L39ION of Los Angeles and how Justin Williams is redefining racing in the US

L39ION of Los Angeles
L39ION of Los Angeles (Image credit: Jude Mariutto)

Unlike many American domestic teams that have come before them, L39ION of Los Angeles has no grand ideas of becoming a stereotypical WorldTour squad, and the very notion of such a plan is something that the team’s founders, brothers Justin and Cory Williams, are wholeheartedly against. Instead, the ethos of the team is to develop a grassroots base within Los Angeles, and then beyond that, encourages cultural diversity, opens up doors for aspiring young riders, and creates a platform for those voices to be heard. They may not have WorldTour status or plans to race the Tour de France any time soon, but L39ION of Los Angeles has the power to change the sport for the better.

Born of African descent, Justin and his younger brother Corey have been ripping up the American racing circuit for the best part of three years, winning countless national titles between them, and solidifying themselves among the absolute elite on US shores. 

In 2018, and after seeing their opportunities limited within the American cycling scene, the brothers Justin and Corey opted to create their own squad, and L39ION of Los Angeles was born.

In just a short space of time, L39ION have become a mainstay on the US cycling landscape with plans recently announced for a Continental team that will sit alongside their domestic squad. Not only that, but they have also signed two high-profile women’s WorldTour riders in Kendall Ryan and Skylar Schneider. However, what makes L39ION’s accomplishments truly stand out is the fact that the Williams brothers have accomplished so much despite a backdrop of external pressures, doubts, and discrimination.

“Me and my brother have been the best two racers in America for the last two or three years but we didn’t have a home and we didn’t have a team,” Justin Williams tells Cyclingnews during a busy period of off-season planning.

“We were the ones who were left out on the cold, so the team was started out of necessity, so that we could continue doing the things that we wanted to do. We get to steer, we get to be a voice and we can help people understand that there is no diversity. We’re very much working towards a position so that other people don’t end up where we were.”

The subject of diversity – or lack of it – in professional cycling is not complex. The simple fact that so few athletes from BAME communities race within the WorldTour or Pro Continental ranks demonstrates imbalance, while the incidents of racist behavior both within the peloton and on social media surrounding certain athletes illustrates the need for greater accountability and education. Williams has battled against discrimination within cycling ever since he entered the sport but he says that diversity within L39ION came both naturally but also through necessity.

“The diversity in the team comes from me and my brother and our African descent. So I think that some people get lost in diversity being a reason for the team’s existence. The team exists because there’s no diversity but we don’t try and strictly push diversity,” adds Williams. 

However, if diversity and inclusion are important to the team then so too are their community engagements in Los Angeles. What also makes the team special is that Williams is determined to ensure that his riders speak for and with the communities in which they ride, and they practice what they preach in that regard with open group rides, training camps for children, and a promise of 12 bikes to be given away to kids at various races throughout 2021. The motivation behind these ideas comes from Williams’ past experiences on teams, where community engagement wasn’t a priority, and where winning mentalities have at times led to toxic environments. To build a team, and a following, Williams wants to encourage and attract riders and fans, as well as showcase what a professional rider’s lives can really encompass.

“We basically want to put kids in an environment where they don’t have to be in competition with each other,” Williams explains.

“That was really important to me at a young age when I was growing up in cycling. I wanted to be with my friends both in and outside races and I think that the culture inside races has changed a bit because there’s now this toxic perception that you must win at all costs and that if you don’t win then you’re not trying hard enough. We’re just trying to change that because it’s not a very healthy mindset for children to be in. We want these kids to just hang out, or go for a ride with the local pro team if they want to. They can come along and ask as many questions as they want from riders who have a ton of experience. Then we have a BBQ, play some games and it’s about having an environment that really creates positive communication. We want to share that experience with people who have the same love for cycling as we do. One of the reasons why L39ION exists is because I’ve seen a lot of my friends disappear from the sport and that love and passion drove me to try and save some kids from suffering that same fate.”

