Austin Killips is making waves in the cyclocross peloton

The Chicago-based CX rider's analytical approach to the sport is paying dividends as she rises through the ranks.

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Cross isn’t coming – it’s here. The cyclocross season has started not just on the European continent, but also on US soil with the US CX Pro Series kicking off in Roanoke, VA, Rochester, NY and Baltimore, MD mid-September and the first UCI World Cup of the season last weekend in Waterloo, WI. Austin Killips is a constant fixture in the top ten of those US races, and finished 13th in the World Cup. She is now nearing the top 50 of the UCI ranking.

“The races so far have been such a positive experience,” she says from Bentonville, AR where she prepares for the second World Cup of the season, on the World Championship course at Fayetteville with her team nice nikes. 

“The first World Cup was a doozy,” she smiles. “The pacing against the top pros is very different with those first laps being exceptionally fast. It was a different effort than the races on the domestic calendar but I felt good. I have recovered well and feel ready for Fayetteville this weekend.” 

Killips is now 26 and it was only last year that she took the decision to commit to cycling full-time. She is part of the nice bikes team, a manufacturer of steel bikes from Rhode Island. They support six athletes with Killips and Caitlin Bernstein being the highest on the UCI ranking. The mission is to support women and non-binary athletes and staff at the professional level. 

“The team is great,” Killips says. “Last year we had a group too but it was mostly just me on the Pratt Racing team so it’s great to be part of a team structure now. They branded the new outfit Nice Bikes and that really resonates with the public. Nice Bikes always gets the conversation going.”

Killips came into the sport quite late. She moved from Lake Zurich, Illinois to Chicago to study social sciences and then she went on to work in a bike shop after having completed a mechanic’s degree at a trade school in Oregon. Last year she left the job that got her acquainted with the sport in the first place. 

“I always liked cross bikes because they are so versatile. I always liked selling them to people as well. In Chicago we have such a big, thriving scene where many riders show up for the races. There is also good prize money. It developed some strong riders like Lily Williams (Human Powered Health/USA Track Cycling) who also came through the ranks of Chicago cyclocross,” Killips explains.

“I liked the job I had, but on the other hand it feels very good to say that bike racing is now my job. I get a smile when I acknowledge this fact. Racing in Namur last year and Waterloo last week were the first weekends where the races felt like an actual pro sport with spectators,” she enthuses. “It was being part of a spectacle which is what pro sports is all about. That really sunk in last weekend.”

It was in 2021 that she moved through the ranks from C4 to C2 and C1 races. Based on her results she also got selected for the Jingle Cross World Cup. 

“I think last season was important because I really committed to it and treated cyclocross like a part-time job,” Killips explains. “I started netting some UCI points and felt I had a knack for it.” But practice is easier when there’s passion, and that’s a large part of what draws Killips to the sport. “I just really enjoyed this sport from the start. I come from a skiing and action sports background. In cross it’s about finding lines and working around natural features like you do in skiing as well. I have an eye for that sort of thing. I enjoy the technical nature of it.”

She treats the sport as a study, watching the footage back of her races every weekend to see where she can improve. But there is also a lot of time involved in preparation for the events that are still so new to Killips.

“I approach the sport scientifically. I am a student of the sport. You need to have an affinity and passion for it to be spending so much time watching races and analyzing. Observation is a huge part of getting better. There are many resources like the course previews and years of coverage of racing.”

You can apply that methodology to courses and to yourself, but you can also do that for your competitors.

“You can watch riders and then sort of decode them,” Killips tells me. “Where do they thrive and where do they struggle. It’s a big part of the sport understanding the other riders in your field. It’s about understanding your rivals and understanding the course. To me it’s a big puzzle, and I try to approach this systematically.”

Killips’ next race is this weekend in Fayetteville. Last year there was a lot of talk about boycotting the event due to the extremely restrictive transgender laws in Arkansas. As a trans woman Killips is aware of the political situation, but she won’t let it stop her from doing what she loves and that is being part of the pro peloton to race on both road and dirt. 

