Williams Training in Malibu, California
Nolwen Cifuentes(Photo)
Williams Training in Malibu, California
Williams Training in Malibu, California (Photo: Nolwen Cifuentes)

Justin Williams Wants You to Care About Pro Cycling

He’s not only one of the fastest cyclists in the country—he’s also one of the sport’s most outspoken champions for diversity. But his mission has morphed into the greatest moon shot of all: to bring bike racing to the American masses.

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Odds are, if you live in the United States, you don’t follow professional cycling. Even if you do tune in to the Tour de France once a year, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of criterium, a spectator-friendly variation of road racing that takes place over multiple laps on a closed course. You probably didn’t know that although the format isn’t represented in the Olympic Games or on the UCI WorldTour calendar, most road races in this country are crits, and the discipline has developed its own distinctive style and vibrant scene here, which includes the premier USA Crits Series. All of this is too bad, because it means you almost certainly don’t know that crits are, in fact, a helluva lot of fun to watch.

“It’s the most intense hour and a half of people pushing speeds of 40 miles an hour, inches away from each other,” says Justin Williams, pro cyclist and founder of the team L39ion (pronounced “legion”) of Los Angeles. “There are a hundred guys fighting for the same spot. There are crashes, there’s screaming, there’s yelling. It’s just this high-intensity, high-octane, in-your-face kind of sport.” In short, Williams explains, it’s extremely American: “If you love football, if you like watching people get smacked and run into each other or seeing people getting dunked on, you’ll like crit racing.”

If you’re surprised to hear cycling talked about this way, that’s exactly the problem Williams, 31, is trying to solve. Justin Williams is on a mission to make you give a shit about American bike racing.

Which the sport needs. Badly. Though interest in other disciplines like gravel racing has grown—and 2020 saw a pandemic-induced bike boom, creating the opportunity for a potentially huge new fan base—road racing in the United States has experienced a steady decline in participation since 2012. A couple years ago, the website CyclingTips published a piece entitled “U.S. Road Racing Is in a Downward Spiral—What Comes Next?” reporting on a slew of North American teams and marquee events folding or losing major sponsors. On this side of the Atlantic, most people still think of road racing as a European sport that produces few American heroes—last year only three U.S. athletes competed in the Tour de France. Outside of the Armstrong years, the cycling industry has struggled to make racing appeal to anything beyond a niche (and a mostly white male one).

Williams and team during L39ion’s training camp in Southern California in March
Williams and team during L39ion’s training camp in Southern California in March (Courtesy Kit Karzan)

With L39ion, Williams is working to devise a new way forward—one that quits trying to emulate the European model, appeals to a diverse mainstream audience, and showcases crit racing in order to bring about a future where athletes can make a good living competing at home. “Europe can have road racing,” Williams tells me during a video chat. “I love watching it. It’s fantastic. I just want to create a different avenue of success, one that I know people like me are going to be able to participate in.”

I’m catching Williams in the middle of a metamorphosis of his own—or, at least, of the narrative he wants to tell. As a racer, he’s best known for being a formidable sprinter who holds—count ’em—11 national titles, including current USA Cycling (USAC) amateur national criterium champion. But what he’s received the most attention for is his work as a spokesperson for diversity and inclusion in the sport. Outlets from the New York Times to the BBC have sung the catchy, memorable verses of Williams’s journey from athlete to activist. Lately, however, he sees his mission as having evolved beyond that. “I like telling the story of how I got to where I am,” he says. “I hope it gives people hope and motivation. But I don’t want it to be stuck there, because it’s not a Black and white thing. It’s not an us versus them thing. I just want to make the sport better.”

Raised in South Central L.A., the son of Belizean immigrants and the second of four brothers, Williams was a prodigy on a bike. He began racing at 13, landed on a professional team at 17, and was funneled onto the U.S. national team at 18. In 2010, he was recruited to Trek-Livestrong’s under-23 development squad, which nurtured the most promising young American talent of the time. (Taylor Phinney, a future two-time Olympian, was a teammate.)

Despite the early promise, Williams never made it to the big time. Training in Europe, he felt isolated, a young Black man in an unfamiliar environment with seemingly no one willing to mentor him. His well-intentioned white teammates were there to listen and commiserate but could understand only to an extent. After one season, at 21, Williams left the WorldTour path behind and returned to the United States. He’s diplomatic when describing the situation to me. “I never felt like people really wanted to take the time to put me on game,” he says. “I felt like I was just constantly looking for advice, for someone to talk to.” While he’s less interested in rehashing this aspect of his backstory these days, he was more blunt in a 2017 interview with Peloton magazine: “I think a white kid with my talents and abilities would have gotten nurtured differently and gotten more support.”

Williams, mid-ride in Los Angeles in January
Williams, mid-ride in Los Angeles in January (Nolwen Cifuentes)

Back in the United States, Williams continued to race professionally for domestic teams but became frustrated with the low pay and a culture that treated riders as commodities. Newly established pros made as little as $5,000 a year, if they were paid at all, and Williams felt that management actively worked against riders building their personal brands or improving their earning potential. They were prohibited from interacting with sponsors without permission or supervision and weren’t allowed to develop noncompeting sponsor relationships. Questioning these policies could get you kicked off a team.