For most fans who follow European racing at the elite level, Williams' ideas of community engagement and giving back might appear at odds with what they’re typically used to seeing. NTT – previously known as Dimension Data – have a strong charitable arm to their strategy thanks to Qhubeka, but the majority of WorldTour teams only exist to generate exposure for the title sponsor and soak up TV time. They want to win races but culture and engagement tends to be based on a superficial basis of ‘likes’ and re-Tweets.

“I’ve never been on a team where community engagement was the focal point or where I got to help the team explore that avenue,” explains Williams. “It’s super important to me because that’s the foundation that other sporting teams [ed, outside of cycling] have when it comes to making them successful. The way teams make people feel, the way sports make people feel, that’s what brings success.”

L39ION of Los Angeles

The L39ION of Los Angeles team this year (Image credit: Justin Williams)

The shadow of 2020

The success of the Williams’ brothers and their team has been forged through one of the most disrupted and tense years cycling has ever seen. The COVID-19 pandemic obliterated the racing calendar and shuttered teams, while the Black Lives Matter movement resonated across the globe with the cycling community as a whole facing questions over coverage, opportunities, and representation.

At the Tour de France, for example, the support for the BLM movement was slow to organise and one could say, half-hearted, with riders encouraged to wear messages of support on their face masks ahead of the final day of racing. It was left to the lone Black rider in the peloton, Kevin Reza, to speak up during the second rest day with several interviews conducted with the international press, but the vast majority of the peloton and the race organiser ASO remained silent.

“I’ve seen conversations open up and I’ve seen different things happen,” Williams says when asked if he’s seen progress around diversity over the last six to nine months since the murder of George Floyd by police sparked a wave of protest.

“I don’t know if we had influence in those conversations, but it would be cool if we did. But if you look at the Palace and EF First collaboration, that was a super important moment for cycling but at this point, most of it is just talk. Again it’s too early to really talk about whether anything has changed or is going to change. I don’t think that anywhere near enough has been done or has been put forward. There are some things here and there but the road is so long for cycling to really have change. I don’t think we’ve done enough to have that impact,” he says.

“I see reminders that things need to change every day though. The Tour de France for example, who did nothing to speak on or support social injustices that have been happening around the world. That’s the biggest race in the world and to have the riders organize to ride with sharpie messages on their face masks that black lives matter... 

“I think that the message probably needs to be different in Europe. The phrase Black Lives Matter is very controversial and when you plug that into an all-white sport the message isn’t going to feel the same. There was a way to do it and I think there was no effort spent on doing that.”

Williams admits that he doesn’t know exactly what the Tour de France organisers should have done to create a more comprehensive message of solidarity but observers could scan the NFL or the English Premier League – although those organisations have also been criticized – for examples of athletes and sporting organisations going infinitely further than the Tour.

“I think that there are people a lot smarter than me who they could have been reached out to when it came to finding the right answers but it could have been anything from a moment of silence to a million of other things they could have done. But I feel like it doesn’t affect them enough for them to care, so they didn’t.”

Just after the Tour, two US riders, Chloe Dygert and Quinn Simmons displayed their feelings on subjects such as race, the term 'white privilege', and gender through their use of social media. Both riders’ actions forced their sponsors into making public statements with a seemingly brazen Simmons pulled from racing until 2021 and Dygert later issuing an apology that didn’t even cut it with one of her own sponsors.

Perhaps the most disappointing angle to the Dygert and Simmons examples are that their opinions are shared by so many rather than so few, but Simmons’ actions at one point dragged the Williams brothers into the fray. For clarity, and in case it passed you by, the young Simmons responded to a message on Twitter by writing 'bye' and followed that by an emoji of a hand with Black skin tone waving. The use of a Black emoji by a white person online has been repeatedly highlighted as racist, and the term “digital blackface” has been coined to describe its usage.

“There was a lot of conflict, or perceived conflict, between him [ed. Simmons] and my brother. Some were taking the Quinn Simmons thing and making it seem like an isolated incident but it’s not. He’s not the standout - he’s the majority and that’s what people fail to realise. People thought that my brother and I were super offended by the incident, but we weren’t. It’s what we’re used to. I know those views, even though people aren’t talking about them, are what the majority of people feel. Even if they won't say it, their actions definitely show it. In America, in bike racing, those are a lot of people’s views.”

