“It’s like, if you're going to create change, you have to be polarising,” Justin Williams says, sitting in the Rouleur Live venue in London, wearing a custom, bright purple, tie-dye Nike tracksuit and a New Era baseball cap. He’d hopped off the plane from LA just a few days earlier and admits he wasn’t sure what to expect from the event. Williams isn’t as familiar with the UK audience, and he’s had a turbulent past couple of months.
In some ways it’s been a year of contrasts for the American cyclist. His team, L39ION of LA, has had a solid season with plenty of victories in the US criterium scene and Williams himself just successfully hosted the inaugural race in his new series, CRIT Championship (an event that has garnered big investment from US firm Wasserman Ventures). With this new race series, three thriving Williams Racing Development squads (L39ION of LA, Miami Blazers and the Austin Aviators) and a lucrative Red Bull sponsorship, Williams’ personal profile is bigger than ever, and he’s making the step changes he’s always dreamed of in the American criterium scene.
On the other hand, his progress has been, and continues to be, challenged by controversy surrounding his racing. Last month, USA Cycling announced that Williams would be suspended from racing for 60 days (a ban which will run from April to June 2024) following a crash with another rider at the Littleton Twilight Criterium, which USA Cycling deemed Williams’ fault due to “dangerous riding”. It isn’t the first time that the L39ION of LA founder has been reprimanded by his nation’s governing body, he was also suspended in 2022 for an altercation with a fellow rider at the Salt Lake City Criterium that year.
Williams is happy to discuss his upcoming suspension, openly offering up his side of the story and explanation when asked. “We can talk about it. I don’t have any shame about it,” he says, assertively, as our conversation begins. The Belize-born rider describes the events of that night at the Littleton Twilight Criterium in granular detail, in the words of someone who clearly has given it plenty of thought.
“I straightlined him [Thomas Gibbons, the rider who opened the investigation against Williams] to break his momentum because he was riding overly aggressively, and he fell over my back wheel,” Williams says. “If he wasn't riding so aggressively and he just backed out, we would have made it around the corner, and we would have gone about our business and carried on.”Image: James Startt
The crash itself wasn’t caught on clear camera footage, with Williams arguing that USA Cycling were only prompted to investigate it due to the public awareness surrounding the incident. He describes how, directly after the crash, he and Gibbons had a verbal altercation in front of multiple fans which led to Williams being berated by the crowd, something that was reported by an onlooker who “felt sorry for me”, Williams claims. According to the L39ION rider, when USA Cycling began to question Gibbons about this, Gibbons said he wanted to open up an investigation about Williams instead, which “wasn’t even the point of why the whole thing started”, he says, shaking his head.
Regardless of Williams’ opinion on whether his suspension was justified, he will be obliged to serve it next season. For the American rider, it feels like a culmination of setbacks that are hindering his vision for criterium racing in the States. Since even before he started L39ION in 2019, Williams has been on a mission to modernise and diversify the sport, making it a more inviting and interesting place for new and younger audiences. There are countless testimonials from people who have felt welcomed into the sport for the first time thanks to Williams’ big presence and the message he shares.
“I think that for USA Cycling, it’s not about making the sport better. It's about giving off the perception that they're changing something,” Williams says. “That's what's so annoying. They're hurting me and by them hurting me, I can't help other people.”
Williams is referencing the fact that he’s facing more difficulty finding sponsorships for his three teams for the next few years due to his suspension. “The industry is so fickle with their support, I’m already fighting to get partnerships, it’s like the value we currently bring and everything we’ve done has been forgotten because of this stuff,” he says.
It’s true that the creation of L39ION of LA has been one of the biggest things to happen in the US domestic racing scene in recent seasons. Williams says the team is born from a dream to promote diversity and representation in the sport of cycling, challenging outdated ideas and destroying boundaries. They believe professional cycling has celebrated riders that conform, look the same, act the same, and read off the same script for too long – it only takes a look at the diversity of the WorldTour peloton to understand that this is a problem across every level of the sport.
“There's nobody in America that is doing what we're doing. There's nobody in Europe doing what we're doing who can touch the demographic that we're touching. Because the sport is a primarily white sport, it doesn't necessarily matter yet. It's like, there's so little dirt out there on me that they have, they're attacking my racing.”Image: Andy Donohoe
Williams points to various examples of crashes that he believes had worse consequences than the one he is being suspended for, where no one ended up being penalised, arguing that USA Cycling applies different rules for different people.
