Paving the way for transgender cyclists: The story of Jillian Bearden

by Anne-Marije Rook


Coming in just two-thirds of a second ahead of second place finisher Anna Sparks, winning El Tour de Tucson in November had been a big moment for Jillian Bearden. It was her first win of the season, a successful visibility campaign for the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance team and her first win as a female.

Yet alone in her hotel room the next day, 800 miles from her Colorado Springs home, Bearden felt anything but victorious. Instead, she felt dejected and somewhat scared even. She hadn’t felt this low since starting to transition, blossoming into the person she had kept hidden for so many years.

“Biological male dominates women’s cycling competition”, “Transgender cyclist is top finisher in El Tour de Tucson” – the papers had been less than kind, and the online trolls were ruthless.

“That first article that came out got close to 700 hundred comments. It was really bad,” Bearden told Ella CyclingTips. “I started getting hate messages on Strava, Facebook, email and LinkedIn. It was just horrible – an outpour of negativity. It hurt me so much.”

“But the ignorant people out there, they just saw me as some guy who threw on a pink uniform and wanted to compete in the other gender’s category. It’s asinine to think that I would actually do that,” she said.

Meet Jillian, formerly known as Jonathan

Jonathan and Jillian
Jonathan and Jillian

Jillian Bearden, 36, is an elite cyclist and runner from Colorado Springs, Co. She’s a mom of two and works at an electrical engineering firm. Like so many of us, she uses the evening hours – once the kids are off to bed – to train, sweating away on a trainer.

After disappearing from the racing scene in 2012, it felt good to make her comeback this season, albeit under a new name.

Bearden spent the first 34 years of her life as Jonathan, plagued by depression, suicidal tendencies and the dysphoria that comes when you’re a woman stuck in a man’s body.

“My story starts at an early age. I knew I was trans. I would wear my sister’s clothes and wished to be on girls’ sports team and things like that. All throughout my life I had this dysphoria going on,” said Bearden.

“All throughout high school I wore women’s clothes underneath my actual clothes just to feel comfortable in my own skin.”

Conflicted by Christian values, societal expectations and the feeling that something just wasn’t right, Jonathan sought the help of a counselor.

But it was 2001 and the understanding, support, protection and resources for gender dysphoria simply weren’t available (yet). And so anti-depressants were prescribed.

“I was scared and kind of hung it up on the shelf and continued my closet thing,” said Bearden.

But in cycling, she found an escape.

“Living in Colorado, I had always enjoyed mountain biking and I just started riding more and more and more. I caught the bug, and slowly I felt like I didn’t need anti-depressants any more. Cycling grabbed me then and at 26 I started racing as Jonathan,” Bearden said.

Aside from the physical outlet, cycling allowed her to shave her legs and wear tight cycling clothing without anyone thinking twice about it.

“I could hide behind cycling. Growing up I loved being on two wheels and rode everywhere so I guess it’s always been a safe place for me,” Bearden said. “It saved my life then and it saved my life many times since.”

As Jonathan, she excelled at cycling, moving up the categories and being on the verge of becoming a professional mountain biker when everything changed.

“Yes, I was a good athlete and I trained really, really hard. I moved up through the cats until I was an elite level cyclist in the men’s field,” said Bearden.

It was 2012 and on the outside looking in, Jonathan was rocking at life. He was happily married, had a newborn son, had a good job and crushing it in the cycling scene. Internally, however, things were about the hit an all-time low.

“The dysphoria you feel on a daily basis – that feeling that you are a woman, in your head but your body doesn’t represent it – it’s a constant mindf***. But it also comes in waves and I felt like I was able to push it off and keep it at bay. But then it would come up like vomit and poke its nasty head around. And when those waves are really big, it’s scary and that’s when suicides happen.”

An estimated 41 percent of all transgendered people commit suicide, with many more undiagnosed trans people unaccounted for.

Bearden was on the verge of being part of that latter statistic three separate times. She never did come out as trans, not even to her wife, and in 2014 the dysphoria wave was about the crash down hard.

She was speeding along on the interstate one evening. Pushing the pedal down to the floor, “Beautiful Things” by Andain playing on the stereo. 60 mph, 70 mph, 90 mph. One jerk on the steering wheel would send her car flying and all that pain and confusion would be gone.

But she didn’t. In a moment of clarity, she decided to come out to her mom. And if her mom accepted her, everything would be fine. If not, well … then she would end it for good.

Fortunately, her mom and wife accepted her, and the transitioning period started.

Jillian’s first race

Jillian during the Denver criterium
Jillian during her first race

Fast forward to April 2016 and Bearden is lying awake in her bed. Her wife and kids are sound asleep but Bearden is too excited, too anxious. It’s the night before her first bike race since 2012, and she has been working toward this day for years.

