‘I am just Natalie, not Natalie the transgender cyclist’

‘I am just Natalie, not Natalie the transgender cyclist’

At age 47, Natalie van Gogh has called it quits on her professional cycling career. She was known for her aggressive racing style, resulting in two professional wins, but also for supporting her team leaders in the foulest of weather. She is also the only transgender cyclist in the current women’s road peloton, but that’s not what she wants to be remembered for.

“I have never been activistic,” she says from her home in Nieuw-Vennep, 30 minutes south of Amsterdam. “I never felt the need to represent the transgender community or pave the way for transgender persons in sports. I am just Natalie and I race because I love racing.” 

That racing career ended with the wet, first edition of Binche-Chimay-Binche on October 5. Van Gogh came in 12th after, true to her character, attacking in the final laps. 

“My contract ended with the Bingoal-Chevalmeire team,” she explains. “This meant I had to go look for a new team. For three or four years it took me so much energy to sell myself to teams over and over again. There is always the risk that you end up in a team that doesn’t line up with your own ambitions.

“This is all down to age. Generally, they say that I am still good enough but they also say that I am too old. I can understand this line of thinking. You don’t fit in the image of the team anymore. You are the odd one out. Also, there is no huge growth potential with me. I don’t get better anymore. I also don’t get worse at the moment which according to my trainer is quite an achievement.

“Truth be told, I have known for a few years this moment would come and you have to accept it.”

Van Gogh (right) versus Marianne Vos (centre) and Kirsten Wild (left) in the points race at the 2012 National Track Championships in Apeldoorn.

Van Gogh picked up cycling when she went into transition to become her true self 16 years ago. The hormone treatment caused her to gain weight and she wanted to halt that effect by exercising more. 

“As a kid I did many sports but I hadn’t done sports since I was about 21,” she says. “I gave up on it because I didn’t feel at ease with myself and my body anymore. Mentally I just couldn’t do it any longer. Body and mind are always one, you know.

“When the mental barrier in my head cleared, which was when I made the decision to go into transition, the sport saved me as well. That decision cleared the space in my head to see the world as it truly is. It also resulted in more energy, in social energy to go out there, meet people, do new things.

“I started living again after that decision was made. It was like being born again in a way. People are always amazed I am 47 but I always feel like I missed about 10 years of my life and that makes me 10 years younger mentally than my actual age.”

Van Gogh opened the door to a new life when she was 31 after a long and dark struggle with her own identity. The bike started to play a prominent role in that new life. From trying to keep the hormonal weight off she became a well-respected rider on the road with 2015 being her best year. She took two wins and a fourth place at the national road championships that season. She also won national titles on the track and in beach racing. 

Van Gogh in the polka dot jersey after stage 3 of the Boels Ladies Tour 2017.

Respect in the peloton for Van Gogh didn’t develop overnight. It wasn’t the easiest road to take, but in the end, she’s proud she persevered.

“I am most proud of myself for just pulling through, for going on, and not quitting my cycling career,” she says. “In the beginning I thought a few times: ‘do you really want this?’ All the negativity I got! Physically I had no trouble following the pace but mentally there was a lot of stress. What kind of shit would I get the next time I got to a race? What would people say now? Despite all that, I didn’t quit and stubbornly went on.

“This is what I wanted, this is what I liked, and I had a right to be there. Every time again during the first three years I told myself that and I am so proud I stood up for myself. I was finally proud of who I was and I never had that feeling before.”

There is a lot of discussion about transgender athletes in sport. The online and offline discussions often result in very harsh words and personal attacks. Van Gogh wasn’t spared such abuse.

“Reactions about transgender people in sports feel personal because they do attack you personally,” she says. “It’s hard not to get touched by them but I shrug and think: ‘yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Social media is anonymous and lacks nuance. If someone talks shit about you and then you meet the same person next week, they are two different people. It happened only a few times to me that someone came up to me personally to tell me how they felt about me.

“In race situations nasty remarks are down to rivalry,” she continues, talking about those first years in the women’s peloton. “I could place that rivalry and was not bothered. Things have changed though. Nowadays there is so much more knowledge about transgender people because of the increased media attention. I work with juniors for example and they don’t even blink anymore.”