“That’s the frustrating part, we're constantly being targeted and being made an example of because we are the brightest light,” he comments.
The American rider defends his actions on the night of the Littleton Twilight Criterium by explaining that he sees himself as a veteran of criterium racing, meaning he has to take on an authoritative role in the peloton to ensure that riders are being safe.
“I'm the nicest person in the world until it's time to race and people are doing stuff that they're not supposed to be doing, then it's my job as a veteran in the sport to either teach you or to move you because either you're gonna crash me or my team,” he says. “USAC [USA Cycling] is putting us in a really dangerous position and ruining my reputation as someone that's trying to uplift the sport.”
Last month, Williams ran the first event in his new CRIT Championship series in St Petersburg, Florida. It was an invite-only event that saw some of the biggest criterium teams in the USA and beyond attend, including Williams’ three WR Devo teams and the London-based criterium squad, Tekkerz. It was also judged by independent commissaires, rather than USA Cycling.
“USAC doesn't do anything to grow the sport. Everything they do is performative. If we did a USAC sanctioned race it would just bring in the headache of their officials and their rules,” Williams explains. “We still have rules and there are officials but to invite USAC, the only benefit would be the insurance and we found better insurance, so what’s the point?”
CRIT Championship being an invite-only event is also something that Williams sees as crucial to professionalising criterium racing in general and leading to safer racing.
“I’m literally creating accountability because all of the teams were invited so it was a different level of respect in the race. I can go up to somebody and say, hey, you can't race because you're not ready, or you're riding overly aggressive,” Williams says.
To Williams’ point, if criterium races are classed at professional level, it’s not an unusual practice to only invite certain teams to race (it happens at every level of professional road racing.) “It's a double standard to justify hatred towards us. People say we’re hand-picking people but every serious competition in the world does that, yet we can’t?” he argues.
Williams notes that building grassroots support and community events is also a huge part of what he does to encourage the younger generation and reach wider audiences, but he believes that professional racing, when the risks are extremely high, should be reserved for those who have spent the time and have the experience of learning their craft.Image: James Startt
It’s fair to say that the issue of growing criterium racing in the US is complicated, with Williams at the centre of controversy, fighting with organisations who have historically had much more power and influence than him. The 34-year-old perceives that he has faced barriers in every level of professional cycling, right back to when he raced on the road for Trek-Livestrong over a decade ago.
“I think any normal person would have given up already but I grew up in a really hard place. Everything that I lived through, you have to be able to move on quickly, you have to be able to forget pretty quickly, or you're just going to be depressed or angry,” Williams says. “I grew up in a racist America, a place where even the teachers – the people that are supposed to be nurturing you – treat you as if you're not going to be anything. Then you step outside into a world that treats you like you're not going to be anything. One out of three Black kids end up dead or in jail, where I come from.”
WIlliams says that his background has given him perspective, meaning that while his personal passion is in criterium racing, he believes in the sport because of the potential it has to transform lives on a much wider level.
“It hurts me because I'm providing so much opportunity for people that I really feel deserve it and there are people that are getting in the way because of their ego, because of their biases, or because they’re upset that I'm doing something that they didn't think that I could do,” he says. “Now there's momentum, they're tired of hearing my name. They're tired of hearing about the things that we're doing, because we're creating change from nothing.”
It's a testament to his character that Williams vows to achieve his lofty ambitions in the sport despite these bumps in the road. He admits that his upcoming suspension will impact what he’s trying to do in terms of altering what the sport of cycling looks like for the next generation. The thing about Justin Williams, however, is that he appears to only be more motivated than ever in the face of adversity.
“The suspension issue was so left-field and it was such an egregious overstep. It's really hard to continue pushing when I feel like I've done everything right. I've created immense value for partners and created a really bright light in American cycling, where people are talking about it, WorldTour teams are talking about it and everybody wants to know more,” Williams says. “Every move that I make, it's over exaggerated or hyper-criticised because if they can make me look bad or discredit me, they can regain control to make things exactly how they've always been. I don’t want to let that happen.”
Cover image by James Startt