L39ION of Los Angeles was founded in 2019 by Justin and Cory Williams, brothers and lifelong bike racers who wanted to diversify cycling culture, grow the sport and shake up some of its tired traditions. In the blink of an eye, they’ve gone professional with a multi-national 14-rider UCI squad and earned a passionate following. Guided by the images of award-winning photographer Kit Karzen, the Williams brothers tell the stories behind the Californian team that’s loud, proud, diverse and here to change the game forever.
Justin: At the Olympic Games [in 1968], we had a black man standing on top of the podium with his fist in the air. People pretend that the civil rights movement and all this other stuff that happened is in the past, but it isn't. We're still here, we're still fighting for a lot of the same rights, against voter suppression and all these other systemic tools that are used to oppress minorities.
I look at this photo of [me], a black man in a gold chain and American flag in 2021, still having to feel this way and having to very much relate to what people in the past have fought and died for – and we're still here fighting and dying for it. The fight is not over.
We’re not the first black people in cycling, man. It was Rahsaan [Bahati] before us, a countless amount of betweens and Major Taylor in the beginning ... I think that says a lot. Cycling is just deciding it needs to be told these stories.
Justin: L39ION started because we just got tired of the way cycling ran and we watched a lot of people that we love leave the sport. Cycling is so special: it saved my life, it changed the trajectory of where we could have ended up. So we wanted to do something different, to take everything we love about cycling and make it not only a safe and good place, but to use it as a tool to encourage diversity and inclusion throughout the sport that had been kind of stuck in this culture of gatekeepers and frat houses, where you get on a team because you know someone, not because of what you're able to bring to the team.
No one told us the Q&As, no one told us to do community engagement with people. We did those ourselves, we took our destiny into our own hands. And we gave people a reason to love our team and what we do.
This Tragic Land
The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 saw as many as 300 people killed when a white mob destroyed a thriving neighbourhood, Black Wall Street, and nearly razed the district of Greenwood to the ground. It is thought to be the worst single event of white supremacist violence against African Americans in US history. L39ION of LA visited Greenwood on the eve of the Tulsa Tough race in June 2021.
Justin: We go racing around this country and we’re learning so much about black history. Everything in America is built off of land ownership; in Tulsa and a lot of states and cities, black people have never been given back what they owned. And I think it's inexcusable to learn in Tulsa that some of these people [in the mob] were reimbursed for ammunition. This land is tragic.
We're looking at the mural of someone holding their slain father. The whole team is there, they took the tour, they watched us cry. Over a destroyed example of what things could have been like. And the scrutiny that we deal with is the same anger that burned down Tulsa. It’s the same anger that compels people to leave disgraceful comments on our Instagram and to hate us for hate’s sake.
We have to explain to some team-mates who’ve never seen a lot of this pointless pushback: it’s not new. It's been happening our whole life inside and outside of cycling. And it is what it is. We have each other and we're doing something great. We're going to continue to push forward – that's all that matters.
Started from the Bottom
Corey: This is in Thousands Oaks, California, the hills where Drake lives.
Justin: He plays a lot of basketball, actually. We were looking for him. Like Drake, where you at?
Corey: Who’s better at basketball? I am.
Justin: I’m the best.
Corey: Justin is more competitive at basketball than he is on his bike. And he always loses to me or my little cousin.
Now we're Here
Corey: I was riding behind the Lamborghini.
Justin: And I was driving; Zwift rented it for us. It’s just us having fun. It’s such a cool thing, man. It’s flashiness and swagger and style.
Hard As Nails
Justin: That’s me and Skylar [Schneider]. I love this photo so much. It’s so simple and powerful, showing how far we've come. It represents thinking of a cool idea, then watching it come to life.
The first year, we were having so much fun and thought ‘why not have a women’s team?’ If we can give them the same platform and the same freedom, they would probably excel too – and I think they’ve won every race they’ve been in. We have Kendall [Ryan] and Skylar [Schneider], two of the best in the country. It was a no-brainer to bring them on.
L39ION of LA have dominated the US criterium scene, with over 40 wins to their name, sometimes sweeping the whole podium. Tulsa Tough saw a landmark 1-2 finish for Corey and Justin and an instinctive victory celebration.
Justin: It's so much bigger than crossing the line first. This is an amplifier, to who we are, what we're doing and where we're going. We're building the sport of cycling for everybody. Black, white, it doesn’t matter. We just happen to be black doing it. And one day, that’ll be able to be enough.
Corey: I was probably shouting “this is not the internet, this is real life!” Everyone's talking smack on social media and we showed up, we put the work in – and they got the work.
Justin: L39ION should be a never-ending story. It's not a one and done, it's a standard that we're creating.
Tears, Beers and Cheers
Corey: Ty [Williams] said he wasn’t going to have a drink until we won a race. We had Fat Tire as a sponsor so we had to do that to get rid of some of the beer that they gave us.
Justin: He dealt with the whole bullshit of being told he didn’t have a job in November by Israel Cycling Academy. He started going to school to become a nurse, doing EMT stuff. He was still riding and racing because he loves it, but he thought that being a professional on the biggest stage was over. Again, the hills and valleys of cycling are rough. So to go from that to winning one of the biggest races in the country? I think that warrants a couple of tears – and beers. It’s so emotional.
Justin: Cycling is such a rich sport – whether you race, do it for physical health, for mental health, for your kids, whatever. For a crazy amount of reasons, I think the world would be a better place if more people rode bikes and we want to be kind of a catalyst. More kids, more people of colour involved, make it feel like a safe space. And if they become racers, then fantastic. If not, then fantastic. We’re just trying to do really cool stuff and make people excited about bikes.
'Inside L39ION of Los Angeles' appears in Rouleur 106, available to buy here