Staggeringly, and in another demonstration of how far cycling and society still need to travel, it was the Williams brothers who were later criticized for Simmons’ messages.

“We got attacked for that,” Williams says.

“People were saying that we weren’t fit to be leaders because we weren’t supporting Quinn Simmons in his fight with the internet. It was crazy. People were actually saying that Cory and I weren’t fit to lead because Quinn Simmons was being thrown under the bus and that we should come and save him and put ourselves on the line to protect ‘this boy’. In the US, when a white kid does something the term ‘boys will be boys’ is used but when a Black kid does the same thing, different terms are used.”

The 2021 L39ION plan

Williams' experiences stemming from Simmons’ social media posts are sobering to say the least, but despite the racing restrictions caused by COVID-19, and those who Williams labels as ‘naysayers’ that look to discredit his work, the L39ION team are building for the future. The UCI Continental license they received in Autumn opens up new avenues of racing, both in Asia and Europe, while the raft of new signings brings a new dimension and quality to the roster. On a purely competitive basis, this team is going places.

“Part of the reason we went for the licence was that we needed a back up if there was no racing here in America. Now that Europe is shutting down again, we basically spent $40,000 to have a title but again it just legitimizes everything.”

There will be around 15 riders on the L39ION books next season, while there’s also talk of a recruiting programme, and the possibility of increasing the modest number of support staff, which currently stands at three. Williams is adamant that even if the numbers expand and the roster improves, he and L39ION will never compromise on what it means to wear the team’s jersey.

“There needs to be a hunger for racing and they need to believe in where the team is going,” he says when asked about the direction in which the team is going and the sort of rider that attracts his attention.

“They need to want to come to the team to make a difference and make a change. When we have those conversations with riders we can tell if there’s a small part of selflessness. So we weren’t originally going to sign any girls this year. We don’t have the infrastructure but when you get an incredible athlete like Skylar tell us that she wants to make a difference, and that while she wants to get back to the WorldTour, she wants to take that journey with us, you’ve got to make that happen. I only want people on the team that believe in the vision. I don’t want people on the team who only want a job. They can find a job somewhere else. So much more is expected of you, so you’d be miserable here if you just wanted a job.

“But I don’t think the licence changes the culture of the team at all. It perhaps changes the perception for the public and some of the naysayers of what is actually happening. The culture inside the team is very much about everyone wanting to see change and they want to be part of that. We’re doing things that aren’t even on other teams radars and I think that people hold onto hope, so not only are we living up to what we say we’re going to go do, but we’re hopefully opening up the floor for people who really want to believe in something again. That’s what has been so attractive for some of the riders that we’ve pulled in because with some of them I really thought that we had no chance of signing. While that’s great, and I love that, I think that the culture in the team is about people wanting to build something that’s bigger than themselves. The team is bigger than any of us and that’s extremely important for anyone that comes in.”

And that example of selflessness starts with Williams. He admits that his racing legs in 2021 might not be where they should be as he juggles training with the constant nurturing of the team. It’s a sacrifice that he’s willing to make. 

“We’re at such a critical time for change that I just believe that sacrifices have to be made. Again, it’s bigger than me so while sacrificing results isn’t something that I want to do, until we build out a platform that’s more sustainable, it’s just a sacrifice that has to be made,” he says.

“But I just feel like I’m doing my part. It’s too early to feel pride because I don’t feel like I’ve done enough to be proud of yet. It would be premature. I think that anyone who is in a position to give back should do so and that they should be reaching out to a younger generation. They should be trying to guide and I don’t look at it as something special or my duty."

No one really knows what the racing landscape will look like in 2021, or even how success for a team like L39ION will be measured or quantified, but as long as there are squads like the L39ION of Los Angeles and the Williams’ brothers then there will be hope that cycling can open its doors and become more representative and diverse.

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