Founded in 2019 by brothers Justin and Cory Williams with the goal of opening up cycling to under-represented groups, L39ION’s aim to disrupt the sport from within has made them one of the most talked-about cycling teams in the world.
At the end of last year the team announced the addition of a men’s Continental outfit as well as a co-ed structure within the elite squad including, for the first time, three women; Skylar Schneider, Kendall Ryan, and Avry Cay Howes.
Speaking via video call, the L39ION ‘Lionesses’, as they are known, were bubbling with excitement at being involved with the project.
"I think with L39ION, we're in the position to grow the sport, but to grow it with more diversity and more equality and opportunities for, not only just the genders, but different races.” says Schneider. “Part of what drew me to reaching out to Justin in the first place was their push for equality and diversity in the sport. So when I first called them up, I was like, 'we can do this’ and the little girls out there need some women to look up to.” It's an approach which has not only drawn excellent riders, but some of cycling's biggest brands to the team, including Rapha.
Avry Cay Howes is one of the new recruits
Prior to joining L39ION, Schneider spent three seasons in Europe racing for Boels Dolmans (now SD Worx) after signing aged just 19, while Ryan joined the team off the back of nine seasons with UCI team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank and is currently on the US track squad’s Olympic long list.
Cay Howes is something of an unknown quantity on the racing scene but according to Ryan she’s one to watch, “the first time I rode with Avry I was just like, ‘Who. Is. This. Chick?’” She says of watching Cay Howes riding, “she's just a savage on the bike… I was like, ‘Justin, she's on the team, right?’"
After getting signed up to L39ION, Cay Howes became a pupil of the Williams’ school of bike handling, “I think the descending skills really came from when I started working with Cory Williams. Justin and Cory would teach me cornering – like how to how to use the apex and how to be confident in using the entire road.”
Cay Howes herself still seems in awe of her fast-track introduction to the sport just two years ago: “I got into cycling because I was working at a warehouse and this guy — my manager, at the time — used to ride his bike to work,” she says. “I was like, 'wow, that's so weird, why are you wearing tight Spandex?' And then he's like, 'Oh, no, you should try it, you’ll like it, I promise. So then I got this old $600 bike.”
Luckily, as promised, she did like it, “I thought it was the coolest thing ever.” She quickly started taking shape as a rider, “One day, I saw a group ride from Incycle [a local California bike shop] pass by, and I just jumped on with them. And then one of the guys was a coach and he's like, 'man, like, you're really strong you should join my team’.”
Cay Howes’s entry into the team is L39ION’s objective in action and something that Ryan is keen to replicate. “For us, we want the women’s side to be equal and just as big as the men’s,” she says. “That’s part of my mission and role on the team, to identify up and coming riders and find some new riders to add to the arsenal.” Although budget restraints mean they won’t be able to take on more full-time riders in 2021, the hope is that a series of guest riders for certain races will facilitate talent-spotting.
For Schneider and Ryan, joining L39ION is a welcome pivot from what they saw as a sometimes cut-throat European racing scene. “Racing with Boels, everyone in the peloton wants my spot on the team and they don't necessarily understand why an American should have it,” says Schneider. "So that means it can be really aggressive or negative. Being away from home and all of those other obstacles that make it more mentally challenging. So, coming home to the US, I'm really looking forward to just focusing more on the racing aspect. And getting to come home at the end of the day.”
Skylar Schneider was a Junior World Championship silver medallist
For Ryan, the homecoming marks the first time she has changed teams in her career: “I’ve been racing over in Europe since I was 15, and I'm 28 now.” She is looking forward to returning to her criterium racing roots and has big ambitions for the discipline: “I think that we should be making crits a world championship event. I think that would be a huge breakthrough for American cycling when you could get more people to come over here and race.”
In her view, the key lies in making the racing fun and accessible, “I think the way that we could create community — in the US anyway — is making racing like a big party, like Americans love a big party, right?”
The beauty of the discipline is in its simplicity: “Crit racing is so easy to show fans, it's so accessible, it's so fun. You can shut down a downtown area or a college campus, whatever, and have a crit. You know, do laps for an hour, two hours, and people can drink beer on the side and scream at us.”
Schneider agrees, “It's a short circuit so you can get really involved with the racing and it's usually just an hour so you can stay engaged, and the announcers make it a really good environment,” she says.
