It’s not every day that Bobby & Jens co-host Bobby Julich gets to interview a rider whose poster he had on his wall growing up. This week, Philippa York, one of the best British cyclists ever, who spent her career racing as Robert Millar, joins Bobby & Jens.
Her story of getting into cycling has origins familiar to many: as a way to open up her world and see what was outside of Glasgow, where she grew up. Seeing the Tour de France on TV growing up also kicked off an interest—even though the race only got about 15 minutes of total air time in those days. That brief coverage was enough.
It wouldn’t be until she was 16 that she would pin on a race number for the first time. She finished last, “but that didn’t seem to bother me that much,” she recalls. Despite that inauspicious start, she progressed quickly, soon becoming the best rider her age in Glasgow, then Scotland, and soon after in the U.K. By age 17 she had decided that she wanted to be a professional.
Philippa’s career racing as Robert Millar was fruitful to say the least, yielding podiums in grand tours and stages in all the grand tours. Before Sir Bradley Wiggins came along, she was the highest placing rider ever from Great Britain in the three week races.
In many ways she was among a group of riders who were trailblazers, both because they spoke English and because, not content with the status quo, they asked for better conditions and improvements, to food, equipment and more. She was even one of the cyclists to get teams to start bringing bikes to races, rather than have racers fly in with their own. “Quite often we were a pain in the ass… because we were asking for things outside of the norm,” she recalls. For all the headaches she and her peers caused the sport, there’s no denying the lasting impact that she has had on conditions in the modern pro peloton.
But one of the most significant areas she has been a trailblazer in wouldn’t come until after hanging up the bike. She knew from a young age that she wasn’t like other boys, but, born in the ‘50s, she grew up in an era where awareness and acceptance around transexuality was low to nonexistent. “I became aware during my career that the whole transexuality thing was going to happen to me after I stopped,” she says. “I couldn’t do it [while racing] because it would be too much of a scandal.” She discusses the challenges she has faced transitioning as a well-known public figure, and talks re-emerging into the public eye as Philippa, a journalist and cycling commentator.
There’s still a world of progress to be made for trans and gay people, especially in athletics, but Philippa’s life and story provide inspiration, and a lesson to fight for improvement, even if it means upending the firmly entrenched status quo.
“Bobby & Jens” is a weekly podcast from VeloNews starring former pros Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt, and featuring conversations with top athletes, coaches, emerging stars, and other newsmakers from the wide world of cycling. A new episode drops every Friday. Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts.