• Gone, but not forgotten... Robert Millar, the mountains classification winner from the 1984 Tour, has recently revealed a new identity as Philippa York. (AFP)Source: AFP
While feats of courage are commonplace at races like the Tour de France, there's one act from a former king of the mountains winner that trumps them all, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
11 Jul 2017 - 8:46 PM  UPDATED 12 Jul 2017 - 9:20 PM

"Courage is having fear and confronting it."

So said Tour de France television commentator Matthew Keenan during Sunday night's coverage of the dramatic ninth stage, as Romain Bardet gapped the groupe maillot jaune on the perilous descent of the Mont du Chat and moments after Richie Porte crashed out of the race.

Given just one man can win overall, the 3,540 kilometres it takes to get there, and the umpteen hurdles along the way, only the brave or mildly insane would take on an event like the Tour.

After all these years, that York feels ready to change - no, make that smash - the status quo in such a public manner, that, to me, means something. It means progress.

Yet it takes an even braver person to be one of the most successful Tour riders of your generation, then, 30 years later, publicly share you identify as female. And on top of that, after two decades as a recluse from the cycling spotlight, overcome your fears to take on a TV broadcast role as an analyst during the world's largest annual sporting event.

I am, of course, referring to Philippa York, previously known as Robert Millar, winner of the mountains jersey at the 1984 Tour and recording a then British best fourth overall, and runner-up at the 1985 and 1986 Vueltas a España and 1987 Giro d’Italia.

"Thankfully gender issues are no longer a subject of such ignorance and intolerance, there's a much better acceptance and understanding. The steps taken over a prolonged period under the watchful eye of the medical profession to complete the transition from one gender to another can be difficult and are always only taken after much soul searching and anguish," York, in a statement published on Cyclingnews last Thursday, wrote, where for the past few years, she has written an excellent series of blogposts under her former name.

"While there has been some speculation concerning my gender over the past decade, perhaps it'll now be better understood why unwelcome and unasked for intrusions into that transition have been damaging not only to myself but to those I love. Thankfully the people in my family who I cherish have since matured and grown into strong and independent individuals, therefore the need to protect them has lessened. This, combined with their support, encouragement and the shift in modern society's attitudes, means that this will be a step forward for everyone."

That she said "I've known I was different since I was five years old" makes her already noteworthy sporting achievements as Robert Millar all the more impressive, almost certainly at a time when she was pondering who she really was. All she could do was temper those voices inside her head, and assure herself that after her cycling career was done, despite obvious anguish, she would engage in further introspection to discover her true self.

At 58 years of age, and having lived as trans since 2001, York appears to have reconciled with her past, to the extent she can now publicly confirm her new identity. "What I did before wasn't done by the person I am now, so it's not a case of changing history. I think for most people looking at this from the outside that's the easiest way for them to process it," she told The Guardian's longtime cycling writer, William Fotheringham.

"What that difference was and how to deal with it has taken a fairly long time to come to terms with – all I will say is it hasn't been an overnight process. There’s no one storyline that fits everyone. For me personally, until given the right information there wasn't a feeling of being trapped, rather it was more a case of the life I was living wasn't the one I felt I ought to be having."

There are few sports with such dyed-in-the-wool attitudes about homophobia, sexuality and sexism as in cycling. Jan Bakelandts' recent comments about podium girls, though made in jest, reflect this. As does the fact we still have podium girls. "It's a fairly ridiculous situation that there are no prominent gay people in the mainstream sports. It's a crazy situation that the rest of the world has percentages of gay, lesbian (and) trans people and yet sport doesn't," York told The Guardian.

"It's been the case that anyone thought to be different has been singled out for ridicule or presented as some kind of danger, and yet outside of sport that attitude isn't tolerated."

It is ridiculous; it is crazy.

Still, after all these years, that York feels ready to change - no, make that smash - the status quo in such a public manner, that, to me, means something. It means progress. "Gratifyingly," she said, "times have moved on from 10 years ago when my family, friends and I were subjected to the archaic views and prejudice that some people and certain sections of the tabloid media held."

Goodbye, Robert. Welcome, Philippa. It's a pleasure to finally meet you.