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HUMAN RACE: Justin Williams

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Justin Williams was still in the saddle, already in the 54×12, ready to explode toward the finish line and away from the sound of splintering carbon fiber. The 2017 Dana Point Grand Prix would be over in about 12 seconds, but in that moment, he still had two Cylance Cycling teammates in front of him and two dudes fighting for his wheel. Williams had been banging bodies with one of them, the racer with No. 99 pinned to his jersey, a few laps earlier and had pushed him off a teammate’s wheel. “That guy had been riding aggressive all day,” Williams recalls. “This is my home race and my whole squad was out there. Sometimes you just need to establish dominance.”

Words: Peter Flax / Image: Courtesy Justin Williams

The frantic fight for a wheel can have consequences—especially in the closing moments of a technical criterium with a five-figure purse—and in this case No. 99 wound up careening into a curb and then a fence and then a tree. The gap closed and the race continued without a pause. The finish banner was in sight.

Williams describes the final 200 meters of a race as if it happens in slow motion. “With maybe a lap left in a race, I just let everything go and breathe deep,” he says. “At that point, I’ve done all the fighting and the thinking and it’s time to get ready for one last big jump. I’m just monitoring everything around me and then sprinting—it can feel strangely peaceful compared to the rest of the race.”

In this case, Williams was able to come off teammate Scott Law’s wheel and drive to the line at 43 miles per hour and post up, with other sprinters strung out behind him. It was one of nine pro wins Williams has secured so far this year, the most recent being at the Andersen Banducci Twilight Criterium in Boise, Idaho. To consistently win at top pro crits is not easy. It takes massive power, piloting skill and a strong team, of course, but it also requires something else—a kind of illogical courage.

Image Courtesy Oran Kelly | 

Williams, now 28, found that tenacity within himself early on, back when he was just a boy growing up in Central Los Angeles. “I was just an inner-city kid,” he says. “I had a ton of energy and athleticism and other sports just weren’t working out. My mom was emphatic that she didn’t want me playing football.”

Both of his parents had come to L.A. from Belize, and his father, Calman, was a devoted bike racer. For years Justin had felt no interest in his father’s sport—it’s not like any other kids in the neighborhood wore spandex or raced bikes—but one day when he was 13 and feeling restless, he jumped on his dad’s bike, just sitting there in the apartment on a trainer. There was a spark. He told his father he wanted to be a bike rider.

What happened next may help explain some aspect of William’s character. His father insisted that he ride on the trainer nearly every day for two months before they could go out on the road. Then, on the fateful day, Calman Williams gave his 13-year-old son a pair of bibs and took him out for his first ride: a 70-mile loop. The kid made it 50 miles before he was overcome. “Yeah, that was a crazy first ride,” Williams recalls. “I was wearing boxer shorts under my bibs and I got the worst cramps and my dad literally left me on the side of the road. I just sat there on PCH for a long while until an aunt pulled up in her car to grab me.”

Though many would be traumatized by that kind of experience, Williams has a mix of bemusement and fondness for that brutal maiden voyage and the values it instilled. “I understand what my dad was trying to convey,” he says. “Racing bikes is hard and you need to be serious about it.”

It took a while for him to get serious about training but his aptitude for racing blossomed quickly. He relishes the memory of winning a field sprint at the L.A. Circuit Race when he was just 14, an inner-city kid on a scrappy bike beating a far more experienced reigning state champion with four-spoke Spinergy wheels. Soon he was racing and winning on the track too—he would go on to win four national titles as a junior and under-23 racer.

Image by Kit Karzen

As a teenager, Williams got to know Rahsaan Bahati, who raced against his father, dated a cousin and became a fixture around his apartment. That relationship really opened his eyes to possibilities he had never contemplated before. “It was impossible not to be inspired by Rahsaan,” Williams says. “I mean, he was going to races in Europe, doing things that made me aware of this entirely different world than the one I was in.” Williams would join Bahati on the Rock Racing team when he was just 17, where he’d stay for three seasons before joining the Trek-Livestrong U23 squad for a year. He raced alongside world-famous pros, won an elite national championship on the track (the team pursuit with Taylor Phinney and two others) and notched a top-20 finish in a stage at the Tour of Qatar.

