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Inside the battle to boycott Arkansas’ bike races

The cycling community debates a boycott of Arkansas and its bike events after the state's passage of anti-trans laws.

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VeloNews Senior Editor Betsy Welch contributed to this story. 

Kristin Diamond saw storm clouds gathering over Arkansas back in February.

Diamond, who along with Brook Watts runs Parkven Productions, the operations group behind the 2022 UCI World Cyclocross Championships in Fayetteville, watched as lawmakers in Arkansas proposed three bills to limit the rights of transgendered people. Among the bills was HB1570, which denies transgender youth access to gender-affirming care.

“Call it what it is — this is hateful legislation,” Diamond told VeloNews. “It was pretty obvious before it even went to committee that it was going to pass. And it was very obvious to us that this was going to be an issue.”

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Diamond and Watts are contracted to operate the race by Experience Fayetteville, the city’s local tourism chamber. Molly Rawn, CEO of Experience Fayetteville, was similarly dismayed as the anti-trans legislation gained momentum in the Arkansas legislature and quickly passed from bill to law.

“From my personal level this is very bad for our state on a very human level — this will obviously do great harm to our LGBTQ community,” said Rawn, a lifelong Arkansas resident. “When things like this happen, it makes it very difficult because this is the worst of who we are.”

In late March, after all three pieces of legislation were approved, both Parkven Productions and Visit Fayetteville released statements denouncing the anti-trans legislation. In their respective statements, both groups acknowledged the likelihood of economic repercussions to the laws in the form of boycotts.

Both groups were right. In the weeks following the passage of HB1570 and the other anti-trans laws, a growing movement erupted to boycott Arkansas businesses and relocate events out of the state. On Monday the National Collegiate Athletics Association announced it would pull championship events from Arkansas and other states with anti-trans laws.

Across the cycling world, Arkansas became a flashpoint on social media. In recent years Northwest Arkansas has blossomed into the new capital of U.S. cycling, thanks to millions of dollars in investment from the Walton family, owners of retail giant Walmart. Walton cash has fueled the building of trail networks across the state; it’s also laid the foundation for international events such as the cyclocross world championships, Epic Rides, and the Big Sugar NWA, among others. Today, Arkansas is tied to some of the most dynamic brands in cycling, from apparel company Rapha to bike brand Allied Cycle Works.

In the weeks since Arkansas passed its anti-trans laws, there’s been a growing chorus within the cycling community to boycott the state’s bike races and bike brands.

“We need to hurt a little, in an effort to not just show support, but take action,” wrote industry vet Tim Jackson in Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. “It’s been proven time and again, when you take the money away, you get the attention of the people who want that money.”

Brook Watts (right) and Kristin Diamond of Parkven Productions. Photo: Brook Watts

The push to boycott places the event promoters, bike brands, and even Experience Fayetteville in a tricky situation. Representatives from these groups stressed their support of trans rights to VeloNews, and every source we spoke to condemned the state’s anti-trans laws. Yet these sources also plan to forge ahead with the races and cycling events, rather than cancel them or move them elsewhere. Some of these operators believe that the bicycle races and bike businesses could become a global platform for trans awareness and trans inclusion, and thus help the groups in Arkansas that plan to fight the legislation.

But that belief puts them at odds with many in the U.S. cycling community, and some in Arkansas’ trans community as well. This tension is likely to last for months, as the business owners, advocates, and the concerned publish wrestles with whether or not to support the races.

“I get [the boycott], and at the end of the day people gotta do what they gotta do,” Watts told VeloNews. “I wake up every day and I’m like, ‘What have I brought to the cycling world? Why did I ever submit the bid?'”

Relocation poses challenges

There have been public calls to move the 2022 UCI world cyclocross championships out of Arkansas, but relocating the event is not as simple as one might assume. While Parkven Productions submitted the bid to host the 2022 race, the legal agreement to host the race is solely between the UCI and Experience Fayetteville.

“We do not have the right to take the race wherever we want,” said Diamond, who is a lawyer. “Our hands are tied with what we can do, absent of just quitting.”

The power to move the event to another state or country rests solely with the UCI and with Experience Fayetteville; even USA Cycling can only advise the UCI on how best to proceed. As of the publishing of this story, both the UCI and Experience Fayetteville told VeloNews that, while they were dismayed by the anti-trans laws in Arkansas, they had no intentions to move the race.

Big Sugar Gravel
Arkansas has become a hotbed for bike races, with events such as the Big Sugar gravel event on tap for 2021. Photo: Big Sugar NWA

“The UCI regrets the adoption by the State of Arkansas of legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in school sports competitions, which has no justification on medical grounds, nor when it comes to sporting fairness, and must therefore be qualified as discriminating,” said the UCI in a statement provided to VeloNews. “The UCI is in contact with cycling’s National Federation in the United States to understand the implications on cycling events of the law adopted by Arkansas, and will continue to follow the situation.”

