Riding Through Microaggression to the Top of the Podium
Photo/Aaron Blatt/Red Bull Content Pool
What happens when you’re the new kid on the block, a minority, and a tier above your peers? You get paid less than your white counterparts, denied sponsorship opportunities, and struggle to find a cycling home like Justin Williams. Cycling is as much a team sport as it is an individual sport. For Justin, the need to be stronger, faster, and better is never-ending.
Justin, a Belizean-American professional cyclist was introduced to cycling as a teen by his father, a Belizean cyclist and Pan-American Games competitor. When Justin expressed interest in cycling his father planned an unconventional introductory bike ride - 70 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway. Justin was forced to stop the ride at mile 50 because of muscle cramping. Justin’s father left him alone on the highway and continued the remainder of the ride. Stranded in the heat with trucks and cars passing by, Justin suspected that his father was trying to teach him a lesson. "My dad was used to experiencing a lot of pain and suffering and he was adamant I needed to be serious about riding bikes,” he told BBC Sports.
First Big Break
Undeterred, Justin committed to bike racing a few months later. At the age of 15, he excelled in cycling and won many local races in California. Justin’s talent was undeniable however, unlike his peers, the US National Team was not immediately interested in Justin joining their ranks. Justin continued to dominate the podium. In 2006, at the age of 17, he signed his first contract as a professional cyclist with the US National Team.
As a member of the National Team, Justin gained the support that he lacked as a solo cyclist. Justin would go on to race across Europe with tremendous success. Though he was a podium staple, he was significantly underpaid compared to white cyclists. Justin endured microaggression and blatant racism. In addition to being denied financial opportunities like sponsorships, Justin was often marginalized as the only person of color on the cycling scene. When he voiced concern about these issues, he was stereotyped as “hard to deal with” and an “angry black man”.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Disenchanted with professional cycling, Justin left Europe and the National Team. He returned to California and attended college. His love for cycling persisted and in 2016, he created the cycling team, Endo CNCPT, for African-American and Hispanic youths in his area. Though the cyclists were talented they lacked coaching, equipment, and sponsorship. Justin applied his know-how of the sport, hosted cycling camps, and encouraged the riders to compete in local amateur races.
Turning a Setback into a Comeback
In 2017, Justin recommitted to cycling and sent his resume to every cycling team listed on the Union Cycliste Internationale-the world governing body for cycling. With no takers, Justin contemplated a more entrepreneurial approach to cycling. Instead of hoping for a cycling team to accept him, Justin reached out to cycling sponsors directly. He signed a deal with Specialized which required him to complete specific races and ride Specialized bikes while racing. In 2018, Justin inked a deal with Monster Energy and other sponsors. He capped the year off by becoming the first African American to win the national road race and criterium national championships.
Building on his entrepreneurial strengths, Justin created his own cycling team, L39ion of Los Angeles in 2019. L39ion stands for “Legion” and 39 indicates the street where he grew up. This newly minted team boasts a culturally diverse lineup of professional and developing cyclists. Justin is using his platform to address racial inequality, highlight gaps in cycling diversity and inclusivity, and inspire Black and Hispanic youths.