Justin Williams was photographed in Malibu, CA, on January 26, 2021
© Joe Pugliese
Cycling
Power Broker: Justin Williams
Justin Williams wants to do more than win big races. He wants to change his sport.
By Peter Flax
Published on
It’s true that you can’t really win important bike races without raw watts, without unbridled speed. But it’s also true that you can’t come close to your full potential as a racer without something intangible—let’s call it racecraft. This amorphous term helps describe one’s ability to master tactics, to assess the competition and the course and the moment, to intuit several chess moves in the future. A bike racer who has an aptitude for racecraft has a huge advantage because he fully understands where to position himself for success.
Justin Williams understands racecraft. He triumphantly posts up at a lot of bike races after a turbocharged sprint in the home stretch, but those wins are almost always set up through tactical acumen—knowing how and when to conserve energy, how to move fluidly toward the front, how to marshal teammates or foresee obstacles. In a similar manner, Williams, 31, has developed an acumen to chart his own course to break free from and possibly transform the often-inflexible sport in which he competes. “I want to change the sport of bike racing in America,” he says without swagger. “It has to be different, so it’s more vital and appeals to a broader group of people. It’s a lot of responsibility to take on that change, but I stopped letting people control what my destiny is going to be a long time ago.”
On his unconventional and ambitious path, Williams has founded his own team and a development squad, both of which seek to win races but also provide better opportunities for young Black and Hispanic athletes. He simultaneously lives the lives of a professional athlete, a businessman and a content creator. And Williams is fully invested to both defend and grow the distinctive American discipline of criterium racing. “I obviously like to win but I’m more interested in pursuing a greater good,” he says. “I made some sacrifices—I let go of some other dreams to get here, but I’ve known for a long time that I want to be more than just a great athlete.”
Williams is the reigning criterium champiom.
With track and junior titles, Williams has won 11 national championships.
From the beginning, Justin Williams was the farthest thing from a typical American bike racer. He was born in South Los Angeles and was raised on 39th Street at a time when everyone still called the neighborhood South Central. His family was from Belize, which actually has a pretty crazy bike racing culture. His father, Calman, had some success as a racer. But it’s safe to say that very few kids in South L.A. imagined themselves racing bikes—it was an activity that existed in a distant universe.
It's not enough for me to just do something on my own.
Justin Williams
But sports were important from the start. “I was lucky enough to grow up with a massive family,” Williams says, noting how he was always playing in the alley behind their apartment building with his brothers and “like 15 or 20 older cousins.” Naturally, when many of them came together to form a Little League team, they called themselves the Alley Cats. Williams saw the value in that community early on.
Williams was into football initially, but he had issues with injuries and his mom’s disapproval. That’s how he got into cycling when he was 13. In an interview several years ago, he told me about how his father didn’t exactly make it easy for him at the start. His dad insisted that he ride on an indoor trainer nearly every day for two months and then took him on a pretty brutal maiden voyage—a 70-mile loop up to Malibu. After the young teenager got disabling cramps, Williams’ dad left him on the side of the road until an aunt drove up to get him. Williams expressed more bemusement than trauma when he recalled this story. “I understand what my dad was trying to convey,” he told me in that 2017 conversation. “Racing bikes is hard and you need to be serious about it.”
Over time, Williams got pretty damn serious about it. He won a bunch of junior national titles on the track and had success on the road, too. He was on a professional squad as a teenager and after a few years was invited to join the prestigious Trek-Livestrong U23 team in Europe. For so many promising young elite racers, competing in big European events on a legit team is the equivalent to making the major leagues. But despite some promising results in races, Williams struggled. It can be tough for any young athlete to adjust to a new culture, but it was different for a young Black man from South L.A. with immigrant parents.
“Going over to Europe made me feel really isolated,” he says now. “It was a mix of people making me feel like I didn’t belong and my own odd kind of experiences with being different.”
There were too many challenges and not enough support, disappointments that ultimately would inform and motivate future career moves in the sport. “When I was over there I just kept thinking if there was a way that I could continue to do the thing that I love doing,” he says. “I was thinking about Southern California and criterium racing.”
In the following decade, after a period of ups and downs and team dramas that have been described elsewhere as his “wilderness years,” Williams eventually carved out his place as one of the top criterium racers in the U.S. In 2016 and 2017, despite some tension with his team, he won a combined 30 races. And in 2018, racing as a sort of privateer with a sponsorship from Specialized, he finished in the top 3 in a remarkable 30 out of 35 races, found immediate success in Red Hook criteriums and won national championships both on the road and in the criterium.