Experience Fayetteville echoed the sentiment.

“Experience Fayetteville is dedicated to keeping the 2022 Cyclocross World Championships in Fayetteville,” said the group in a statement. “We understand the pain and anger this legislation has caused, and will do all we can to ensure everyone feels safe and welcome at events in Fayetteville. As the city entity dedicated to tourism, we have neither the authority nor the capacity to organize the event outside of our city. We have no indication that the UCI intends to annul the contract or move the event.”

Rawn, Experience Fayetteville’s CEO, said the decision to proceed stems both from Experience Fayetteville’s primary goal, which is to drive tourism dollars to the city and region, and because the group believes the races can help local LGBTQ advocacy groups. Experience Fayetteville also works with the local Walton Arts Center performing arts venue, as well as the University of Arkansas, and has plans to use both venues to promote LGBTQ inclusion through events throughout the year.

“We have one lane we’re allowed to work in, and that’s economic development through tourism,” Rawn said. “We have to think through how we feel as individuals about this terrible legislation — and it is heartbreaking — and come up with the tourism response to it. There is a layer there that some people might not be appreciative of.”

Thus, to abandon the UCI world championships would be to ask Experience Fayetteville to work against its stated mission, Rawn said, which is to drive economic impact. Instead, Rawn’s plan has been to open the bike races up to LGBTQ advocacy groups as a free platform to both raise funds and to broadcast their respective messages.

Last week Experience Fayetteville and USA Cycling announced the launch of an inclusion summit to be held in the coming weeks in Fayetteville, where bike brands and LGBTQ advocacy groups will meet to discuss how the bike events can help the advocacy push.

Experience Fayetteville also has the power to steer a percentage of revenues generated by the cyclocross world championships to non-profits, and Rawn said she intends to fund LGBTQ groups through these channels. And Rawn said she intends to open booth space for LGBTQ groups in the expo at the world championships and other bike events.

“There will be multiple opportunities for nonprofits to get involved, even those outside of Northwest Arkansas,” she said. “Whether it’s booth space at the event or monetary impact to [their] organization. There are already opportunities and I look forward to identifying more.”

Debates over a boycott

While booth space and fundraising may add clout to local trans groups, they won’t be enough to overturn Arkansas’ laws. Rawn said she understood the limits of transforming bike races into platforms for inclusivity. And Rawn said she also understood those who are calling for a boycott.

“It breaks my heart to say because my entire job is to get people to come to our state,” Rawn said. “I understand that people want to vote with their dollars. What I hope is that those people also see the event organizers and the people in Fayetteville, and see that we care deeply about matters of equality.”

Of course, there are also questions about whether a boycott of bicycle races and cycling industry would have enough economic clout to bring about meaningful change. Boycotts are meant to draw media attention to a cause, and also to force change due to negative economic impact. The UCI cyclcocross world championships race would likely attract several thousand spectators and riders to Northwest Arkansas. Whether boycotting that event would have any impact on a state with a GDP of $120 billion is up for debate.

https://twitter.com/TheChrisMosier/status/1381688498588123140

Watts, who also said he understood the push to boycott, questioned whether a boycott of bike races would place substantive economic pressure on the state to change the laws. Watts pointed to the recent relocation of Major League Baseball’s All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver. The move cost Georgia hundreds of jobs, yet the state did not back down from its new voting laws.

“I know where we sit on the food chain, and in Georgia, with the All-Star game coming to Denver, I only wish that we in cycling had that kind of impact,” Watts said. “We don’t have that kind of power in cycling, I’m afraid.”

Proponents of a boycott point out that a ban could impact additional tourism dollars from cyclists who travel to Northwest Arkansas to ride the state’s extensive network of trails. And messaging around a boycott could sway millions of would-be vacationers to skip Arkansas in their future travel plans.

Northwest Arkansas’ trail network has grown with investment from the Walton family. Photo: Dave McElwaine

“People have heard about the trails, and it’s those two-week trips to ride mountain bikes in the state that are important,” said Molly Cameron, a trans cyclist and advocate. “That’s going to be more powerful from an activist perspective than the boycott of a single race.”

But boycotts don’t sit right with everyone involved in the discussion. Brendan Quirk, former interim CEO of Allied Cycle Works, sees talk of a boycott as a missed opportunity to drive action around the issue. Quirk is now program director for the Runway Group, an investment group run by Tom and Steuart Walton, which released its own statement condemning the anti-trans laws in early April.

“Boycotts are intrinsically an act of non-action, non-engagement, and non-support,” Quirk said. “When I think about trans kids [in] cities you’ve never heard of before — Jonesboro or West Memphis — for those kids who are coping with these issues and who need support from people who suffered and made progress. We need those people here. We need them here supporting LGBTQ people in Arkansas.”