“I haven’t raced that much abroad so my experience is mostly in the domestic scene. We have a strong sense of community and solidarity in the US pro peloton. Bike racing is so very small in the USA and with a lot of overlap between the road and cyclocross peloton. I feel the solidarity between us all to help progress the sport for women whether those are trans women or not.” 

Killips isn’t a natural born activist like Molly Cameron is. Cameron, a cyclocross specialist as well, is a prominent advocate for equality and inclusion. Last year at Fayetteville Cameron she launched a campaign with bracelets. 

“You still see the folks with the armbands Molly introduced as an advocacy and awareness tool,” Killips says. “But it’s not a central point of the conversation these days and there is certainly no talk about boycotting. These [anti-transgender] laws are sadly not localized to Arkansas only. It’s half of the country now involved in this culture war. It’s a hot button issue in right wing politics. Thinking in terms of politics, it’s hard to understand how a boycott will result in change.”

“There is a political aspect to visibility but activism is a very specific term,” Killips continues. “Molly has really spent time in activist and political work. She is involved in proper politics, engaging with communities and being in the legislative halls. I am not an activist but I can’t divorce myself from my identity and how I will be perceived by others. There are trans athletes and folks that I connect with. There are people coming up to me telling me that what I do is meaningful and matters to them.

“At Trek someone came up to me to take a selfie. I take that [role] seriously. I want to be visible and present. I am not hiding anything but I am also not committing huge amounts of time to the political side of it. I know that my profile is getting bigger and my story will be more widely known soon. I don’t dread the public nature of being in sports [as a trans woman] but I am also not super comfortable with the political side of it.”

Her clear voice is slightly softer when she speaks of these issues, and her broad smile momentarily disappears when I ask her these hard identity questions. The smile is instantly back when she tells me about her father’s role in her coming out as transgender.

“You know about this, but it takes a while to figure it out,” she says about the feelings she had early on in her life. “Many trans folk have this experience. I am lucky to have a great relationship with my dad. When I came out to my dad he was like: ‘I am your dad and I want to support you’. He put time and energy into understanding me. He tried to learn where I come from. I was lucky to have a parent in my corner who is there to support me. There are many who don’t have this, and I feel mindful about that.”

Her dad came out to watch her in Waterloo and supports her where he can, although he is not the typical European cross mum or dad getting involved in the racing as a soigneur or mechanic. Killips beams a big smile when she talks about her other family in cycling: her team.

“Cyclocross is a family affair but I am fortunate we have a great support team at nice bikes. Max and Caitlin really invested in supporting us and supporting women racing in general. So, we have a different family here who are just as supportive,” Killips explains. “Often, they are volunteers but they love being part of our little team. They accept me just the way I am and that is important.” 

After Fayetteville, Killips will be racing some more in the USA with the national championships in Hartford, CT on 11 December as an important goal. Then the nice bikes team will make the journey across the Atlantic for a big block of racing starting in Val di Sole on 17 December and then all the way to the World Championships on 4 February 2023.

Killips is a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all boats, and feels that more money and resources are needed to grow women’s cycling in the USA. She finished a short but successful road campaign earlier this year with a third place in the general classifications of both the Tour of the Gila and the Joe Martin Stage Race and holds ambitions in that discipline as well.

“I would love to see that more women get the opportunity to make cycling a job. With the Women’s WorldTour more women can do so now – but this has not always been the reality, especially here in the US. With more money and resources allocated the right way we will soon see the level rise even more,” she says passionately. 

“I want to do more road and we are putting together a team for road racing and to go to Europe next summer as well. I just love the road races that really empty the tank. I really enjoyed ‘Gila’ and am looking forward to more stage races and more hard stages.”

You can see the passion in her eyes and hear the spark in her voice when she talks about the progress women’s cycling can make in the short term. She looks forward to being part of that development.

“My big dream is to one day ride the Tour de France Femmes. I would love to race Roubaix and the cobbled classics. These races are institutions and I have watched them for years. Right now, I am orienting myself towards those races. I am really excited about the team we are building at Nice Bikes. I am excited to see how we can get this athlete-driven approach to expand and blossom. Coming out of the pandemic and the bike boom, there is energy in cycling. That will open up a huge horizon of possibilities for women’s cycling in general. I feel this has only just started.”  

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