UCI halves testosterone threshold, doubles transition period for transgender women

The women's peloton racing
The women's peloton racing (Image credit: SWPix)

The UCI will introduce stricter guidelines for transgender women's participation in the women’s category of cycling, halving the maximum plasma testosterone limit from 5mol/L to 2.5nmol/L and doubling the transition period from 12 to 24 months.

The new rules will be enforced as of July 1, 2022 and come after the UCI signalled in April that there may be changes in the works following their exclusion of British racer Emily Bridges from her national championships, stating she had not met the requirements to race as a woman.

The UCI announced its decision as part of the Federation's Agenda 2030 – following its Management Committee meeting held from June 14 to 16 in Arzon, France – which it said aims to make cycling the sport of the 21st century and make it more inclusive.

The UCI last published a set of guidelines on transgender women's participation in cycling two years ago when it reduced the maximum plasma testosterone limit from 10nmol/L to 5nmol/L, with UCI President David Lappartient stating at that time, that the rules 'guarantee a level playing field’.

In its recent press release following the management committee meeting, the UCI said that it had begun consideration on their stricter rules following the publication of what it called 'new scientific studies' in 2020 and 2021.

The release said that the principle of eligibility for transgender women athletes to compete in the women's category is based on the reversibility under low blood testosterone of the physiological abilities that determine sports performance, and on the time needed to achieve this reversibility.

"The latest scientific publications clearly demonstrate that the return of markers of endurance capacity to 'female level' occurs within six to eight months under low blood testosterone, while the awaited adaptations in muscle mass and muscle strength/power take much longer (two years minimum according to a recent study)," read the UCI's statement.

"Given the important role played by muscle strength and power in cycling performance, the UCI has decided to increase the transition period on low testosterone from 12 to 24 months. In addition, the UCI has decided to lower the maximum permitted plasma testosterone level (currently 5 nmol/L) to 2.5 nmol/L.

"This value corresponds to the maximum testosterone level found in 99.99% of the female population."

The UCI added that its eligibility rule change intends to promote the integration of transgender athletes into competitive sport, while maintaining fairness, equal opportunities and the safety of competitions. It also noted a possibility to begin working with International Federations to support a research programme to study the evolution of the physical performance of highly trained athletes under transitional hormone treatment.

UCI under pressure

The decision to expand the requirements for trans women comes three months after Lappartient said in an interview with the Guardian that he was coming under pressure from women who were pushing back on the current standards for transgender women's inclusion, stating, "At the moment, the union of women's riders are completely against this and challenging the UCI. So we are in between."

In Thursday's press release, Lappartient said the new requirements were "fully consistent with the most recent scientific knowledge in this area and the press release linked to a report from UCI Medical Director Prof. Xavier Bigard as a source.

Bigard's report cites numerous scientific studies that attempt to examine the performance gap between men and women, and how that gap changes as trans women undergo hormone therapy. Bigard acknowledges the paucity of data on the changes to the performance gap during transition as it applies directly to cycling.

However, one review was heavily cited in Bigard's report. It was written by Swedish researchers Emma Hilton and Tommy Lundberg, both of whom have been vocally against the inclusion of trans women in women's sports. 

Hilton and Lundberg's review, which omits key information that shows the performance gap reduction after hormonal transition is greatly reduced when controlled for height, came under fire for its non-disclosure of conflicts of interests on the topic. They issued a correctly months later saying there was no conflict of interest because their opinions were "an essential part of their academic freedom".

The same review was cited by the "Union Cycliste Feminine" (UCF), a group affiliated with the Inga Thompson Foundation and, loosely, Save Women's Sport, all groups that believe inclusion of trans women will erode hard-fought gains for women's sport.

Union Cycliste Feminine's representative Marion Clignet referred Cyclingnews to the research done by Hilton and Lundberg in response to questions about their letter calling on the UCI to rescind rules allowing trans women to compete in women's categories and demanding eligibility to compete in women's races be based on "female biological characteristics".

