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Justin Williams accepts five-month suspension from Salt Lake Criterium altercation

Justin Williams competes during 2022 Salt Lake Criterium
Justin Williams competes during 2022 Salt Lake Criterium (Image credit: American Criterium Cup/ Patrick Daly)

USA Cycling confirmed Thursday that three riders - Michael Hernandez and Robert Sierra of Best Buddies Racing and Justin Williams of L39ION of Los Angeles - have accepted final suspensions and penalties for their involvements in a physical altercation at the Salt Lake Criterium on July 16, 2022. 

Following an initial one-week investigation, Hernandez and Sierra accepted the results that found the riders had violated USA Cycling rules against ‘acts of violence among riders’ and unsportsmanlike conduct. Hernandez accepted a reduced penalty of a three-month suspension and 16 hours of community service, while Sierra accepted a one-month suspension and eight hours of community service. 

The results of the investigation were delayed as Williams exercised his right to a hearing, allowed by USA Cycling’s Policy III. A three-member panel upheld the ruling that was issued on July 25, and Williams accepted the initial five-month suspension that was recommended by the original investigator. 

“USA Cycling has zero tolerance regarding violence, instigation of violence, and bullying. The behavior at the Salt Lake City Criterium is inexcusable,” said Brendan Quirk, CEO & President of USA Cycling. 

“We are working with the race organizers of the American Criterium Cup to increase our scrutiny of rider behavior in the peloton, including the use of video replay officials at the event. And while this will allow us to better identify dirty riding in real time, this doesn’t replace the need for riders to show basic respect for each other.”

The Salt Lake Criterium in the Granary District of the Utah capital was the first of two days of weekend events and the Saturday night pro races were the sixth stop of the American Criterium Cup national series. The women’s pro race was held without incident, Kendall Ryan (L39ION of Los Angeles) taking the victory ahead of American Criterium Cup women’s leader Maggie Coles-Lyster (DNA Pro Cycling). 

The final hot laps in Saturday’s contest among the pro men sparked hot tempers as L39ION and Best Buddies fought for position on the four-corner course. The initial finish saw five L39ION of Los Angeles riders sweep the top five positions, the win taken by Ty Magner, with Tyler Williams in second and Justin Williams in third. 

Following a verbal and physical altercation after the finish of the race, the chief referee doled out immediate sanctions for both Justin Williams and Hernandez, a disqualification and a 72-hour suspension of both riders, as well as $500 fines. 

Then USA Cycling began an investigation of the incident, interviewing all three riders; Justin Williams, Hernandez and Sierra. An investigator also reviewed videos of the confrontation and interviewed other witnesses. As a result, the investigator found that the three riders violated USA Cycling rule 8A3(a) for "acts of violence" among riders and unsportsmanlike conduct.

Two sides of the story

What really happened during the race to cause such high friction at the end? 

Hernandez said, that following the race, he wanted to ‘talk’ with Cory Williams about a bump on the final lap, which sent the Best Buddies rider into the concrete curb. As he confronted Cory, Justin Williams ran from behind his brother, tossed his bicycle aside and, according to Hernandez, ‘put his hand on my chest’. When Hernandez then pushed Justin William’s hand away, the touching of hands became punching of fists.

Cory Williams took to social media to recount that “the rider who collided with me”, a reference to Hernandez, had told people at the finish line there would be a fight, and that the L39ION riders had to defend themselves in response to the “uncontrolled aggression” coming from Hernandez.

It was not revealed to Cyclingnews the involvement of Sierra in the altercation.

However, there was a full-on physical exchange of blows between Hernandez and Justin Williams rather than an exchange of words, and resulting suspensions.

Michael Hernandez took to social media in late July when he accepted the findings to say: “I take full responsibility for my role in the fight that occurred at the Salt Lake Criterium. I apologize to Best Buddies, USA Cycling, the fans who love and support this sport, and the cycling community.

“I accept USA Cycling's 3-month suspension from competition. During this time, I will work with USA Cycling and the American Criterium Cup to find paths to improve American crit racing so incidents like this do not occur again.

"I want to thank my teammates, family, and friends for the support they have shown me throughout this time. I am incredibly grateful to be part of a program that is bigger than just bike racing and look forward to continuing this push towards inclusion. I will come back from this faster, stronger, and better."

Justin Williams, pending the outcome of the hearing, took to Instagram to post an apology to fans about his involvement with the melee in Salt Lake: “In my fifteen years of racing professionally, this past weekend marked a low point for me.

"I’m very sorry for my unacceptable behavior that is not representative of me, my team, or my partners. For a brief moment I lost sight of the bigger picture, and I let my emotions get the best of me. This will not happen again.

“I support and am cooperating with USA Cycling officials to review this matter, and look forward to putting this behind me with perspective and a renewed commitment to growing this incredible sport for our fans and communities across the United States.

“I also look forward to collaborating with USA Cycling officials on opportunities to create a safer, more accountable peloton. Thank you all for your continued support, I look forward to seeing you on the road.”

American Criterium Cup

Apart from these three riders, the American Criterium Cup is sailing along, with two events to go.

Magner has amassed four individual victories at American Criterium Cup races so far this season for the men, while Cowan has one. On the women’s side, Skylar Schneider and Kendall Ryan have a trio of victories each, Ryan’s haul coming on the last three consecutive races. However,  the points collected do not count towards ACC rankings, as the team opted not to participate in the series, which has a separate prize purse of $100,000 from race payouts.

Best Buddies Racing had noted to start the year that the American Criterium Cup was one of the team’s priorities. They led the men’s pro standings with Alfredo Rodriguez half-way through the calendar, but he suffered a shoulder injury that kept  him out of racing since July 9. Brandon Feehery (Project Echelon Racing) now leads the sprint points and overall standings for elite men in the inaugural American Criterium Cup headed into the penultimate event on August 27 at IU Health Momentum Indy in Indianapolis.

The final event will be September 4 in St. Louis at the Giro Della Montagna race that is part of the four-day Bommarito Audi Gateway Cup.

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