Women's elite cycling has been one of the pioneering sports for welcoming transgender athletes. There are important scientific and human rights cases being considered right now which affect transgender participation in global sports, but at the same time, there are riders making important contributions to the competitive and cultural fabric of our sport which will have lasting and beneficial impacts.
Nathalie van Gogh has proven herself to be just such a role model. She has also gone above and beyond to help The Cyclists' Alliance to share our message and mission, and has been an important voice for inclusion and acceptance in sport. With the permission of author and former racer Marijn de Vries, and a translation by cycling commentator Jose Been, we would like to share the journey of one of the peloton's most well-respected women.
I remember the very first time I saw her. It was a dreary February day in 2009. I had only just started cycling and it was my first training classic. It was the first time I raced against a group of women who would be part of the peloton I was going to be part of that season. This was a mixed race: men, women, young and older riders. It was a whirlwind of coloured lycra. The women of SwaboLadies stood out in white and baby pink. I was told I needed to keep an eye on those riders if I wanted to be among the first across the finish line that day.
After the start the peloton took off like a herd of young foals anxious to gallop after a winter inside. I followed the white and pink bottoms as best as I could. When the sweat and snot before my own eyes had cleared after a few kilometres, I noticed one bottom to be particularly square. The upper legs seemed to have been made out of concrete and the calves were triangular in size.
The remainder of the race I went from being focused on the race to being fascinated about that body. I secretly looked at the jaw line, the broad shoulders and that clearly feminine curly ponytail. After the race Google quickly helped me to find out who she was. This was Natalie van Gogh, or Kees Race-Kees, as she was called in the bunch. She was a cyclist who once was a man and now lived and raced as a woman. She did so at the highest level causing a lot of controversy.
From the moment I saw her I thought: what is she doing here. Not because I felt she wasn’t allowed to. There are rules allowing her to be there so she rightfully had her place. She had already been through so much. A transformation like that isn’t easy. I knew that much. I also fully understood why Nathalie liked racing but why on the highest level? She knew that she would be the centre of controversy and worse. When I got to know her better in the years after our first encounter I asked her multiple times if she wanted to talk to me about it. She didn’t. It was her business and what others thought about it, didn’t interest her at all.
We became teammates in 2014 at the UCI-team Parkhotel Valkenburg. We often shared the room and laughed about the young kids in the team who always did most of the talking. We pulled at the front of the bunch together. We joked and made fun. We talked about life and Nathalie told her stories. I noticed how strangers reacted to her. Nathalie shared her story in front of the whole group at training camp. I have never seen the young girls so quiet.
Now Nathalie tells me her full story. Things have changed. Nathalie has changed as a person. She has grown and has gotten more self-assured. And the world has changed as well. There is more room for the stories of transgender people. Like no other, Nathalie is aware that she is one of the very few transgender athletes at the highest level. What she does is ground-breaking. You can be silent about it but, as Nathalie said: “If my story helps only one transgender person just a little, it will be enough.”
Nathalie’s Personal Journey: “The license that enabled me to race, was a present to myself. During my transformation I took up cycling. I had grown fat because of the hormone pills I had to take. I didn’t want that. I started running at first but didn’t like that. Then I took an old mountain bike sitting in my shed. I was hooked in no time! Being outside. The speed. You got to see places. After a while I bought a road race bike and started training with training schedules I made myself from a book. I loved it. I felt that I wanted to race competitively after everything was over; after the transition was completed.”
“I knew racing would not be easy and that there would be opposition. I held on to the documentary 100% woman about the Canadian mountain biker Michelle Dumasque. She paved the road for transgender female athletes at the beginning of the century. Because of this documentary I knew I could do it and that I had the right to do it. The documentary shows in a very painful way all the bad things she came across. However, that didn’t stop me although I did postpone riding with others as long as I could. Deliberately. Of course I was afraid.”
“I am officially a woman since 28 september 2006. That’s when my birth certificate was altered. That’s also the moment I applied for a race license. The KNWU, the Dutch cycling union, clearly knew the rules because I immediately received the confirmation it was okay. When the competition started in early Spring, I drove to Sloten (near Amsterdam). I was so nervous and I don’t even remember how that first race went. I was probably only riding in the peloton. However, I do clearly remember that to my surprise no one reacted to me as a person while they clearly saw who I was. We rode with a group of about 30 women. The races were for fun so that’s maybe why they didn’t care.”