Quirk is one of the attendees at the upcoming inclusion summit hosted by USA Cycling and Experience Fayetteville, and he said that plans for “active engagement” are still taking shape, as brands and the governing body meet to discuss how to proceed. In his eyes, a key part of the cycling industry’s response should be to amplify support of trans individuals inside the state. And cyclists who are upset by the laws should consider coming to Arkansas to volunteer for local advocacy groups, or to meet with trans individuals on a one-to-one basis to show their support.

“If you care about the issue, you have to go where the action is,” Quirk said.

Whatever action cyclists take, it shouldn’t end with the races, Quirk said. Arkansas’ anti-trans laws are likely to face a long battle in court, and that duration of time will be important for LGBTQ and pro-trans activists. So, while boycotting an event may make people feel empowered in the moment, it may not have a lasting impact on the battles ahead, or on the individuals inside Arkansas.

“The biggest tragedy would be to summon up the full force of the industry and athletes, have a lot of light and heat, but then not make a difference because we didn’t really tune into what this community needs in terms of support,” Quirk said. “We need to have those conversations quickly to find out.”

Advocates weigh in

How LGBTQ activists in Arkansas view a boycott is likely up to the individual, but there’s signs that a growing number do support boycotts of major events — including bike races. This week multiple LGBTQ groups put out letters in support of a boycott of Arkansas and Walmart.

In their letter, the groups — Intransitive Arkansas, the Center for Artistic Revolution, and longtime activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, among others — specifically asked for the UCI to relocate the UCI world cyclocross championships out of the state.

Rumba Yambú, a director with Intransitive Arkansas, said the push for a boycott comes after months of frustration with the state legislature. Yambú attended the legislative sessions and said that lawmakers ignored the testimony of trans individuals and trans experts who spoke about the harmful nature of the bills.

“We had so many people testify against these bills. We had parents, grandparents, ministers, mental health professionals, trans folks all talking about how harmful these bills are,” Yambú told VeloNews. “And [lawmakers] were just not listening. They’d get up when we were testifying. They don’t care.”

Groups are already pressuring lawmakers from inside Arkansas, Yambú said, and the pressure hasn’t swayed lawmakers. A boycott and a plea for help from the outside, Yambú said, represents a more severe course of action.

“We’ve done rallies and we’ve been doing rallies and it’s not enough,” they said. “Choosing to relocate events — legislatures will notice that. They’ll notice when money is leaving Arkansas.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jasmine and Mo Banks, who launched their own trans group called Reconcile Arkansas in the wake of the passing of HB1570. The two provide resources and aid to families with trans children. Mo Banks is trans nonbinary, and they have a trans daughter.

In recent weeks the two have been helping some families with trans individuals find homes outside of Arkansas.

Both Mo and Jasmine Banks support a boycott of Arkansas and of the bicycle races.

“We don’t want anybody coming into our state and patronizing our state and supporting the businesses that have remained silent,” Jasmine Banks said. “It’s not OK. Go somewhere else. Go to a state where trans athletes can access affirming healthcare.”

Banks believes concerned individuals should donate to grassroots groups like Intransitive Arkansas and Reconcile Arkansas, as well as national organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union. Coming to the state for summits to discuss dialogue, Banks said, is also a wrong move.

“We don’t believe folks should come here and have listening sessions to talk about things and then plug money into the state,” Jasmine Banks said. “We want a true boycott. If the state assembly is going to harm its citizens, then nobody should come here.”

A murky future

Advocates on both sides of the boycott discussion agree on one thing — cyclists who are dismayed by the state’s anti-trans laws should continue to support activism long after the 2022 UCI world cyclocross championships come and go, no matter where the event is held. What that support looks like, both in the short and long-term, is, of course, up for debate.

Quirk said riders coming to Arkansas who want to help should find ways to impact trans individuals on a one-to-one basis.

“If athletes want to make a statement, get in touch with me,” Quirk said. “Let’s go do a driving tour of Arkansas during the five days between [Pro Cup weekends] and see if there’s a LGBTQ community at the local high school or college. Let’s let them know that they’re not alone. That’s so much more interesting than a boycott.”

How the cycling world handles the anti-trans laws in Arkansas is a story that will play out in the coming weeks and months, as the clock ticks down toward major events, including the 2022 cyclocross world championships. But the cycling community is destined to grapple with discriminatory legislation, and the ethical conundrum presented by it, for months and years to come.

In the days after Arkansas passed HB1570, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a bill into law requiring young people to prove their sex at birth in order to participate in middle and high-school sports. Knoxville, Tennessee is slated to host the 2021 USA Cycling road national championships this summer.

Lawmakers in Texas have filed six bills that would limit the participation of transgender athletes in school sports — one bill recently advanced out of a committee for a vote. Texas is home to dozens of popular gravel, road, and mountain-bike races.

Bills limiting the rights of trans people have been proposed in multiple other states, including Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Florida, and South Carolina.

And as those bills pass from committee, to hearing, to vote, cyclists, race promoters, and the bike industry will have to grapple with gathering storm clouds, again and again.