After the UCI announced the revised rules, it quickly became clear that doubling the transition period and reducing testosterone limits was not enough in the opinions of Lundberg, Hilton and the UCF.

Hilton criticized the UCI's decision on Twitter, stating, "So, this is random. The scientific evidence shows that even at 1nM [testosterone - ed.], there's a very small loss of muscle/strength.  That advantage persists to at least 3 years (the limit of the longest study)."'2.5nM for two years' has no rational basis. 'Hey lads [because it is men who decided this] let's chuck a dart at a spinning board and see where it lands, why not, anyone got any better ideas?'

"It is indeed important in this field to rely on objective knowledge to reconcile the very real need for inclusion with the essential need for fairness."

Lundberg tweeted, "Another transgender policy based on no evidence. At least here they pretend to cite research. There is nothing, nothing at all to suggest that the advantage in muscle mass and strength is removed after 2 years." The UCF account re-tweeted that post.

'Inhumane' guidelines

Cyclingnews spoke with Canadian cyclist and human rights activist Kristen Worley, who is Gender Rights Advisor at The Cyclists' Alliance, for comment on the UCI's new guidelines and Bigard's recent report, which are positioned under the guise of Fair Play.

"Isn't it nice to be able to put a nice big bow around it all?" said Worley, who noted that the guidelines attempt to remedy a solution without taking into consideration the long-term health impacts on transgender women athletes.

"They've created a transgendered lens and targeted it as a label, that they somehow have to deal with this, and try to find an accommodation within the system to accommodate these athletes. We need an integrated approach rather than an accommodation approach. We are seeing physicians harmfully trying to articulate and manipulate human physiology, and many people as well, to be able to accommodate this idea of their participation in sport.

"Not once does it talk about prevention, long-term health and well-being or long-term participation in sport. It is talking about reducing hormones and putting a two-year diagnostic on something, and allowing the harm to persist for over two years, and then telling them that they can compete. Their bodies are only going to further decelerate, continually over 10-20 years, there are long-term accelerated effects."

Worley believes that the stipulated maximum plasma testosterone levels are random because the uptake of testosterone by androgen receptors is individual.

"It doesn't matter it it's 2.5nmol/L or 5nmol/L because it is precedent and absorbency rate of your own personal receptors. The way one body absorbs testosterone will be different from the way another body does. Receptor uptake is the primary issue here, so someone may have 5nmo/L and have a response from what the body is producing, and another person could have 10 nmol/L but has low sensitivity in their uptake and they might be falling through the ground. It's problematic that the guidelines don't talk about the long-term impact of these limits."

Although the UCI has stated that the new guidelines are based on the most recent scientific knowledge, Worley believes there isn't enough scientific research involved in their decisions, and that the sport governing body has based its rules on politics.

"The hormone transition was never designed for the purpose of sport. The guidelines are agenda-driven and are aligning with something that is a political issue with in [cycling]," Worley said.

"The narrative in the guidelines talks about safe sport and fair sport. It does not talk about health, well-being, prevention, and long-term participation in sport. 

"There is no science and research to what they are doing. It is all performance-based and they are not thinking of the long-term health impacts.

"You don't see anything in this document about prevention, health and well-being of the individual, the health impacts of the individual, no safeguarding ... nothing. All it talks about is using testosterone to moderate someone's physiology, which is inhumane.

"We need to pivot as a sporting organisation and elevate the conversation."

Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*

Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets

After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59

Join now for unlimited access

Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

Cyclingnews is the world's leader in English-language coverage of professional cycling. Started in 1995 by University of Newcastle professor Bill Mitchell, the site was one of the first to provide breaking news and results over the internet in English. The site was purchased by Knapp Communications in 1999, and owner Gerard Knapp built it into the definitive voice of pro cycling. Since then, major publishing house Future PLC has owned the site and expanded it to include top features, news, results, photos and tech reporting. The site continues to be the most comprehensive and authoritative English voice in professional cycling.