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They Cycle is a movement to foster an inclusive riding community in and outside of competitive cycling. A movement that’s bridging the gap between casual and competitive riding for gender-diverse and queer people. In short, it is all about finding fun and community in competition.

In this episode of Everyday Cyclists, we’ll chat with Ry Shissler, the founder of They Cycle, and the driving force behind creating a gender-inclusive & queer-friendly space in competitive cycling. After the success of #FillThePodium in it’s inaugural year, They Cycle is back to continue it’s expansion.

Competitive cycling does not have a track record of inclusivity – especially in the context of gender identity. Ry outlines why They Cycle is so important and how we can all be more effective allies. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to sit down with such a visionary in the competitive cycling space. We’ll chat about how They Cycle came to be, the response from race organizers and sanctioning bodies and the power of allyship. We hope you enjoy this time with Ry, we’re grateful for everything ze does.

What is your story with cycling?

Cycling has always meant change for me. When I got my first big kid bike for my twelfth birthday that was freedom. When I purchased my first bike as an adult it was a way to free myself from debt. When I started riding longer distances it was about experiencing the joy of exercise in a way that had been taken from when I broke my ankle. However, all of these experiences are intertwined with trauma.

As a child when I went on that first ride by myself a car full of teenagers rolled up beside me. One of them shouted “Nice helmet!” And you better believe it was — shiny blue and brand new. I replied in my pubescent voice “Thank you!” Then they finished their sentence before speeding off in baleful laughter, “Faggot!” I was left feeling exactly the way they wanted me to. I was ashamed of expressing myself. I never wore that helmet again.

When I headed down to Bike Pirates with the last few dollars in my account and asked for a bike it was an act of desperation. I had three jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet. My degree, the cost of entry to Canada, had cost me $100,000 of debt. Having that number and your parents’ homes attached to it gouges your mind with every moment. That while having employers look you deadass in the eye and tell you they won’t hire you or can fire you because of your immigration status.

When I broke my ankle I was training for the world championship of Tough Mudder. I loved running. It’s something I’d picked up in high school to get out of gym class and I was good at it. Well, I was good at really, really long distances. The pain at 5k and 15k and 50k is all the same and I believe that my trans-ness is part of what makes me good at enduring that. Every day I ride out life inside a body that causes me pain. I have to learn to endure to survive, but it’s not a good pain I’m enduring. So, when I use that skill on a run or a bike ride I’m using my skill to endure good pain. Pain that I choose. Something that’s useful. That I can benefit from. Well, my ankle healed, it just wasn’t the same. Where there once was good pain, now my joints and muscles screamed out at me with every step. It was like they were shouting f slurs at me from inside, but they didn’t even have the decency to give me a sarcastic compliment first. So, I retreated and mourned the loss of that part of my life for a long time. That is until I found cycling.

How did They Cycle come to be?

What does “fill the podium” mean to you and why is it important?

They Cycle started out as a storytelling outlet. I wanted to interview queer people doing things in the outdoors and help share their stories. Then I realized that my anxiety prevents me from approaching anyone about actually interviewing them so I just ended up writing about myself. 

Then I bopped off to Europe to find myself. Somewhere in between Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin my partner messaged me and asked if I wanted to do Hurtin in Haliburton. It’s an eight hour race, was two weeks away, and I hadn’t ridden a bike all summer because I’d broken my collarbone. I’se like “Nah.” But she really wanted me to come, so I asked the question I always ask, “Do they have a non-binary category?” No. They didn’t. Robyn persisted. She reached out to the organizers and a day later they made a category just for me.

When I showed up I was there to support my partner. I was just going to take it easy and keep my expectations low. Then I got out there. It was so much fun. I just kept pedaling until time ran out. I rode 162 km. WTF. I came in last place, but I won. I in capital letters WON! I was the only person in my category, but no one treated me like that mattered. Everyone from the other riders, to the spectators, to the organizers cheered me on just as much as the other categories. 

Before that day I’d never thought there was a place for me in competitive cycling. A lot of cycling spaces are simply toxic. They’re set up around the standards and expectations of the straight white men that dominate them.

As the next season came around a friend suggested another race. I asked if they had a category for me. I had a bit of a back and forth with the organizers’ social media team where they told me that Cycling Canada — not them — was working on a policy for transgender athletes. They told me to write to the race’s head office with my concerns and they’d flag it. That’s what I did and I never heard another word from them.

I view anger as a surface level reaction to some other emotion… but anger has its place. Focused well, anger can be used to achieve great things. Let me tell you, I was fucking furious.

Everyone deserves to be treated the way I was at Hurtin in Haliburton and I was determined to give that to people — #FillThePodium was born.

Competitive Cycling may be intimidating. How do you feel about that sentiment?

Competitive sports are awesome. Sports culture is often super toxic. Watch any professional sport and there’s a pretty good shot you’ll see people full volume screaming at each other. Coaches yelling at their players. Players yelling at each other. Fans yelling at players. Everyone yelling at the refs. That filters down to amateurs that model their behaviour after these peak performers. 

I don’t want any part of that toxic sports culture.

The sports culture I want to be a part of was shown to me by my high school cross country coach, Sean Harmon. I didn’t start running cross until my Junior year. At the time, I barely got any exercise and loved me some food (still do). I worked hard and got faster throughout the season. When my senior year rolled around, Coach Harmon made me the team captain. I was literally the slowest person on the team. He made me captain because his team wasn’t about going fast. It was always better to be out there and giving your best than to be super fit or naturally talented. It changed my life forever and that’s what I want to create for more people. 

