There are 415 male riders with an elite or first category license in the UK. If these riders were representative of the wider male population of the UK, you would expect between 14 and 29 of them to be gay*. We know of only one.
That rider is Clay Davies. The twenty-nine-year-old Spirit Bontrager BSS Rotor rider has been openly gay amongst friends and family for seven years, but, until now, this isn’t something he has revealed to the wider world.
It took being knocked off my bike by a car, nearly being killed, for me to come out. I’d had my head crushed. That was my epiphany, the moment I decided to come out and tell people. But it shows how deeply in the closet I had been beforehand. It took me nearly dying to reveal my sexuality
Despite the odds that a good proportion of male riders in domestic Continental and elite teams are gay – enough riders to fill 2-3 squads worth – being an openly gay male is no easy thing to do. Our piece with a recent British rider in January highlighted why for some riders, a ‘laddish’, ‘macho’ culture can compel them to hide their sexuality. Cycling Weekly’s article in May further highlighted the reasons why there are so few openly male gay riders in the professional and elite ranks. The reactions to both pieces were largely positive. But there was a negative side too. There were comments on social media complaining that the pieces only compounded the problem and that journalists should “keep sexuality out of cycling”, others simply dismissing the issue.
For Clay, freedom of sexual expression and identity is not something that cycling should just brush under the carpet. He believes there is still much more cycling can do to support riders to be themselves, to be more open and inclusive. He hopes that by sharing his story he can support other riders to follow in his footsteps and help cycling culture to change for the better.
In this feature-length interview, Clay discusses his own story: how he got into cycling, the moment he came out as gay, his experiences of being a gay rider in what can be a laddish and too often overtly homophobic world, and how the cycling world can create a more inclusive culture.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into riding, Clay?
It began when I was a kid, just pissing around on mountain bikes and whatever. But then I started cross-country mountain bike racing about ten years ago. I used to do single speed, rigid bike, six-hour endurance events around Thetford Forest, in the pouring rain, in December. Absolutely horrific.
Then I started taking it a bit more seriously, doing the national cross-country circuit. It became quite clear that, given my size – I’m 80-plus kilos, 6’2″, and I’m not as good as [Mathieu] van der Poel – that I wasn’t really suited to it. I wasn’t cut out for winching my way up a climb in Wales, to fly down it the other side, again. So, the road was probably where I was heading.
And can you take us back to the moment you decided to come out? How did it happen, what was it like?
It took being knocked off my bike by a car nearly being killed, for me to come out. I broke both my arms and had my head crushed by the rear wheel of an Audi. That was my epiphany, the moment I decided to come out and tell people. But it shows how deeply in the closet I had been beforehand. I took quite literally nearly dying for me to reveal my sexuality. Basically, I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to go and tell everyone now.’
So, it was a ‘life is too short to not be yourself’ moment?
And was that before you’d started racing?
Yes, so this was as I started cycling seriously, about seven or eight years ago. At that point, I came out to my close friends and stuff. But at the time, the perception was you just don’t tell the cycling people.
Why was that do you think?
I think there’s this perception – whether it’s true or not, and I think it is to some degree –that serious amateur cyclists, pro cyclists, semi-pro, elite riders, whatever, are quite a funny bunch. That they’re not quite as socially dynamic as others, that there’s a bit of a closed mindset, a not-quite-as-worldly type of approach. That they might behave strangely if they knew you were gay.
In what way?
So, for example, I was at the Eastern region road race championships two or three years ago. There were some homophobic slurs being thrown around the bunch. It wasn’t just banter. It was nasty. I distinctly remember it. It made me so angry that I bridged across to the break. I was so bloody angry, I said, ‘Screw this’ and emptied myself to get across and placed third.
Were they being directed at you?
I’m not entirely sure, they could have been. I know what team it was but I’m not going to say who it was, because it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. But, yes, it happens.
It requires an enormous amount of energy, mental energy, to be in the closet … You’re constantly on your guard, waiting for the next awkward question to come through. It’s exhausting, absolutely exhausting
How does it affect you hear when you hear homophobic language, whether it is intentionally homophobic or not?