“I became friends with some of the girls riding those races in Sloten. They rode a lot as well and were members of my local club. They asked me if I didn’t want to apply for a higher license because they wanted to take part in Parel van de Veluwe, a national classic. You needed at least three riders to enter as a team and there were only two of them. My new license arrived just ahead of the regional championships. I travelled along with my team to the championships and rode against the elite women – the highest level in the Netherlands – for the first time. I rode well and when I saw an attack happen I thought: jump along! I found myself in the breakaway of the day. I finished fifth or sixth and then all hell broke loose. I was in all the newspapers and this online message board for women’s cycling exploded. “That guy,” they wrote. And worse. Way worse. I don’t remember what exactly they wrote but it was the last time I went to that site I used to visit a lot. I didn’t want to know. I buried my head in the sand and went to the Parel van de Veluwe.”
“In the final years before my transition I lived alone in an apartment. I worked during the day, went home, ate the same things over and over again and didn’t do any activities. Nothing at all. I was really depressed and continuously thought about how to end my life. My whole life was wrong. That’s how it felt. My left shoe was on my right foot and vice versa. Nothing was right. That feeling grew bigger and bigger until it took me over. It totally paralyzed me.”
“I had known for a while that something wasn’t right. In primary school a child becomes aware of the separation between boys and girls. When this happened to me, I found myself at the other side of the classroom. Kids feel that you are different and start picking on you. I was always bullied. When you are a teenager you start to build a personality. This is mostly based on your gender experience. In my life everything was crooked so I could never become a balanced person.”
“When I was about 16 years old I was watching television. They showed a young transgender woman. It was the moment I thought wow. That is it. This is it! My mother was in the kitchen and I thought about calling her and telling her: mum this is me, his is how I feel. But I couldn’t. The TV programme was an eye-opener but at the same time so far away, so unachievable. What I saw on that show wasn’t possible for me. I was sure of it. I only got incredibly jealous.”
“Of course my parents knew something was amiss with me. They often said: come on, just tell us you like boys. We don’t mind. I never said anything. I thought they couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t even handle it. I was stuck in this situation for ten years. I have been looking around, joined transgender support groups and talked to people. They kept telling me not to be afraid and to go to the hospital. I was so insecure; probably because of all those years I couldn’t express myself.”
“It became worse and worse. My last friend had said goodbye after I told him what was going on. I didn’t have any friends left. I had no contact with my family either. I was just sitting in my apartment: lonely and suffocating in the feeling that something was wrong. I was sure my life would become a living hell if I chose transition. But my life already was hell. Finally I chose the option that might give me a minimal chance of improvement. In the back of my mind I always had the possibility to end my life.”
“The first step was to unravel the knot in my head. I spent a year on the couch of a wonderful psychologist. She taught me so much about myself. She made me a mature adult. She told me one day: now I know everything about you, I am amazed you are sitting in front of me alive. That was a turning point. I thought to myself that I apparently was a lot stronger than I thought. That means I can take that final step towards the hospital.”
“It’s a fact that I am one of the very few transgender athletes who compete at a high level. It’s also a fact there is still a lot of ignorance. All people produce testosterone. Men have more testosterone than women but also among men and women there are varieties in level. Testosterone is what makes you strong. I hardly have any testosterone in my body. Men produce testosterone in the testes, women in their ovaries. I have neither because my testicles were removed. I have been testosterone free for years, yet still people find it unfair I compete. But how? Literally all women in the peloton have more testosterone than I have.”
“Of course, my muscular structure is masculine but after years of taking female hormones, I have grown softer. Rounder. Despite that, I am still not curvy but more angular. I know that. But it’s not black and white either. Some women are very muscular and others are more round. There are so many differences between everyone that you might say that is unfair too. That’s why there are rules made by the IOC. Doctors have researched whether it’s fair to let transgender women compete in women’s sports. The answer is yes. Strictly spoken you could even say I am at a disadvantage. Testosterone doesn’t only make you strong but it also helps with recuperating. I have no testosterone so I don’t recuperate as fast.”
“There were many moments that I was anxious but from the moment I visited the hospital for the first time, I felt liberated. All those voices inside my head telling me something was off were suddenly gone. It gave me so much peace. There was a newfound space in my head. Finally I could think about things so I came up with what to do next. I needed to present myself to the world as a woman but I didn’t have any friends, no social network whatsoever. That’s when I started to volunteer.”
