado.
“Across all of our events we believe that cycling is for everyone and we're constantly working to make our events and the broader sport of cycling more inclusive,” said Amanda Boyer, the marketing manager for LifeTime.
The nonbinary category was first introduced at LifeTime events at the 2021 Unbound Gravel in Kansas. Five nonbinary athletes participated in the event. Abi Robins, a life coach from Austin, TX, was the inaugural winner of the category.
It gained popularity after Rach McBride, a professional triathlete and cyclist, won the nonbinary category at the Big Sugar Gravel in Arkansas in 2021. They later won this year’s Unbound Gravel which featured 16 nonbinary athletes.
“They have just done an amazing job alongside Abi Robins and helping us make the sport more inclusive,” Boyer said. “They've been such a great voice for those who are nonbinary. They're showing that anyone is welcome at these events. Anyone is able to compete in these events.”
During a time of increased anti-trans legislation, organizers say the nonbinary categories have seen support from athletes and communities
As Colorado politicians and school boards debate access to athletics for trans athletes, Boyer said they have not received any backlash for including a nonbinary category.
“We feel like everyone that does our events is very aligned with us in trying to make the start line more welcoming and home to everyone.”
Boyer said her organization has seen positive responses from other event organizers, the communities they work in and the athletes themselves.
Tamira Jenlink is the race director of The Rad and Leadville Race Series and has been involved in racing events for 15 years. She says the category is still a new pathway in the community.
“I think right now we're in this pretty amazing space of, 'OK, let's open the door. Let's figure out how where are we missing the inclusivity and how can we be touching that in a deeper way?'” Jenlink said.
She says some people ask her how they regulate the category.
“We have to trust people to stand in the place that is accurate and aligned and consistent with who they are.
Jenlink hopes to resolve future concerns through future conversations.
“We're not going to necessarily take a magnifying glass to each individual and put them under a microscope,” Jenlink said. “That takes away our freedom of choice and our freedom of decision about who we are. And when it comes to light, if something gets raised where there's a question, again, we face it all together and figure it out together with the athlete as well and try to stay open.”
Big governing bodies for other sports are also looking into nonbinary categories
LifeTime events are not sanctioned by the national governing body for the sport USA Cycling or the sport’s world governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI).
Chuck Hodge, the Chief of Racing and Events for USA Cycling, says independent organizers have offered a nonbinary category at USA Cycling-sanctioned events on the lower levels.
“Our experience has very much been that it's been an open category, a nonbinary category. And at that point, the participation has been relatively limited to people in groups that we all feel fit that description,” Hodge said.
USA Cycling is looking at adding the category to its national championships. Hodge says the organization working with the nonbinary community to get advice on how to protect the integrity of the category.
“It's been a challenge, but we are working through it. We want to be inclusive,” Hodge said.
Other sports are offering a nonbinary category. In the running world, the Philadelphia Distance Run became the first road race in the country to establish a nonbinary division in 2021. Since then, four of the six World Marathon Majors — New York City, Chicago, Boston and London — have featured the category.
USA Triathlon added the category for the first time to its national championships this year.
'They can be themselves, they can show up, they can ride'
Within a few hours, the nerves Buell had at the start of the race were gone. The lifelong racer crossed the finish line and took the first place spot on the podium in the city’s historic downtown.
“The crowd's response and someone was willing to take my picture on my phone, I just felt like I was completely included,” they said.
And Buell hopes to share the podium with more athletes like them in the future.
“They can be themselves, they can show up, they can ride, and that everybody's gonna treat them just like anybody else who rides, regardless of what category or gender that they assign with.”
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