It requires quite a lot of energy to be in the closet. This is the point I think some of the people who responded [negatively] to the Cycling Weekly article are missing. It requires an enormous amount of energy, mental energy, to be in the closet. To give you an example, when someone says, ‘Who are you seeing these days?’, you never say ‘she’ or ‘he’. It’s always ‘them’ or you try to change the subject.
You’re constantly on your guard, waiting for the next awkward question to come through. It’s exhausting, absolutely exhausting. If you’re in the closet, and you don’t want people to know, you’re constantly worried. Worried about friends seeing you out with someone, or seeing that you’re on a dating app, or whatever. It’s just a constant drain on your energy.
How open are you about your sexuality now with other riders? What approach do you take? Is it something you still hide to some degree?
If it’s somebody I know, I can be quite out there, for a bit of a laugh, really. I can be quite camp sometimes. Most people at races, who I know well, I know they’re absolutely fine with it. There are others I don’t know, or who don’t care, or whatever. I’m at the age where I don’t really give a monkeys. But I can see if you were an under-23, or a junior, younger and more sensitive, that it could be a strange environment, lacking support. Going to a bike race, particularly the higher category bike races, is a slightly odd experience. It’s the nerves, the cyclist personalities, and I think it could be slightly uncomfortable.
Then there is the issue of sharing a room with a rider at a stage race, or if you have to get changed into a skinsuit in the middle of a field before a race. I’ve had slightly odd experiences, with people acting a bit odd around me in these scenarios. I don’t know if it’s them being coy, or because it’s me.
How do you mean?
So, for example, I was on a training camp in Spain. The person I was sharing with wouldn’t shower while I was in the room. It was a continental-style room. You couldn’t see the shower from the main part of the room, but it was behind a wall. An open shower area, behind a wall. He would not have a shower with me in the same room. I came back to the room once during the week to find it had been deadlocked from the inside and I could hear the shower running, I had to stand outside and wait.
You have joined the Spirit Bontrager BSS Rotor team this year. How did that move come about?
I was on the Flamme Rouge Cycling Team last year, which has now been disbanded. Russ Rowles, team owner of Spirt Bontrager BSS Rotor, got in touch late last year, and said, ‘Would you like to join us?’ And, here I am.
Are there any teams you wouldn’t have joined because of concerns about how you would have been perceived or treated?
It’s certainly been a consideration when I’ve thought about any team. It depends on how much choice you have, but there may have been seasons when I would’ve gone, ‘Oh, maybe not, they’re a bit laddish’.
What was it about Spirit Bontrager BSS Rotor that made you think it would be a good fit?
I spoke to my coach and now teammate, Jake, before joining. He said it wouldn’t be a problem at all. Then I had a chat to Russ and it was absolutely fine. You can tell very quickly when you speak to someone the chances of it being an issue or not. And most of the time it isn’t. I spoke to quite a few of squad. We might not be the strongest bunch, but we mesh as a team. We’re all good mates, effectively.
How do you see things as they stand in the UK cycling scene?
Statistically about one in twenty people are estimated to be gay or bisexual in the UK. So, in a National B road race, you’re looking at about three to four riders. I’m not aware of a single other male rider that’s openly ‘out’. In fact, I only know one other elite rider who is gay, although it’s not something he has shared publicly.
The irony of course is that cycling is all about men obsessing about the way they look. They’re wearing lycra, shaving their legs, it’s a very visual sport. Riders obsess about appearance, tan lines and all the rest of it. It’s a stark comparison to rugby players, for example. Rugby players, in my experience, are some of the most open people about their sexuality.
What would you say to the people that responded negatively to the Cycling Weekly article or the piece we published with an anonymous rider earlier this year? There were some pretty dismissive responses…
I think the idea of ‘gay shame’ still pervades. As a youngster, if you’re gay but haven’t felt able to share that with your family and friends, then there is no support network around you. No care, love, and support to back you up, support you in expressing and being who you truly are. There’s a process of shame building up. It can become a spiral of doom, effectively, becoming isolated, depressed, hiding who you are.