“I became a buddy to a disabled young woman who lives in an institution not far from here. We went to the cinema, theatre, and had coffee together. Then I decided to tell her that the next time I would visit, it would be as a woman. Everyone was surprised but she was okay with it. She didn’t care. All she wanted was a buddy. The fact I was responsible for her was the perfect distraction. I barely had time to check my reaction or the way others acted. That helped me a lot.”
“I never for a moment doubted my decision. I finally reached out to the world and got contact. One of my neighbours came up to me months later and said: you have been living here for years now. Until recently you were a ghost passing by in the morning and the evening. You didn’t look up. You only looked at the ground and were gone again. And now you are looking me in the eyes. I see you. You are here. That’s something I will never forget. It is the most beautiful compliment I have ever received. I finally had become a human being.”
“Because I received so much shit after the regional championships, I expected the same thing to happen at the Parel van de Veluwe (a regional Dutch race). Funnily enough nothing happened there. I did feel people thinking: oh it’s her but I had the same feelings during my transition and had learned to shut myself off. My memories of the race mostly are about the suffering in the last wheel. Help, you are riding so fast! I also thought: this is so cool; I want to do this again. From that moment I started doing more races at the highest level.”
“One of the biggest names in the peloton asked me one day what I had between my legs. Until that point I never showered with the others after a race. That was the ultimate thing to do; showering in the lion’s den. But the remark triggered me so much that I did do it. It was my way of showing; take a look, I will show you. And then it was all okay. Or, they didn’t talk about it after that anymore.”
“When I look at my numbers at endurance tests, I am not as strong as other women in the peloton. I do know how to suffer though. I won’t quit when I am in pain. Trust me; I know all about pain. You would imagine the surgeries to be the most painful part but they weren’t. It was the removal of my facial hair. I always planned that on a Friday. The sessions lasted an hour. They sedated my face with an ointment but during the treatment I was already crying in pain. The girls performing these treatments often asked me if I was sure to continue. Just continue, I said. Arms, legs, chest, facial hair; everything. My arms were done in three times but my face took eight or nine sessions. I spent the entire weekend with icepacks on my face. If I was lucky I could go to work on Monday but sometimes the swelling took longer to come down and I had to call in sick. My idea of pain changed forever there and then.”
“I took the gold medal in the scratch at the national track championships in 2009. That meant my name was all over the papers again. Everyone wanted to talk to me including prominent tv host Paul de Leeuw. I didn’t feel like I needed to justify myself so I didn’t go. Two years ago I won the Trofee Maarten Wynants in Belgium. Thankfully, the commotion was short-lived this time. Even the peloton reacted in a supportive manner: here we go again and stop it now. In the beginning everyone thought there wasn’t anything anyone could do against me riding and they just had to live with it. Now I notice I became part of them. That’s a nice feeling. Only foreign riders sometimes still yell at me, but I don’t react to that.”
“Finding a team was a different story. I have been part of the Parkhotel Valkenburg team for five years now but it wasn’t easy getting there. All doors were closing in front of me. We are full, I was told. Meanwhile other girls did find a place. It was humiliating to be considered that ‘thing’ nobody wanted on their team. In the end I asked all my friends to contact the Parkhotel sports directors and thankfully they said yes. If I ever need to find a new team, I should honestly say that I have serious doubts I will find one.”
“I am 43 now and know I won’t be racing an awful long time anymore. However, cycling is strongly connected to who I am. It’s a real big part of my life. The fact everyone knows me and accepted me, is not the most important part. I love the way of living cycling is. I love the top sports mentality. Some people think I held back in races to not win to avoid commotion. This is very much untrue. I want to win. If I don’t win, it’s because I wasn’t strong enough. To the outside world all the shit that I have been through seems heavy. To me it’s nothing compared to the things I went through before all this.”
“The most important thing cycling brought me is to see how much I grew as a human being. That’s what makes me very proud. Before I was extremely jealous of everyone who had friends. I didn’t know that feeling and I really longed for it. Cycling brought me friends. It gave me the feeling that I am me. It’s not about being a woman. It’s about being myself. My self-esteem isn’t high. I still find it hard to look at pictures of myself. I feel 100% woman but on a picture I see all the little mistakes. However the identity I have, fits. That’s the essence of it. Of course people stare at me. In races I still hear: hey that’s a guy. And I think: no that’s not true. I am a human being. When I was a man, I was not.”