To transition from one gender to another is a humongous undertaking, not just in physiological terms but also in the amount of paperwork, court appearances and bureaucratic rigmarole one has to go through. It takes years.

When it comes to competition, it’s just as complex, especially since sports governing bodies are only just now starting to draft rules and policies regarding trans athletes.

USA Cycling granted Bearden a racing license in late March, nearly three months after the International Olympic Committee had released their new rulings regarding transgender athletes.

“When the IOC came out with their new rulings in January of this year, I started working with USA Cycling right away,” said Bearden. “I wanted to work with the governing body because I was switching my gender marker and I didn’t want to start at the Cat 4/5 level because that wouldn’t be fair. I needed them to give me a license and put me somewhere where it would be competitive.

“It was a big thing for USAC to adopt this rule from IOC in my case, but it’s not like they gave me a license and said ‘run!’ I had to give them data and race reports. I was doing that ground-breaking work and help them understand, as a governing body, how this works and how they can further adopt this for fair competition. I’m all about fair competition. To me, that’s number 1.”

So in April, the day had finally come for Bearden to line up as her true self: a woman. After 30+ years she was finally part of that long-desired girls’ team – Naked Women’s Racing out of Boulder, Colorado – wearing pink and surrounded by her peers.

“When I got to the start line, it was one of the most amazing feelings of my life and I…,” Bearden said as her voice started cracking. “…I could almost cry right now at how amazing it was to finally be able to be on a women’s team with the gender you identify with. It was really powerful.”

“It was the same race I had done as my very first cycling race so many years ago. It was all coming full circle in a way. I think I got 11th that day, but none of it had to do with coming in first or last. I don’t care. It was about being out there, about being on two wheels and that feeling you get after the race when you are talking to everybody and share the experience.”

But when Bearden came in first at El Tour de Tucson on November 19th, people did care. Despite it being an unsanctioned race, the news that a transgendered woman had won the 106-mile event spread far and wide, sparking heated debates on fair play and the integrity of the sport.

What the competition says

Jillian with her El Tour de Tucson trophy
Jillian with her El Tour de Tucson trophy

Interestingly, none of her competitors at El Tour de Tucson had minded that Bearden is trans. Or at least, they had kept their comments to themselves at the time.

During the 4.5 hour race, they had had friendly conversations, and when it was time for the podium finishers to go on stage and collect their medal, the women hugged and celebrated each other’s achievements.

But fueled by the negative press, the transgender athlete debate was reignited.

While not upset by the outcome of the race, second-place finisher Anna Sparks declined to comment. Third-place finisher Suzanne Sonye meanwhile expressed mixed feelings.

“I have raced for 30 years, and have raced against many trans athletes during that time. The topic is heating up now, but Bearden is nothing new,” Sonye said.

“[At El Tour] I got third, Jillian won. I would never want to take that away from her. But her story at El Tour de Tucson does take something away from the other women in the peloton. Other issues are being looked over, like me being a woman in my 50s and still racing and placing.”

When asked about fair play, Sonye said that on personal level, she doesn’t mind competition against trans athletes.

“I’ll take her on any day, but that’s just me. I’ll take on men, too,” she said. “I feel bad about saying it but no, I do not think it’s fair play and I question her integrity knowing that she’s going into these events knowing that she is going to be stronger.”

“I’m sure [Bearden] had a rough go at it. It’s very difficult to be transgender. But [when it comes to racing] it’s problematic to me that she [transitioned] only a couple years ago, and has lived 30 years as a man. Regardless of testosterone levels, she’s got muscle memory and a lung capacity that I could never build up. She was a Cat 1 as a male. I could never match a pro man. How fair is that to her female competitors?”

What the rules say

Fair play and the sanctity of the sport are exactly what sports governing bodies everywhere have been grappling with.

The IOC

In January of this year, the International Olympic Committee released its revised guidelines on transgender athletes and hyperandrogenism, now allowing biological men to compete as women without first undergoing a sex reassignment surgery.

The new guidelines state that those athletes who have transitioned from female to male are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction.

For those transitioning from male to female, however, the athlete can only compete in the female category if:

– the athlete has declared that her gender identity is female, which cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for a minimum of four years.

– the athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition, and must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category. (for comparison, the average testosterone level for men is 10-35 nmol/l)

Compliance with these conditions may be monitored by testing, and Bearden has worked with the IOC and USA Cycling in the past year as a testing subject, hoping to build policies that allow wider participation within the sport.

USA Cycling

While they have yet to finalise their policies, USA Cycling’s technical Director, Chuck Hodge told Ella CyclingTips that they are hoping to introduce a two-pronged policy.