If you’re not able to be yourself, to be open about who you are and feel accepted, you can’t reach your full potential, can you?
So, in terms of the comments saying, ‘Sexual identity doesn’t matter in cycling’, or ‘Cycling doesn’t have a sexual identity problem’, it obviously does matter, doesn’t it? If you’re not able to be yourself, to be open about who you are and feel accepted, you can’t reach your full potential, can you?
The one other rider I do know who is gay, he’s recently come out to his family and friends, but not the cycling world. And I think that’s telling, isn’t it, really?
Picture this. At the start line at the Tour Series, you sometimes see riders’ girlfriends lean over the fence and give their boyfriend a kiss for good luck. Can you imagine seeing that with a gay couple? A boyfriend giving a kiss to a male rider on the start line, and that being shown on the highlights on ITV? I don’t think we are there yet. I’ve had boyfriends come to watch me at a bike race, but they’ve sort of stayed in the corner, as it were.
Well, I guess that concept of gay shame is what the rider who wrote for us in January was alluding to. The difficulties he’d had with comments from teammates, laddish talk about girls, throwaway derogatory comments about being gay, that made him feel like he couldn’t be himself…
Those little things build up. In my experience It’s not likely to be a big thing that causes an issue, when you’re in the closet or openly gay, it’s the little niggling things because they build up, and you don’t forget.
This is not cycling-related, but when I was at school there were very camp, obviously gay boys who were out there completely. They got bullied a fair bit, but I believe they had lots of support from their family and friends outside of school. They effectively had a bit of an energy shield, as I’m going to call it. When you don’t have that support at home and from friends, because you’re not out, you absorb a lot more of that and it puts you in a spiral that wears your energy down.
You said that not being able to be yourself can limit your potential. How many gay people, gay males in particular, think, ‘Actually, this sport isn’t for me,’ and don’t even end up trying to see how far they can go in the sport, because they’re put off by what they see?
We’ve got a guy on the team, who’s not gay, but is ridiculously strong. If he’d found the sport five or ten years earlier, he would be in the WorldTour ranks. Imagine, if he was eighteen, gay, with a huge amount of talent. If he’d joined a team, and didn’t feel accepted by the other riders. Mental energy drained, he couldn’t share a room with someone in a hotel on a stage race, knackered all night because he wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t getting results, and so on. Just like that, a rider who had WorldTour potential hasn’t made it because they were suppressing so many different things.
When you’re depressed, you can barely sit on the back of a bunch in a race because your body is essentially fighting itself all the time. You go into shutdown mode
When I was coming out, I suffered from, and still do, depression. I’m on medication and I might be for the rest of my life. It is almost certainly as a result of being in the closet for so long. When you’re depressed, you can barely sit on the back of a bunch in a race because your body is essentially fighting itself all the time. You go into shutdown mode. I’d be struggling to sit on the back of a bunch in a road race, whereas once I started taking my medication and getting help, I could ride off the front of a category two-three road race. That’s the crux of it really.
In any normal year, your Spirit team would have a UCI programme alongside domestic racing. Do you foresee any challenges when you race abroad?
Yes. There are countries where I would feel uncomfortable racing, Places that have renounced being homosexual or have a particular reputation for being homophobic. If I raced in some of those countries, It is my perception that I would need to be careful, hiding my true self and increase my guard. Once I’m out there, I’d obviously have to be careful which is a slight drain on my energy. I do appreciate the irony that doing this interview and it being published online will not likely help in this regard, not in the short term anyway.
