© Aaron Blatt
Justin Williams embarks on new challenge with L39ION
“I’ve basically stopped doing interviews on being black in cycling: I’ve been black my whole life,” he says. “I want more diversity, but I care about changing the sport for everyone, moving the sport forward, trying to make things better for everyone. That’s the story I want to tell.”
The 31-year-old co-founded the L39ION of Los Angeles cycling team in 2019 with his brother Cory Williams. He anchors the seven-person USA Cycling Domestic Elite squad, while his brother anchors the new 10-person UCI Continental racing team, announced in December 2020.
“Crit racing is the thing I fell in love with first, because I had access to it and because it was so mental,” says Williams, who started racing as a teen growing up in South Central Los Angeles. “You’re trying to play this moving chess game at 30 miles per hour -- while not falling over -- and I love that.”
Pronounced as “Legion of Los Angeles,” the stylized version of the name, L39ION, is a nod to 39th Street in Los Angeles, where the Williams brothers grew up. The team is focused on growing the sport by building a team that fans and new riders in the sport can look up to.
“People get attached to stories. I’m a Lakers fan because I fell in love with Kobe first -- because Kobe was my hero. When he went to play for the Lakers, I said, ‘Yeah? Dope. I’m going to be a Lakers fan because he’s there.’ That grows into a love for the team, but first, you need that connection to that person you can relate to, that brings you inspiration, and that you can aspire to be. We didn’t see that in cycling, so we wanted to create it.”
Criterium races are held on closed courses on public roads, often in urban environments. Williams, who won the Elite Class national title in Road Racing in 2018 and 2019, says he believes the sport is the secret to building a more exciting American cycling scene and to attracting people of color to the sport and supporting them once they’re in it.
As a young rider starting out in road racing, he says he felt restricted by the narrow athletic focus around the mechanics of making power and riding governed by rules of hierarchy and etiquette. For him, criterium racing is where he found the spirit of cycling.
“I’d go race criteriums and it was like, ‘You either you win, or you crash, and if you crash trying to win, it’s okay.’ I loved winning in crit because it meant I’d outsmarted people as much as I outrode people,” he says.
Born in Los Angeles to Belizean-American immigrants, Williams was steeped in the culture of cycling from a young age. His father and uncle both rode and he grew up hearing stories of their experiences racing in Belize and competing in the country’s famed Holy Saturday Cross Country Classic in the 1970s.
First he took up track racing, winning junior national titles in 2006, 2007, and 2008, before heading to Europe to pursue a pro road racing career. Although he found some success there, he says he also faced racism and became disillusioned with the way pro teams operate.
In 2015, seeking to find his way in the sport, he and his brother traveled to Belize to take on the Holy Saturday race as a two-person team, and won it -- partly as a way to thank their father for supporting their careers. They won it again in 2018 and founded L39ION of Los Angeles the following year.
“I was super fortunate to have some people of color as really good mentors in cycling, people like Rahsaan Bahati,” Williams says. “I had a few historic black role models in the sport to look to, people like Major Taylor, taking it way back, and Nelson Vails, but a lot of my heroes were outside of cycling: Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Lewis Hamilton.”
In 2021, Williams says he’s looking forward to a busy race calendar in June and July. After seeing most of his 2020 race calendar canceled due to pandemic restrictions, he’ll compete in the U.S. Pro Criterium at the U.S. National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee in June.
He says he’s excited about the depth of talent now on a team he’s running his way.
“For some people that are still not understanding that change is coming, it’s happening,” he says. “Let’s do it! I’ve really got plans. There’s so much stuff I can’t wait to kick off. I’m super grateful and so happy. I’m ready to get to work.”