Hodge explained that at the amateur Category 5, 4 and 3 levels, self-selection will be allowed.

“There will be some firewalls, however. To ensure fair play, we can check if gender identified on their racing license matched that of their government ID, if they are living day-to-day as the identified gender, and/or they have if any doctor’s notes confirming their gender,” he said.

“What we don’t want is a male, who’s living as a male going out there and race as a female. I don’t think anybody wants that. But in the lower levels, we are going to be very broad in allowing self-selection.”

Another aspect of that, which is something Bearden mentioned above, is the ability for an athlete to recategorise.

“Let’s say we have someone who in the past raced as a Cat 3 male, the female category may not correspond so we needed to have the ability to move somebody around outside of the upgrade rules in fairness to everyone, the athlete and the other competitors,” explained Hodge.

When it comes to the elite levels of racing, USA Cycling will start instituting the IOC rules.

“The reason for that is that when you get to that level, you have the ability to compete in national team selection events, national championships and international racing. The moment you race internationally, the IOC rule is going to kick in and the UCI has indicated that they are going to follow the IOC guidelines,” said Hodge.

“Right now, there is a chance that someone could potentially win our elite championships, qualify for the world championships and yet not be able to compete. And that’s something we are trying to avoid [by adopting the IOC standard].”

Hodge said that when it comes to testing testosterone levels, USA Cycling will rely on the athletes themselves to provide medical data, which will then be reviewed by an appointed doctor.

“I don’t want this to be a witch hunt. What we are looking for is to strike a balance at the grassroots level to let riders race their bikes in a fair atmosphere with people of like ability, and at the elite level, to make sure that we are meeting the international guidelines while also protecting the athlete and the sanctity of competition,” said Hodge.

“I am somewhat proud that we are tackling this. A lot of national governing bodies of sport have closed their eyes to this, and are ignoring it or ignorant to it or simply don’t want to deal with it.”

Jillian by the numbers

Bearden is unique in that she was an elite level cyclist prior to transition as well, and therefore has power data from before and after starting hormone therapy.
Bearden is unique in that she was an elite level cyclist prior to transition as well, and therefore has power data from before and after starting hormone therapy.

As mentioned, Bearden has been the subject of research to help the IOC and USA Cycling set their transgender policies. Bearden is unique in that she was an elite level cyclist prior to transition as well, and therefore has power data from before and after her therapy.

She started her hormone therapy (HRT) in 2014, which continues today.

“Taking HRT, I started to feel its effect within a month. It was so weird, especially when it comes to my mental game,” Bearden recalled. “I was mentally in a tough place trying to push through my workouts. And then hills began to be harder and slower and I started losing my muscle mass.”

Six to eight months into her treatment, Bearden said she was at the lowest point of her physical ability.

“I was completely in the gutter,” she said. “And I probably only started to build everything back up in January – February this year.”

When it comes to power, pre-transition, Bearden’s 8-minute test from Carmichael Training Systems in 2011 show an average Power of 338 watts, and a lactate threshold watts of 304 watts.

In 2016, post-transition, the same test resulted in an 8-minute average power of 300 watts and a lactate threshold watts of 270 watts. This is an 11% reduction in power.

“If you look at biological men and women cyclists, the difference between elite athletes is 11 percent. And so I fall in line. I’m compliant and exactly where it should be,” said Bearden.

Of course, as an athlete, watching her power and speed disappear was tough, but she’s much happier now.

“I would do it a thousand times over again to be myself and to have all that relief of that dysphoria that I felt for the last 34 years of my life,” she said. “Ultimately, you are transitioning to be yourself, to find peace inside your soul.”

Paving the way for transgender cyclists nationwide

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In 2017, Bearden will be riding as part of the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team.

Already boasting a membership of more than 30 trans women, the club and racing team offers a community to those who have found refuge in cycling and aims to raise awareness about trans issues.

“The sport of cycling has literally saved the lives of several of our members. This team allows us to come together as women who have been fighting through this life just to be our authentic selves,” she said. “Trans National allows women to be a part of a group, be a part of a team, and make friendships and connections that they may not find in their local communities where they are not accepted.”

In the meantime, Bearden continues to make herself available as a testing subject for the IOC and USA Cycling, and do her part to help other trans women.

“Ultimately, by sharing my story, all I am trying to do is save a life,” she said. “I am going to work my ass off to break down as many barriers and doors as I can so people don’t feel that they have to hide in a closet and not be who they are. That is the foundation of it. Ultimately it is about being who we truly are and doing what we are. For some it’s joining your local book club, for me and the girls on the team it’s cycling.”

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