I guess, Clay, regardless of whether there would, or wouldn’t, be a problem for you in the race, the very fact that you’re already thinking that you’d have to hide aspects of your personality, suggests that it’s not a comfortable prospect…
No. I’m quite often in the break these days, that’s the sort of rider I’m becoming. You’re giving it everything, you’re fully in the red. So, if you’re losing one percent because you didn’t sleep well the night before because you’re worried about some issue about being gay, that’s going to affect your performance in a race. I’m 30 next year, and I don’t really give a monkeys about this sort of stuff now. But if it was one of our under-23 riders, that would be completely different, you know. I think that’d put Russ in a difficult position; would he have to worry about needing to shield that rider? Would he be concerned about taking that rider to the race at all?
How do you foresee change happening in the cycling world?
It’s management-led, isn’t it? It’s got to come from the top. The UCI, British Cycling, team managers. I’m a surveyor, and the property industry is a very white, male, middle-class industry. It’s notorious for it. When I first worked in London, there’s absolutely no way I’d have come out in the first, or even the second, company I worked for.
After I left the second company, I turned down the job offer of a lifetime. I’d have been earning a fortune and had great career prospects, but I had a seriously bad feeling that coming out in that business would be problematic. The interesting thing about the property industry though is that it’s changing very rapidly, the vast majority of firms over the past two or three years, have very, very quickly become more inclusive, diverse, and receptive.
We need some sort of statement from teams saying that they are inclusive, receptive to difference, and actively support it
I think we need examples, role models. Hopefully, this interview will help in that regard. But we also need leadership from the top. I’d like to see some kind of inclusivity charter. It sounds a bit corporate, I know, but I think we need some sort of statement from teams saying that they are inclusive, receptive to difference, and actively support it. I’d love to have seen British UCI Continental teams put statements out for Pride Month declaring that they are fully supportive of it. Every big corporate firm does it: John Lewis, Tesco, etc., but it just doesn’t quite reach the cycling world, does it?
Tell us more…
So, I work for a very large corporate, and I think cycling is probably at the point that these large businesses were at four or five years ago. In my view? Just do something. Something has got to be better than nothing. Go out there and say to riders, ‘we’re inclusive, supportive and if there are ever any problems then we’ll support you. If a rider is difficult about sharing a hotel room in a stage race, then we’ll deal with it.’
Three or four years ago, the idea when supporting Pride was to change everything to a rainbow for a month. Loads of rainbow stuff, it was very in your face and out there. It was just a bit corporate and jumping on the bandwagon. They’re still doing it now, but it’s a lot more empathetic. In cycling, there are no rainbows or anything. Well, apart from the world championships. Maybe we have to start with the in-your-face approach.
Some of the biggest cycling clubs in the country haven’t done a thing. Then all the way through to WorldTour teams, there doesn’t seem to be any action.
Do you think that change is starting to happen in the cycling world too?
I think the crux of it is that things are getting better but very slowly. It’s my view that change needs to be pushed from the top. You cannot force riders to come out but the UCI, top-level teams and British Cycling can do much more in laying the groundwork for all riders to be themselves and make acceptance the norm.
It is my honest hope that in a few years’ time, we will look back at this interview and wonder what all the fuss was about
I appreciate that coming forward and doing this interview is ‘out there’. There could be some people who take offence and might not agree that this is the right thing to do. I’m sorry if this is the case, I just hope that this interview at least prompts conversation and thought. It is my honest hope that in a few years’ time, we will look back at this interview and wonder what all the fuss was about.
* The ONS estimates that 3.7% of 16-24 year old men and 3.6 % of 25-34 year old men identify as gay (2017 figures). younger men 3.6% of 18-30 year-old males in the UK identify as gay. A nationally representative study by Kantar TNS found 7% that British men aged 18 to 30 years identify as homosexual, 5% as bisexual, and 2% as other.
Find out more
Should anyone need any advice or support, Clay is happy for people to message him via Instagram. He also recommends the following resources:
- LGBT Foundation
- MindOut Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Queer Mental Health Service
- The Be You Project
- PRiDE OUT cycling group
We would like to extend a huge thank you to Clay for speaking so openly and to his team manager Russell Rowles for helping to make this interview happen. We are also really grateful to Joe Laverick and David Bradford for providing invaluable editorial input. Finally, thank you to Ian Wrightson for the images.