It was the day a transgender rider was meant to take on Britain’s greatest female Olympian in what promised to be a seismic moment for women’s sport.
In the end, Emily Bridges and Dame Laura Kenny were both missing from Saturday’s National Omnium Championships – but there was no escaping the elephant in the velodrome.
Stephen Park, the British Cycling performance director, addressed the transgender controversy by describing it as the ‘single biggest issue for Olympic sport’ and called for urgent cross-sport talks.
The women riders themselves – with Kenny missing through illness – refused to answer questions on the row that has rocked cycling.
But sources told the Mail on Sunday that they were seriously considering boycotting the event had Bridges been allowed to compete.
And that anger also spilled into the solitary stand at the Derby Arena, where three local mothers among the 650-strong crowd held up banners reading, ‘Save Women’s Sport’.
Female cyclists considered boycotting the National Omnium Championships if trans rider Emily Bridges was allowed to compete
Cyclists refused to answer questions on the row that has rocked the sport. Pictured: Laura Kenny, who pulled out of the race through illness
They had bought tickets purely to come and protest about Bridges’ involvement when it was announced earlier this week that she was set to be here riding in her first women’s event.
British Cycling had cleared the 21-year-old to take part as she had reduced her testosterone levels to below five nanomoles per litre for 12 months, as per their policy. They even registered her as a rider for the Track Nations Cup later this month.
However, on Wednesday, cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, intervened by deeming her ‘not eligible to participate’ under their guidelines, which allow them six weeks to convene an expert panel to review an individual case.
And it has now emerged that three-person panel can use their discretion when assessing a rider’s eligibility in order to ‘guarantee fairness and safety within the sport’. It is a significant development, which senior cycling figures believe could mean Bridges faces an indefinite ban.
Bridges could face an indefinite ban with a UCI panel set to deliberate over ‘fairness and safety within the sport’
Should that be the case, the Welsh cyclist would almost certainly challenge the decision, having penned an emotional statement pleading to be allowed to ride as a woman.
‘I am an athlete and I just want to race competitively again,’ said Bridges on Friday night. ‘No-one should have to choose between being who they are and participating in the sport that they love.’
It is understood British Cycling safeguarding officers are in regular contact with Bridges, who has been the subject of abuse on social media and even discussed having police protection if she were to ride in Derby as planned.
Should the UCI ultimately rule in here favour, British Cycling sources have confirmed they would have to consider her for international selection if her form merited a place and they have earmarked her for the individual pursuit.
That, though would cause huge division within the British squad, who have real concerns over the fairness of trans riders racing against women – but fear voicing their opinions would be interpreted as transphobic.
Bridges, who is not currently on the British Cycling programme yet but was on their senior academy as a male rider, also races on the road and could target June’s National Road Championships in Scotland.
She retains the ambition of competing for Wales in the Commonwealth Games, with the Paris 2024 Olympics further on the horizon.
But that could all come crashing down if the UCI panel deem she is not eligible under their policy, which leaves more wriggle room than British Cycling’s equivalent.
Rule 13.5.002 states: ‘UCI wants its athletes to be incentivised to make the huge commitments required to excel in the sport, and so to inspire new generations to join the sport and aspire to the same excellence. It does not want to risk discouraging those aspirations by permitting competition that is not fair and meaningful.
‘UCI wishes to encourage and facilitate such participation, on conditions that go only so far as is necessary to protect the safety of all participants and to deliver on the promise of fair and meaningful competition offered by the division of the sport into male and female categories of competition.’
Teenager Sophie Lewis won the National Omnium Championships, with Neah Evans (right) finishing second
A ban on Bridges, who began hormone therapy last year, would certainly delight the three spectators who turned up at the Derby Arena to protest.
‘Women have got to support women,’ said Jane, the mother of two daughters. ‘It is very frustrating. Girls train hard and then in five years’ time they might be competing against males. It is just not fair. It is cheating.’
Elizabeth added: ‘This is normal women getting angry. I am into cycling and every person I have spoken to thinks it is wrong.’
On the track, they witnessed 19-year-old Sophie Lewis become national omnium champion. Asked about the Bridges saga afterwards, she said: ‘I don’t think I know enough yet to comment on the situation.’
Tokyo 2020 medallist Neah Evans finished second, with five-time Olympic gold medallist Kenny having pulled out of the competition after winning the madison on Friday night.
But the action on the track paled in significance to the controversy off it. With the Bridges row set to rumble on, it could be that way for weeks.