Pro cyclist Justin Williams cofounded the cycling team L39ION of Los Angeles two years ago with a purpose: to bring accountability and diversity to the approximately $2-billion-a-year sport. Williams, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and became a Junior Track Cycling national champion at age 17, had long chafed against the sport’s “fratlike” culture, where, he says, “if the guys on a team like you, then they’ll hire you.”
L39ION (pronounced “legion”), an homage to 39th Street in L.A., where he and his brother Cory grew up, consists of a 10-man Continental team and a seven-rider, mixed-gender U.S.A. Domestic Elite team. (L39ION’s total roster of 17 includes 8 men of color and 3 women.) The team has scored important wins, including a sweep at this year’s Tulsa Tough race, held a few days after the 100th anniversary of the city’s Greenwood District massacre, and high-profile partners: Red Bull, Rapha, and e-cycling pioneer Zwift among them.
Fast Company: What’s the essential change you’re trying to bring to cycling?
Justin Williams: I have a lot of friends who are from Central America or who are Mexican American, from all these different places, and they could not stay in the sport because there was nothing there for them [in terms of money and opportunities]. What happens in cycling is that there are a lot of privileged dudes who are more interested in being friends than in winning races. I tell a lot of my sponsors that in 2021 [unless the sport changes] there’s no way I could say with a straight face to some kid growing up in a situation like I grew up in that they should dedicate their lives to cycling.
How are you working with Zwift to expand into new communities?
We did a [virtual] Zwift ride [in December 2020] and had almost 2,000 people, from Spain, France, Japan, Australia, and all these other places. The [Zwift] CMO helped put together [British professional cycling] Team Sky, so he already knew what it takes to develop a cycling team. And when I told him about wanting to develop cycling teams—plural—within [the L39ION] umbrella that create a product we can sell to ESPN in 10 years, he was very excited to be a part of that.
Beyond winning competitions, how do you measure your impact on the sport?
I love watching people buy our jerseys. They’ve sold out. A kids’ club from Malaysia even knocked off our jersey. It’s hard to be upset about something like that. People send us messages saying, “I started riding a bike because I saw you guys and I felt like I could do it.”
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