Justin Williams celebrating his new helmet with (from left) Payson McElveen, Colin Strickland, Reggie Miller and Kate Courtney.
On January 20, Williams celebrates his new helmet.
For those who don’t know the criterium discipline well, these races involve multiple laps on a closed course. They typically last an hour or two—significantly shorter than a road race at the same level—and tend to be flat, relentlessly fast and full of sharp turns. “It’s a fast-moving, high-stakes chess match where if you make a mistake, you’re sliding across the ground in a millimeter-thick piece of fiber that does very little to protect you,” says Williams. “From the start I loved how the physical element reminded me of football. You know, when you’re playing wide receiver and you have a corner on you trying to jam you on the line; in a crit you often have to put a shoulder into somebody to slightly shift them. It’s a contact sport.”
Colin Strickland has felt that shoulder. Now a winning gravel racer, Strickland used to compete against Williams in criteriums all over the country. “Justin’s assertive when he races—he knows what’s his and takes it, but he’s never a dick,” says Strickland. “There’s a culture of self-importance in U.S. racing culture but he’s not like that.”
When asked to assess the strengths of the newest rider to strap on a Red Bull helmet, Strickland quickly outlines Williams’ physical gifts and his racecraft. “Physiologically, he’s got a knockout punch,” Strickland says. “He comes out of the last corner and he can throw on afterburners and punch it in a world-class way. On the intangible side, he’s a master of navigating, brilliant at positioning his bike and body. So with 200 meters he’s in the winning position. He’s just a master of the craft of racing.”
And yet, despite all his racing success, even with dozens of victories including two national titles, Williams ended his 2018 season wanting something bigger. “Winning all those races was fun, but I wanted to start a new chapter and share that experience,” he says. “It’s not enough for me to just do something on my own. I need to create something, to grant opportunities to people who I love that I know deserve it, while simultaneously putting criterium racing on the map.” This is how L39ion was born.
Williams with three other Red Bull cyclists (and an NBA Hall of Famer)
Williams with three other Red Bull cyclists (and an NBA Hall of Famer)
There is a conventional, well-trod path for professional bike racers looking for results, money, fame and other markers of success: Join the biggest, best-funded, most prestigious team you can and leverage its resources to pursue common interests. It’s a system that has operated for decades, but generally speaking it hasn’t exactly served the interests of athletes like Justin Williams.
When we show up to races, it says that we’re not messing around, but it’s subtle enough where we can shape our own identity in using the word.
Justin Williams
That’s why Williams and his younger brother Cory—himself a super-talented crit racer—decided to start their own team. One that was focused on criteriums and had roots in their community and gave opportunities to people of color and otherwise exploded the stereotypes of how a racing team operates. Cory suggested the name Legion, and it stuck. “It was this perfect balance of something serious but unintimidating that I immediately wanted to be a part of,” Williams says. “When we show up to races, it says that we’re not messing around, but it’s subtle enough where we can shape our own identity in using the word.”
Williams has always had an interest in typography and design and he went to work to shape the team’s logo and identity to shape a stronger narrative. “Legion” became “L39ion” to reflect his family’s roots on 39th Street in South L.A. And the image of a lion was integrated into the branding of the squad—symbolizing both his childhood Alley Cats team and an icon of Rastafarian culture in Belize. The whole backstory and vibe was light-years away from the traditional aesthetic of European teams, where everyone wears a matching tracksuit to dinner.
Williams founded the L39ion team, found sponsors and created the branding.
Williams founded the L39ion team, found sponsors and created the branding.
Justin is literally giving a whole demographic an aspiration to get into bike racing.
Anchored by the Williams brothers, the L39ion squad has a diversity that reflects the vitality of a big U.S. city like Los Angeles, a vitality that has been nearly absent in American bike racing culture. They also started a development squad called CNCPT—which assembles young Black and Hispanic athletes as well as some cool creatives into a racing team. Among many other things, Williams is making personnel decisions on both teams, building sponsorship relationships, managing schedules, executing content plans—all while trying to win races at the highest level.
“Justin is literally giving a whole demographic an aspiration to get into bike racing,” says Strickland, who himself turned down a WorldTour opportunity to chart his own path in the U.S. domestic scene. “If younger athletes don’t see someone who looks like them, they likely don’t consider a sport. Justin is such a selfless, positive person—and he’s a winning machine—and he likes to spread the gospel of cycling. Being a Black athlete in our sport is a rarity, and he could help change that.”