But beneath all the strong results, Williams was still struggling as a young black man trying to navigate through an unfamiliar world. “It was not easy for me,” he says. “As an inner-city kid, I had a radically different approach to life than most everyone I was spending time with. It was a real culture clash. When you join a cycling team, people assume you just have this instant relationship where you trust each other completely. But where I come from trusting strangers like that could get you hurt.”

Whether it was the cliques on the track or the oddities of international travel, deciphering Euro traditions or figuring out how to let his true personality shine through, everything Williams experienced as a young racer came through the filter of race and class. And when asked to explain how the arc of his racing career brought him to domestic crits—and not the UCI WorldTour—the conversation again turns to race. Williams is measured with his thoughts here, careful to acknowledge his gratitude for the opportunities he’s been given, mindful to acknowledge the likelihood that certain things happened because he was young and impatient and struggling to find his way. But still, he was a black teenager who won stars-and-stripes jerseys and finished top 20 in Qatar—and then kind of fell off the map.

“I think a white kid with my talents and abilities would have gotten nurtured differently and gotten more support,” he says. “I remember looking at Taylor Phinney and thinking how he had it made. I know he had huge talent, but he also had all this institutional support and two parents who knew the sport inside and out. I was this kid from Central L.A. without much help from the national team or nurturing from coaches, and my parents were from a third-world country.”

Williams pauses, searching for words to tie this thread up. “Obviously, it could have gone differently,” he says. “But I’m really happy doing what I’m doing. I’m happy winning crits.”

When asked to explain his affection for the criterium format, Williams can barely contain himself. “I think it’s the future of American bike racing,” he says. “I love the chaos; I love the way every lap is bodies on bodies.” Williams has deep respect for the five- and six-hour road races that dominate the European scene, but he thinks the intensity of a 90-minute crit is underappreciated by many fans, mentioning how Oscar Sevilla, his former teammate at Rock who won the white jersey as best young rider at the 2001 Tour de France, once called the Redlands criterium “the hardest thing he’d ever done.”

These days, Williams has plenty of family company out on the big-time, big-money crit circuit. His brother Cory, 24, is also a top contender who can win top races. “I love competing against him when he’s really good,” says Williams, who mentions that the rivalry began when Cory started riding a bike without training wheels at age 2. “Who doesn’t want to beat his brother?” Currently, USA Cycling ranks Justin Williams as the No. 3 pro criterium rider in the nation, while Cory sits at No. 7. I see the brothers often on my daily bike commute into Los Angeles, their shoulders bumping even as they noodle down a bike path at 15 mph. “Yeah, that’s intentional,” he says. “The point is to always be comfortable with a body on you. That way you’re prepared if someone puts a shoulder on you at the apex of the final turn of a crit.”

When asked about the future, Williams is circumspect about his long-term aspirations and very clear about his short-term plans. “I’m 28 and I’m realistic about what’s possible,” he says. “I’d love to do one-day races in Europe and I think I could be a very strong ProTour lead-out guy, but I don’t know if those opportunities will arise.”

Image by Bobby Endo

In the nearer term, he’s gearing up for a run at the Red Hook crits coming this fall in Milan and Barcelona. “I’ve done it before for fun but I’m serious this time,” he says. “The combination of street culture and hard racing speaks to me.” When asked if he’s worried about getting caught up in crashes, Williams just laughs and says, without a hint of irony, that the secret to avoiding trouble at Red Hook is simply to stay in the top 20 the whole time.

Beyond that, Williams is highly engaged mentoring and growing the Endo Concept Team, a squad of up-and-coming urban racers in Los Angeles. This year the team has six Cat. 2 and 3 racers between the ages of 20 and 25, all of them black or Hispanic, and Williams is presently reviewing résumés from more young riders who’d like to get involved. “I’m trying to catch kids coming out of the junior ranks,” he says. “I’m trying to shape kids who already have an inherent interest in the sport.”

When asked if the so-called CNCPT Team is a way to pay it forward, to help young minority riders who remind him of himself and the challenges he faced coming up in the sport, Williams is quick to say yes. “I want to do more than just help them be bike racers,” he says. “I want to help them figure out how to be themselves, to figure out how to be adults. I think I can help open that door for them.”