Culture

U.S. Cup racers grapple with decision to line up in Arkansas

MTB teams and racers grapple with the decision to race this weekend's U.S. Cup in Fayetteville after Arkansas passes anti-trans legislation.

This story was originally published on www.betamtb.com. 

Santa Cruz Bicycles intended to use this weekend’s U.S. Cup cross-country race in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to unveil its new XC race team, the htSQD. They planned on racer introductions, media coverage, release of a new race bike and announcements of the team’s partnership with Rapha, SRAM and Maxxis.

But as the team and marketing folks at Santa Cruz started seeing news of Arkansas’ recent anti-LGBTQ legislation surface on social media last week, they questioned whether showing up would signal support for Arkansas’ discriminatory politics, or if boycotting would send a more impactful message to the host state—one that made clear that if all cyclists weren’t welcome, they didn’t want to be there either.

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After talking it through on a Zoom call, the team decided to go to Arkansas as an ally and a supportive voice, as opposed to staying home silently, but any fanfare was immediately tabled.

“Now it’s just get in, get out, do the race,” says Tobin Ortenblad, one of the team members who arrived in Arkansa earlier this week. “We are here to race but we’re not here to celebrate. The team launch and press, we’ll wait on that.”

Exactly how to be an ally as white cis-gendered male and female racers is a more nuanced issue—the team has all placed a sticker of the transgender flag on their toptubes to show its support for the transgender community, which is squarely under attack by HB1570, the SAFE Act, or Save Adolescents From Experimentation, a bill that would deny gender-affirming care to anyone under 18. The bill was vetoed by Governor Asa Hutchinson earlier this week, then overturned the next day by a legislature that overwhelmingly supported it.

Santa Cruz has empowered its racers to educate themselves and freely voice their opinions about the current legislation, and to use their platforms as athletes to speak up in support of marginalized communities. Doing that may influence followers of Santa Cruz, a core mountain bike brand, with an audience that may be unaware of or feel unaffected by the current attack on rights for trans athletes.

“As a racer you just empathize. I don’t know that struggle. I won’t know that struggle but at the end of the day what you can do is be informed because we have all the time in the world to read the basics of what’s happening, to know where you stand on it and know how you can be supportive being here, being a racer, instead of just showing up and doing our simple A to Z (of racing),” Ortenblad said.

The U.S. Cup is part of USA Cycling’s Pro XCT series, which is sanctioned by the world governing body, the UCI. That means potentially career-defining points are at stake, the payout is higher and it generally attracts an elite crowd and strong competition. For someone like Keegan Swenson, one of Ortenblad’s teammates, who’s vying for a spot on Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics, the race is a vital practice for upcoming World Cup races, the outcome of which will determine Swenson’s Olympic future.

This weekend also marks the U.S. Cup’s first appearance in Arkansas, after being centered mostly in California over its 14-year history, infused with new sponsorship from Explore Fayetteville, OZ Trails Northwest Arkansas, Walmart and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The U.S. Cup is the first UCI race in the U.S. in more than a year, signifying a return to competition for scores of racers who haven’t pinned on a number in months due to COVID restrictions. It’s a chance to size up the competition, gauge fitness levels and set goals for the season ahead.

But even with all of that, Arkansas’ attack on human rights was too difficult for some to look past. Evelyn Dong, a pro racer for Juliana Bicycles, which is part of Santa Cruz Bicycles, withdrew from the U.S. Cup, writing on her Instagram page that “this is my opportunity to do something right now. There will be more bike races for me, but this moment to use my voice is fleeting.”

U.S. Cup organizer Ty Kady issued a statement on Tuesday on behalf of the series, assuring medical care to any participant, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, in response to Arkansas SB289, the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, a bill that would deny medical care to individuals based on conscience. Kady also said the series would be making a donation to nwaequality.org, a local LGBTQ activist group.

Boltcutter Cycles, a brand that relocated from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Northwest Arkansas last fall to be closer to the region’s cycling boom, and upcoming high-profile races the area has attracted, like Cyclocross Worlds in 2022, denounced Arkansas’ “hate-filled” bills. It will still be present this weekend at his backyard event, and will be selling T-shirts with slogans “Keep Hate Out of Cycling” and “Cycling Has No Gender” with proceeds benefiting the ACLU of Arkansas.

NW Arkansas has made a massive multi-million dollar investment in trails and infrastructure in recent years, with Bentonville, the home of Walmart, even dubbing itself The Mountain Bike Capital of the World. That push has been led largely by Tom and Steuart Walton via their Walton Family Foundation, and their investment group, which owns a controlling stake in Rapha. Because of this, the bike industry stands to have more leverage to influence policy that could have a detrimental impact on the economy. And although the Walton Family Foundation issued a statement  asking state and business leaders to consider the impact recent legislation would have on those considering visiting or investing in the state, USA Cycling has yet to take a firm stance on the issue, and is not considering a boycott, according to comments made to Singletracks by president Rob DeMartini.

The U.S. Cup is taking place at Centennial Park in Fayetteville this weekend and next, and includes racing for elites, juniors and amateurs.