Name: Natalie van Gogh
Date of birth: 14 September 1974
Racing since: 2006
Major results: win Trofee Maarten Wynants (2015), 2nd in Dwars door de Westhoek (2017), Ronde van Overijssel (2015) and Ronde van Gelderland (2016), 4th and 5th at the Dutch national time trial championships (2012 and 2013), National champion scratch (2009).
Transgender women in sports: how does it work. These are the rules of the IOC (international Olympic Committee):
Those who transition from male to female are eligible to compete in the female category under the following conditions:
- The athlete has declared that her gender identity is female. The declaration cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for a minimum of four years.
- The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition.
- The athlete's total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category.
- Compliance with these conditions may be monitored by testing. In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility for female competition will be suspended for 12 months.
The average testosterone level of a woman is between 0,5 and 3,0 nmol/L. Female top athletes seldom have higher values. Science keeps a 10 nmol/L value as upper limit because it’s the lower limit for men. IOC has implemented these rules for transgender women.
It’s not necessary to undergo gender reassignment surgery before living as a woman. If a transgender woman has higher testosterone levels than 10 nmol/L and she wants to take part as a female in competition, she will have to take medication to suppress the testosterone level.
The testosterone level of transgender women after gender reassignment surgery, like Nathalie had, is near zero. They have neither testes or ovaries, which are the main testosterone producing organs. The cortex of the suprarenal gland also produces testosterone but those levels are so low they hardly ever show up in testing.
Ellen van Dijk, cyclist Team Sunweb. World time trial champion (2013), European time trial champion (2016, 2017, 2018), winner Tour of Flanders (2014).
“In all honesty I should say I found it weird to have a transgender rider in our peloton. I didn’t really understand why you would choose this masculine form of sports if you wanted to be a woman. There was talking about Nathalie’s physical advantages and gossip about her former male name. When we showered together, many girls glanced at her.”
“Nathalie has always been very nice as a rider. She comes across sympathetically. She rides hard and fair. I didn’t know her as a person so I always tried to steer clear of the discussion. This has changed now I know Nathalie a bit better. We still don’t know each other very well but I know much more about her background now. I react passionately when they talk about her or make a stupid remark.”
“I have a lot of respect for Nathalie. She is a very strong personality who knows what she wants and perseveres. She rode straight through the enormous amount of negative reactions. I admire how she now goes public with her story and hope many people will see the example she has set.”
Chantal Blaak, cyclist Boels-Dolmans. World road race champion (current), Dutch road race champion (current), winner Amstel Gold Race (2018), Gent-Wevelgem (2016), Ronde van Drenthe (2016).
“I should be honest in saying that I found it odd seeing Nathalie for the first time. It’s just because you are not used to it but that feeling soon disappeared. When we got to talk one day, I only got respect for her. I still have.”
“You have to be so strong to live through all the shit that she got. Why she gets that? I don’t really know. She is 100% herself and does what she loves to do: ride her bike.”
“I think Nathalie is totally at home with Parkhotel. I feel she is fully respected within the peloton. Only the outside world has something to say about it. I hope she will continue to not care about that.”
Annemiek van Vleuten, cyclist Mitchelton-Scott. Current world time trial champion, Dutch time trial champion (2014, 2016, 2017), winner La Course (2017, 2018), Boels Ladies Tour (2017), Tour of Flanders (2011), overall winner World Cup (2011).
“It was 2007 when I road my first race with Nathalie: the Ronde van Lexmond. I had just taken up cycling and that criterium was the first race I ever won. Nathalie did a good race there as well. I think she came in fourth or something. I can’t really remember noticing anything different. To me she was one of the women there.”
“In the beginning nobody made a fuss about her presence. When she started winning, the reactions came along with it. They usually lacked any form of nuance. It bothered me because we had no idea about her story. Being transgender is not a choice. It’s not for fun. I only thought; let the girl do what she loves doing. When she started winning races, I was happy for her. I was worried about the reactions she got. I felt bad for her.”
“I got to know Nathalie as a nice and helpful rider. She really is an asset to the peloton. She works really hard for her teammates and is a good road captain. She is part of us and that’s all because of her own, nice personality. There are very few people who would still stand up straight after all she went through and still occasionally goes through.”
This article first appeared in Helden.