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When Abi Robins registered for Unbound Gravel, they ticked the box for ‘female,’ but that’s not how they see themselves.
Robins, 32, is a life coach who lives in Austin, TX with their fiancée and two children. They identify as non-binary and use the pronouns they/them. They also fell in love with riding gravel during the pandemic, and it was largely due to Unbound Gravel.
“I grew up in western Kansas, and my dad lives in Kansas City,” Robins told VeloNews. “So it felt close to home. I have spent an ungodly amount of time driving through the Flint Hills. When I found Unbound, saw the pictures, it was like, ‘this looks incredible.’ And, this was coming from someone who’d never ridden more than 10 miles. So, I got a bike, started riding, and started riding all the time.”
Robins was one of the lucky ones who got into the 100-mile race through its lottery system. Although they’d initially wanted to race in the 200-mile event, expectations were tempered by the difficulty of local gravel events around Austin. After all, Robins had really only spent a year on the bike.
In March, Life Time, Unbound’s parent company, sent an email out to all participants. It included information about a third category for non-binary/genderqueer racers and gave riders the option to switch the entry to that category.
“I read the email in detail because it obviously applies to me,” Robins said. “I appreciated their guidelines and what they were saying. If you’re a trans woman, you can ride in the women’s race if you meet these certain criteria. That’s OK, fine, that’s legit. There were no restrictions around trans men. Basically anyone who identifies as non-binary or is a trans women who doesn’t meet that criteria, you can ride in this third category. I appreciated that setup. They were thorough and thoughtful.”
According to Michelle Duffy, associate marketing director of Life Time off-road events, the organization launched the non-binary/genderqueer category across all of its events — from cycling to triathlon to road running — in early 2021.
Life Time also has a transgender participant policy that places no restrictions on female-to-male transgender participants to compete as men but that requires medical documentation of a year of hormone therapy in order for a male-to-female transgender participant to race as a woman.
For male-to-female racers who have not yet begun therapy or have not completed a year, the non-binary/genderqueer category is an option; it’s also available for non-transgendered participants, as well.
“If anyone comes to our events, they should be welcoming, inclusive, and safe, for anyone,” Duffy said.
Robins, who’d never before participated in an event with a non-binary/genderqueer category, changed their entry. They struggled to do so through the registration platform and ended up getting help from the race organization itself. Nevertheless, the fact that the option existed felt like a gift. Would they have done the race anyway? Yes.
“But, so much of my personal and inner work has been about — even if the world doesn’t make space for me, I can make space for myself,” Robins said. “I’m not going to let how others see me keep me from doing what I want to do. It was so appreciated, being able to show up at this huge event, knowing on some level that I was seen. I didn’t have to create my own space, someone had done it for me.”
During the race, Robins suffered and slogged like everyone does at some point during those hot and humid miles in the Flint Hills. At one point, they were pushing up a particularly “awful hill” when the lead group of 200-mile racers blew past. The experience reinforced why they had chosen gravel as a way to get into cycling to begin with.
“There is no denying, it was amazing, it’s incredible,” they said. “I was taken aback, they were going so fast! That’s cool and that’s fun to watch, but the thing that makes these events so interesting and so fun and engaging is that anyone can do it.”
Although Robins was still on course when the awards were given out for the 100-mile category, there was a plaque waiting for them when they finished. To Robins, it reiterated that fact that in gravel, and in particular at Unbound, anyone belongs.
“They treated it like every other category,” they said. “I appreciated that so much. It wasn’t some throwaway thing; it was like every other category and, ‘hey, we’re going to treat it as such.'”
While Robins was the only one to officially race in the non-binary/genderqueer category this year, they said that after they posted photos on social media, they received messages from other racers who said they had wanted to switch to the category but weren’t able to figure out how to do so online.
“I’m driving home, and I’m holding this plaque in my hands,” they said, “and the only thing I can think is — the only thing better than winning first in non-binary next year is to win second or third or have the field so stacked that I won’t even get on the podium.”