Of course, in this game, having good intentions and a cool story will only take you so far—the concept only takes flight if the team wins bike races. That box, fortunately, has been checked. In June 2019, wearing his L39ion kit, Williams rocketed out of the final corner at the USA Road National Criterium in Hagerstown, Maryland, to win with a big margin. He thus again earned the Stars & Stripes jersey given to national champions, a title he still holds since the race was not contested in 2020.
Williams is paying it forward to the Black community that helped him.
Williams is paying it forward to the Black community that helped him.
The last official result that Williams had before the virus changed everything was last March at the Tour de Murrieta, a big weekend race series in California. There, the team founder played the role of team player. When the dust settled, the final omnium standings had Williams finishing third, with his brother Cory on the top step and another young teammate, Tyler Wiliams (no relation), in second—a L39ion sweep. Justin Williams was no longer playing by someone else’s rules, and he was winning.
The pandemic has shut down road racing in the U.S. for about a year now, but Williams is hopeful that he and the team will take up where they left off when it does. He hopes to defend his national crit title this summer. He’s definitely thinking about the 2024 Olympics in Paris, which might have a finale that suits pure sprinters.
In any case, the downtime has given him the bandwidth to get control of his team management role—and to ponder the future. “Last year I was teetering on this fine line, like can I be an athlete who wins a national championship while also managing the logistics, the management and the vision of a pro team,” he says. “And now it’s transitioning to this place where all I have to do is manage the vision. I have the people in place to help me, and I just have to manage the vision and make sure that we stay true to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
It’s happening. On a cool, sunny day in January, Williams went for a ride in the hills above Malibu—not so far from where his first training ride went sideways two decades earlier—with a small squad of Red Bull cyclists. His buddy Colin Strickland was there, as were mountain bike powerhouse Kate Courtney and gravel and XC marathon racer Payson McElveen. NBA Hall of Famer turned cycling fanatic Reggie Miller was there, too. There, up in a spot known as Saddle Peak, with a backdrop of big sky and big ocean, those riders surprised Williams with his Red Bull helmet and welcomed him to the family. All of these athletes had spoken up and written testimonials about Williams to help make this moment happen. “Justin is an extremely talented athlete with great results, but I’m equally if not more impressed by the many ways he is working to redefine what it means to be a professional athlete,” Courtney says.
Williams hopes to defend his criterium national championship this summer.
Williams hopes to defend his criterium national championship this summer.
“He’s such a nice human,” Strickland adds. “Red Bull is like an amplifier—you plug in and whatever you’re doing gets louder. Justin is a super-exciting athlete, but results are limited. To do something bigger we need people who will advocate for change.”
To that end, Williams and Strickland have spent training rides and other conversations brainstorming and plotting how to reimagine and grow the sport of criterium racing in America. Williams imagines a format that resembles other professional leagues, with well-organized and well-funded franchises in big cities competing against each other in spectator-friendly contests.
Strickland imagines race courses being built in these cities that can host these races and weekly community crits. Both of them imagine a future where young people of color have a venue to get involved in the sport. “The culture of our sport needs a serious shake-up,” says Strickland. “Justin has the business savvy to make something happen. He’s not just looking to make money; he legitimately wants to change and grow the sport.”
This is the racecraft—having the foresight when you’re going hard as hell to think through your next moves. Williams isn’t satisfied being the Black kid from South L.A. who struggled in Europe but came back to be America’s crit king. He wants to be more than the guy who bounced around teams and finally started his own pro squad. He wants more young people to get the opportunities that he had to battle for, to see the sport he loves grow to reach its full potential.
I think seeing my parents sacrifice so much, to go out of their way to help people even when they would get nothing in return really shaped me.
Justin Williams
When asked to explain where this hunger comes from, Williams takes it back to 39th Street. “I will always remember my parents really going out of their way to help people when I was growing up,” he says. “Like there were people who would come live in our house for a month while they got on their feet if they were moving to America from Belize. So I think seeing my parents sacrifice so much, to go out of their way to help people even when they would get nothing in return really shaped me. And then seeing it happen or feeling it happen to me when I got into cycling, the way the small Black community in cycling really helped me, reinforced that. So naturally, I knew what needed to be done, to pay it forward. It’s never seemed clearer what I’m trying to accomplish—to attract younger people from different backgrounds to the sport. This is bigger than me or the team. This is big.”