She was keen to point out that the short nature of the racing, however, does not diminish the skills needed from riders: “You have to be a complete bike racer, you have to have the skills as well as the speed and then the strategy.”
One crucial advantage that crit racing offers is the ability to watch the action live (USA Crits offer live streams of all their events), “What I love about crit racing, too, is they always have online streaming,” says Ryan.
Outside of racing itself, one of the myriad ways in which L39ION are breaking the cycling mould is through the co-ed setup of the elite team. While many WorldTour men’s teams are now fielding women’s teams there are few who could say that they are truly integrated.
Justin Williams co-founded L39ION with his brother Cory and counts Rapha as one of their sponsors
Ryan recalls Cory Williams being asked about the ‘women’s team’ and responding by saying "there’s no men's and women's team, they are just on the team."
“I was just like, ‘that is a statement.’ That gave me goosebumps,” she says. “Just that, 'no, everybody's equal it's not just a men's and women's team, like, they're just on the team’”
Although the co-ed structure remains untested in practise, all three are optimistic about it: “I'm excited to see how it unfolds, because we've all been cooped up and haven't been able to hang out with each other yet, and haven't really begun to start making the team that we want it to be,” says Ryan.
Schneider is equally enthusiastic, “We’ve already had Zoom chats with everybody on the team and already, with the communication, it feels like everyone is on that same page,” she says.
The three are aware that as women they represent just one minority, but they are vocal about their ambitions for increasing the team’s diversity in the future: “To make this a success, we want to discover some women of colour who we can bring on to the team,” says Schneider. “I think that's really at the core of our mission more than race results — that’s important, because then we can appeal to the sponsors — but I think diversity is really what's important and what's really special about this team.”
Kendall Ryan has Olympic ambitions outside the L39ION team
For Ryan, what sets the team apart is that they are vocal about striving for change in the sport: “I think we just have a different vibe compared to a lot of other teams too where like, we're actively wanting to change things and make everything more inclusive to everybody on the team,” she says. “I think the way that we're doing things is going to go a long way and yeah, I'm really excited to see how it unfolds for sure.
“It feels already like a family despite not even having met each other in person,” added Schneider.
Part of the team’s effort to shake up the ingrained structures within cycling is a focus on riders as real people with diverse interests and flaunting their personalities. Schneider — ever the over-achiever at just 22 years-old — has recently taken on the project of opening a bakery in her home town in Wisconsin with her sister, Samantha (also a pro cyclist).
“Honestly, when I first told Justin [about the bakery] I was kind of nervous, maybe thinking he would think that would be the priority over racing,” Schneider says. “But he was so supportive from the start. And I think that's also what's really cool about this team is they see more than just results on paper. They see us as humans and want us all to come out of this better than we came into it.”
Kendall Ryan wins bronze in the Madison with USA team mate Christina Birch at the Brisbane UCI Track Cycling World Cup December 2019. Photo Credit: Alex Whitehead/ SWPix.com
Ryan, too, has ambitions outside of the L39ION squad, namely a place on the USA Olympic track cycling team for Tokyo in the Madison and team pursuit. After years of juggling the demands of a pro road team and a track career she is grateful for the freedom, “I feel so much weight lifted off my shoulders that I can just go after what I need to do so it's been really amazing.”
The women’s enthusiasm for the team, inspired by the Williams brothers’ and their own commitment to the project is seemingly boundless. “To see how fast the men’s team has progressed in just two years is really inspiring because I think we can match that on the women’s side,” says Schneider. “There’s really no ceiling to Justin and Cory’s vision for it.”
“Hopefully this year we can actually race and get the results we need in order to grow and identify the talent that deserves a chance,” she says. However she was also realistic about the material limitations in place at this point. “It could definitely grow into maybe a WorldTour team but we’re starting with three riders which I think is a good move just to not go too much too soon.”
Although the three had not yet been able to get together in person, their support for each other, buoyed by their belief in the team was evident, “I think we have really good chemistry off the bike,” says Ryan.
Schneider’s response when asked about her goals for the 2021 season highlights the supportive team environment already in place: “My goal is to see Avry win a race,” she says. Although her second response revealed the scale of her own ambitions, too: “I want to win USA Crits overall, and I’d love to win Tulsa [Tough - the crit series] overall and for one of us to win the crit nationals.”
Clearly motivated by her teammates’ belief in her, on her goals for the season Cay Howes retorted: “All of the USA Crits, the whole series."
"I’m just so pumped for all of them.”