It’s OK to be bad. It’s OK to walk. It’s OK to give up, but it’s not OK to not try.

Last year I couldn’t finish an event because my life’s cumulative mental stress overwhelmed me. It was the best event of the entire season. I got to see all my faster friends finish. I cried on my teammate’s shoulder. I was never alone. 

 A community and project like They Cycle – in year two – is a lot of work. What keeps you going?

Every little kid that wanted to participate in sports but never did because they weren’t allowed to be themselves.

For example, I swim with Purple Fins. It’s an athletic gender-free swim club. It’s grown a lot in the time I’ve been swimming with them, but it has been slow. 

Purple Fins is chill and easy going — we once stopped the entire practice to answer Drag Race pub trivia questions when a swimmer’s daughter called for help. Even though that’s our vibe, the athletic focus can be really off putting to many people. It’s unknown. It’s something that they’ve been told their entire lives isn’t for them. So, they don’t come. However, when Purple Fins opened an intro to swimming program it immediately filled up and there’s a wait list. 

It’s those people that keep me going. The people who are interested, but hesitant, maybe unsure if they can do it. I want to make sure all they have to do is say yes.

What do you think the future of competitive cycling looks like?

Slower and more colourful. I’ve been a part of running races with 10k+ people and let me tell you that’s really cool. I was on the same course with world class athletes but I was never any competition for them. What the running world recognizes is that those professional athletes don’t exist without walk-runners, wheelchair athletes, and fundraisers in silly outfits. Those people at the back of the pack are the ones that ensure the event exists at all. Their excellence makes it so the pros can make enough cash to fund training for hours every day.

Any smart event organizer needs to realize that in order to grow the sport you have to reduce the barrier to entry and make it inclusive for everyone. If you only focus on the peloton at the front, you’re failing. You can’t have high performance if you have no way to get there.

Allies are responsible for doing the work to understand barriers affecting non-binary and queer cyclists. 

With that said, we value your your voice and would like to know – How can we all be better allies? 

Put people from equity-deserving backgrounds in leadership roles. Lived experience is experience that can be gained no other way. That unique perspective is just as valuable or more so than an extra couple years of cycling experience. And don’t forget to pay them.

Do your research. Don’t shoot me a message saying you want to help fill the podium and then have no understanding of what we do. You better believe if I’m meeting with you for the first time I’ve scoured your website, social media, and searched your name. If there’s a topic I don’t understand, I research that as well.

Ask if it’s OK to ask. You might be curious about something that’s none of your business. Maybe it’s my gender or my sexuality. Maybe it’s my traumatic experiences. It’s natural to be curious about something outside your experience. Asking me if I’m comfortable talking about a subject leaves me the option to say no. Most of the time I’m going to say yes!

Don’t ask for us to help you. Offer to help us and make some suggestions on how you can do that. Your organization likely has a lot more resources than mine. If you want us to help you, compensate us.

Under-represented groups have experiences that we may hide, and not make a ‘burden’ – you practice a great deal of bravery, and vulnerability in sharing your trauma. Speaking about these experiences help us to know that we are not alone. What would you like to share with us?

I grew up in a small town in Michigan. In many ways it was homogenous. I didn’t know any out queer people.  My dad told me he cut all his gay friends out of his life so they would make his kids gay. So, I spent a lot of years trying to be something that always felt wrong because I didn’t know there was any other option. (For the record, my dad is my number one ally now.)

I’ve absorbed a lot of other trauma in my life and I share it because I want people to know they’re not alone. And what I’ve found since I started They Cycle is that there trauma in our community is abundant. We had several people withdraw from the program last year and the number one reason cited was mental health. 

Truth be told, mental health was why I left cycling advocacy. As a communications manager I was the first point of contact for every cycling advocate and anti-cycling advocate that had an opinion they wanted to share. 

The people that were against us were so much easier to deal with than those there with us. In their anger I saw a fear of change and that’s a powerful sentiment. Change is hard in the best of times.

The anger that came from our supporters was different. It was an anger at a system that chafes at their existence; there aren’t enough bike lanes, the speed limit is too high, snow clearing is poor, everything is designed around cars. But many of the loudest, most prominent voices were financially stable, straight, white men — people that may have never known discrimination except in those transitory moments while riding a bike. They wielded their anger with a kilometre long blade and eyesight that didn’t extend beyond their own handlebars, slashing at anything that didn’t align with their unique perspective on the world including us, the people dedicating our lives to improving the situation.

What I want to say to those people is that your perspective matters, but we can’t do everything just for one group of people — that’s how we got into this situation in the first place. We need to consider the people that have been pushed out, that feel voiceless. We need to consider the people for whom safety in public means something very different than putting in a bike lane. We need to consider that there are many people for whom discrimination doesn’t stop the moment they get off their bike. Take that anger, that feeling of powerlessness and put it to good use. When we work together to find solutions everyone’s lives improve.

What is your favourite piece of bike gear?

Googly eyes. A friend gave me their hand-me-down aero bars to try and I loved them. They really help my back on long rides… they make me a little faster too. However, I felt they made my bike look too aggressive. Like, I consider myself a serious cyclist, but I don’t take cycling seriously. So, I went down to the dollar store and bought some googly eyes and glued them to my aero bars. Thus, Great Green Googly Monster was born. It looks dumb as hell and I love it. You can follow it on Instagram for educational cycling content in the style of Sesame Street.