Full suffer mode during the short prologue of the Festival Elsy Jacobs in Luxembourg in 2021.

There are rules and regulations for transgender people in sports. In short, transgender women have to prove their testosterone level is below a certain limit. After a full transition, the adrenal cortex is the only organ producing testosterone and an individual’s levels are very low. This means that all of the cis-women in the current pro peloton have a higher testosterone level than Van Gogh does.

“Maybe my body is built differently with different muscle structure, bone density or metabolism but there is also a big disadvantage for me because I don’t have testosterone,” she says. “I feel that below the line the potential advantages and disadvantages lead to zero in my case.”

Van Gogh has never been very vocal about her own life. She once told her story to Helden Magazine but never participated in talk shows or online discussions. She focuses on her racing. It’s a deliberate choice.

“I never played a role in the emancipation process and I never wanted that either,” she says. “I see that on my social media account for example. I don’t get a lot of hate on there but I also don’t get people reaching out to me for support. It’s something I am really proud if. I am just Natalie, and not Natalie the transgender.”

Of course, she does follow the discussion around the sport and transgender athletes. This year transgender athletes were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games for the first time. 

“There is a lot of talk now about the rules around transgender people in sports,” she says. “We have to go back to the drawing board and it won’t be done before Paris 2024. There are so many opinions. It’s just so complex. We just don’t know what the rules should be.

“Also, no transgender person is the same and no transition is the same. Everyone is different and you just can’t go around and ask everyone what their status underneath their clothes is. They all have different backgrounds and do different sports. No athlete is the same but that goes for the cis-women in the peloton as well.”

Always attacking during Gent-Wevelgem 2021.

Reflecting on a period of 15 years in the women’s peloton, Van Gogh has seen women’s cycling grow from a series of criteriums as a support program for the men’s races, to a calendar where there are many big races. She combines a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job in software development with a career in racing. 

“My employer is very flexible,” she explains. “He wants me to work 40 hours a week but doesn’t care when I do that. That can be six hours one day and 10 hours the other day. This gives me the flexibility to train. My trainer also realizes I have time on the weekends for long rides and I do short, intensive training during the week.”

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During her career Van Gogh has seen the peloton evolve from a group of amateur riders earning money with primes in crit races to the current hybrid peloton which includes first-year elite riders coming straight from the junior ranks, riders with a part-time or full-time job or studies, full-time professional riders who earn a sustainable wage on Women’s WorldTour teams, and bigger, non-World Tour teams like Jumbo-Visma or Ceratizit-WNT.

“I do see that we are at the tipping point here,” she says. “It’s becoming impossible to combine a full-time job with racing pro. The level has gone up. There are women who have all the time during the week to train and rest. When you also have a job, you see you are reaching the limit of how much time you have for the sport.

“You can see that in time trials for example where you see the increase in watts. There is more training involved in women’s cycling now but also more rest.

“As a working rider you don’t have more time to train and rest. Time is limited. In the Tour of Flanders, you just can’t follow anymore on these short, explosive climbs. That gap will only get bigger now.

“We always think women’s bodies have a limit but that is a limit we are taught socially. We are taught that women can’t do it. Now the women train as the men do. You see the watts approach the watts-per-kilo the men reach more and more. Women will continue to amaze and then the level goes up across the group.”

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After many years in the pro peloton Van Gogh is looking ahead to the future. She hopes to stay involved in the sport and has already started as an assistant sports director for WV Schijndel, a club with a thriving junior and U23 women’s team. 

“Cycling is my social network too and without it I would fall in a black hole,” she says. “I have been thinking long and hard about what I want. The first thing I want to try is to become a sports director. Many people have told me this during my career. I want to do it my way and I really feel I need some experience first. There is now a desire for female sports directors but there are not a lot with experience just yet.

“I want to learn the ropes first with WV Schijndel. I want to share my passion, motivation, race knowledge and peloton knowledge. I have always been a giver as a cyclist, as a human being, and I will be just like that as a sports director. I always like to see someone else do well and am proud when they do well and sad when they don’t.

“I gave a lot in the past 15 years but got so much in return. I would have been a different person if I never picked up the bike all those years ago. I got to travel and race around the world. Cycling made the world so much bigger for me and I am grateful for it.”

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