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Chris DiStefano, a cycling industry veteran since 1996, was planning on visiting Bentonville, Arkansas, in May to check out the burgeoning cycling scene and was even considering relocating there. Then three anti-LGBTQ pieces of state legislation came to the fore, and DiStefano, a father of a transgender child, changed his plans. One bill bans transgender women and girls from competing in school sports teams consistent with their gender identity.
After posting his thoughts on Instagram, DiStefano has become a bellwether and an advisor of sorts for the bike industry, where many people are advocating boycotting upcoming events in Arkansas like the UCI Cyclocross World Championship.
“I’ve taken calls from bike brands, bike racers, pros, ex-pros, and others, asking ‘should I go?’” DiStefano said. “I have told them all, ‘you know what you need to do.’ A boycott is just too easy; it’s on or it’s off. This is more of a slider. There are people who should go and raise their voices there, absolutely. And then there are people like me, who will stay home and spend their money elsewhere.”
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DiStefano is not the only person voicing his thoughts on the laws. Pro cyclocross rider Molly Cameron, who is trans, wrote a column on Bicycling.com, condemning the legislation and asking brands, individuals and organizations to publicly take a stand against the new laws.
And just today Tom Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, issued a statement from the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation calling the new laws “discriminatory policy,” and asking government, business, and community leaders to “consider the impact of existing and future policy that limits basic freedoms and does not promote inclusiveness in our community and economy.”
Arkansas in recent years has seen a spate of investment in cycling, led by Tom Walton and his brother Steuart. The brothers, via the Walton Family Foundation, their investment group RZC, and incubator firm the Runway Group, have put more than $70 million in trails and infrastructure, as well as invested in Allied Cycle Works and bought a majority share in Rapha for some $225 million. The Runway Group in 2018 hired Competitive Cyclist founder Brendan Quirk to build Northwest Arkansas into a cycling hub.
In addition to the 2022 cyclocross worlds, Arkansas in 2021 is hosting a UCI World Cup for cyclocross, two U.S. Pro Cups for mountain bike, and the Big Sugar NWA Gravel and Rule of Three gravel races.
Recent legislation in Arkansas includes SB354 ‘To create fairness in women’s sports act’, HB1570 ‘To create the Arkansas Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act’, and SB289, which would allow medical institutions to deny healthcare service to individuals ‘on the basis of the conscience’ except for emergency medical care.
DiStefano has a multilayered perspective on how the business of cycling and government interact, having worked in marketing for brands like Rapha and Shimano, as well as spent many years as a cycling advocate, both traveling to Washington, D.C. and working locally in Oregon to improve infrastructure and laws.
“I once was the person everyone is tweeting at right now — ‘your brand is the sponsor, and you need to do something,’” DiStefano said. “I’ve been that person at Shimano and Rapha. And I have learned so much since I had those positions.”
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Primarily, DiStefano said, he has learned that brands and bike organizations can affect more change than they may realize.
“I do feel USAC has more influence than they believe they have, and they should exert it,” DiStefano said.
USA Cycling is holding a series of panels on increasing diversity in cycling beginning tomorrow, and invited people like DiStefano to take part.
“I don’t know why I signed up,” DiStefano said with a laugh. “I just saw it and I signed up. But I think I can help the other people on that panel, even from USAC’s standpoint. I know teams feel the pressure of losing sponsors.”
DiStefano said the cycling industry needs to focus on a broader audience than just racers, and invest time and money in building cycling infrastructure with government at all levels.
“If we want a greater diversity of people to come to cycling then they all need to see that cycling stands for them rather than just marketing to them. All the people we want to come to cycling are not going to become us, and obsess over racing and parts. Don’t get me wrong – I love racing! I got up at midnight to watch the start of Flanders. But there are lots of people who ride bikes in their own way. And [in Arkansas], if the cycling industry and influencers were used as low-cost assets to build tourism infrastructure, I would be disappointed to see that all that gorgeous infrastructure placates people enough that we as the cycling world don’t invite more people into cycling,” he said.
“I am not looking away from $70 million in trails. And obviously I have a personal interest in this with a family member, but I have learned a lot about who rides bikes and who wants to,” he said. “The focus seems to be on the activity itself. But how do you make road cycling the most popular sport in the world when the roads are not safe? How can you [attract] new customers to a cycling brand when they aren’t even safe to live their own lives day to day? It’s not a popular conversation to have, but it is a necessary one.”