By 2016, Williams was finding his own voice anyway. He spoke out about being marginalized as one of the few Black racers at the elite level and about the importance of representation in cycling. He founded Cncpt, a development team for young riders of color specializing in crit and fixed-gear criterium (racing on bikes without brakes). Two years later, he broke out on his own, cobbling together enough sponsorships to race independently. Given that drafting and team tactics are a huge advantage in road racing, this was an audacious move. But Williams had his best season ever, winning both the USAC amateur road race and the criterium national championships in Hagerstown, Maryland, in June. (As a USAC Category 1 racer, Williams is a level below professional, so he’s technically an elite amateur. But Category 1 racers compete against pros in most major events and often belong to sponsored teams.)

In 2019, Williams founded L39ion, a team centered on him and his youngest brother, Cory, then 25, who had become a promising domestic pro. (The 39 in the name refers to 39th Street, where the siblings grew up.) While part of the team’s mission is to promote diversity and inclusion in cycling, its coed roster includes white riders, too. Big picture: Williams wants L39ion to serve as a model for a smarter, more profitable, more sustainable pro cycling team.

Williams criterium racing
Williams criterium racing (Michael Cedeño)

For starters, L39ion has yet to sign with a sponsor that hasn’t cut a check. This presents a contrast to many U.S teams, he says, which historically have accepted product as compensation and maintained a budget with barely enough money to pay riders. “I’m responsible for 15 people now, and they’re not going to work for free, because I’m not going to allow them to,” Williams says. His own days of making $12,000 a year are over, too. He says that his sponsorships bring in more than most WorldTour riders make.

In return, the team demonstrates an unusual level of savvy for its partners. “We operate as a marketing firm rather than a cycling team,” Williams says. “We leverage our partnerships through the sport and storytelling of cycling.” In early 2020, for example, the Williams brothers produced a short film with Jeep that premiered on Sundance TV titled Hustle and Motivate, about growing up in South Central L.A. and finding their way in a mostly white sport. For GoPro, another partner, they bring their reputation for mesmerizing race footage; fans can watch them elbow their way through a pack, whiz around corners, and unleash body-rocking sprints across the finish line.

Williams wants to sell crit racing as an aspirational lifestyle. “It’s like being in a rock band,” he says. “You’re going to these cities on this tour, and there might be 10,000 people surrounding a crit course, and you’re the star of that show. What we’ve done more successfully than anyone else is generate content around how cool the lifestyle is.” Which also means looking the part: art- and streetwear-inspired kit and imagery are core to L39ion branding.

Williams’s own Instagram account (@juswilliamz) is a master class in How to Be Effortlessly Cool Online, hitting an elusive balance of sleek, stylized photography and lighter authentic moments, like him, Cory, and his other younger brother, Calman, bagging on each other during midride coffee stops. “He really gets that if he can create characters with himself and the team, then that’s interesting to a brand and to fans,” says Anna McLeod, the athlete, team, and partnership manager at Rapha, L39ion’s clothing sponsor. This isn’t something pro cyclists have traditionally focused on, she adds.

Williams became a Red Bull athlete in January
Williams became a Red Bull athlete in January (Courtesy Kit Karzan)
With his brothers CJ (left) and Calman
With his brothers CJ (left) and Calman (Alan Leyva)

The strategy works, according to Fiona Swartz, marketing manager at Specialized, which is a major sponsor for L39ion. When the company launched its flagship Tarmac SL7 race bike last summer, it featured Justin and Cory in the marketing. “The traffic and excitement for them specifically was just way more than we could’ve expected,” Swartz says.

Through L39ion, Williams hopes to provide multiple avenues of appeal to those who haven’t typically been bike racing fans. “There’s this massive new demographic of people who are looking at the sport, because here are these two Black men standing on top of the podium and pushing for change,” he says. “Whatever people pull from our story—whether it’s ‘I like the way they dress, so that’s why I follow them’ or ‘These dudes are winning races, so I rock with them’—people are connecting to us.”

I ask Williams to paint me a picture of his fantasy for American pro cycling in 20 years. He launches into it without hesitation. For starters: “The American public will have a very clear understanding of what crit racing is,” he says. Teams will be tied to cities instead of sponsors, and there will be fierce, storied rivalries, like the New York Wolfpack versus L39ion of Los Angeles. Races will be broadcast on ESPN. There will be standout stars among the peloton. Jerseys will sport names and numbers, and fans will be able to purchase their favorite rider’s jersey from team stores, providing a reliable source of revenue.

Williams is inspired by the NBA, which in the 1980s was revived from a period of declining viewership by fresh leadership and smart marketing that played up dramatic rivalries and charismatic personalities. It’s a moon shot of a vision, but one with major upside—not just for him and L39ion, and not just for young Black aspiring bike racers. “I’m trying to change cycling for everyone, period,” Williams says. “More people ride bikes than play any other sport in the world. So imagine if you can make that thing cool and connect to all of those people—the general consumer, the general public.” In other words, imagine if pro cycling became an American sport.