This article was produced in association with Fizik
“We’re the loudest people in the room,” says Dante Young with a laugh, the twang to his Los Angeles accent permeating through my computer screen. He sits nonchalantly in a brightly lit room with a hoodie draped over his shoulders. It’s only just turned 8am in San Diego, where Young is based, yet his energy is palpable and infectious.
“Being like that is very Miami,” he explains. “You know, like Miami is known for being a very flashy and vibrant city. We’re trying to build that into our team and stand by it.”
When the Miami Blazers turn up to the biggest criterium races in the United States with their pink helmets and jerseys made up of blocks of orange, red and blue, they’re certainly living up to Young’s hopes. When the flag drops and they race bikes with the same confidence and swagger, they’re exceeding them. Winning is just one part of the team’s fiery DNA, however. The Miami Blazers are about far more than who can rag around corners and rip up the tarmac fastest – they’re a team doing things differently, and better.
“Our first year, we had so many different cultures in the team,” says Young. “We had Anguila, we had Guyana, we had Barbados, we had Trinidad, we had Mexico, we had Cuba, we had Venezuela, we had so many cultures. There were five people on the team that spoke Spanish, but different dialects of Spanish. There were three people that were Caribbean, but they spoke different dialects of Caribbean. Even for the Americans, you had Southern people, you had me from LA, others from New York, all these different people. When we showed up, we were the most diverse team in America, we were already getting that title.”
It’s well known that cycling has a problem with a glaring lack of diversity, exacerbated especially at the sport’s highest level – in 2020, for example, just five out of the 556 riders on WorldTour teams were Black. The criterium racing scene in America has a chance to shape things differently and has been doing just that for the past four years; a change kickstarted by Belizean-American cyclist Justin Williams. As well as his own series of criterium races, Williams has founded three racing teams: L39ION of Los Angeles, Austin Aviators and Young’s squad, the Miami Blazers.
“I was just tired of not seeing any faces of colour in these races,” said the 34-year- old in an interview with The Guardian earlier this year. “I was tired of having to sit in a corner by myself or have to adjust my personality because there was no one who could understand where I was coming from.”
Perhaps a living and breathing example of why representation is so important, Young says he first encountered Williams while watching YouTube videos that showed the older rider racing criteriums on road bikes – this was the first time Young really believed it could be possible for someone like him to make it as a full-time bike rider.
At the time, Young was racing fixed-gear crits, but moving over to the road was a whole different ball game. “Little did I know that SoCal (Southern California) is a huge mecca for criterium racing for road bikes.” says Young. “I got a road bike and my fixed gear addiction quickly turned to road. When I met Justin, he was already a pro, his brothers were already pro. He took me under his wing, and ever since moulded me into being the best version of myself that I could possibly be.”
The pair raced together on a squad called Concept Team, which Young explains fused Williams’ experience in road racing and his own experience in fixed-gear criteriums. Right from the start, they were breaking the usual conventions of what a cycling team was. “We would go to the Coachella festival and just do cool content, for example,” says Young. “We did that for three years and then Justin wanted to start L39ION. I did two seasons on the team with him, which was amazing. It exceeded our expectations to the fullest. Then I did a year by myself as a privateer, just having fun. Following that year, the Miami Blazers started and Justin was just essentially like, hey, man, like I need you to become me, but on a second team, I’ve given you all the tools you need to be successful and now it’s time to put them to the test. And here we are.”
Young is adamant that the success of L39ION of LA was due to the team’s incessant drive to bring cycling into the modern era. He explains that they prioritised content creation over racing, sharing onboard race footage to social media, as well as bringing their own music and relaxed atmosphere to races all over the country. When Young was appointed by Williams at the helm of the Miami Blazers, he wanted to bring the influence of L39ION of LA to the team, while at the same time ensuring that it had its own identity.
“The only thing that we wanted was to take the blueprint of what made L39ION successful, which was a team that could function on its own and make its own money,” Young says. “People get stuck in the idea that it’s racing or nothing. They forget about everything else. Part of my job is to remind the athletes that they’re more than just a bike race, they have more value. I try to instil that so they walk with that swagger that says: ‘I’m more than just what I can do on a bike.’”
One rider who has directly benefited from the creation of the Miami Blazers and the burgeoning US criterium scene in general is Alexi Ramirez, a road and track cyclist from Trinidad and Tobago. Ramirez moved to America to pursue a career of being a full-time crit racer, an opportunity that wouldn’t have been possible without the creation of teams like Miami Blazers which pay riders a salary so they don’t have to work other jobs alongside racing.
“The crit scene provides a good pathway, it’s easier for riders, say from the Caribbean, to get over to the US compared to Europe,” says Ramirez. “A lot of races offer host housing, or they sometimes fund the registration for people who may be trying to get exposure into the racing. I think crits can be used as a base and riders can try to move on from there if they want to.”
While Ramirez, a two-time Trinidadian and Tobagonian national champion, founded her cycling career from racing on the velodrome, she explains she has caught the criterium racing bug since being part of the Miami Blazers. “I want to focus on crit racing fully next year. It’s so enjoyable, the fans absolutely love to cheer you on in the race. It’s loud, it’s exciting. It’s a really cool atmosphere – I always say it’s like a party with a bike race. Being from such a small island, it’s an honour to be on one of the best teams here in the US.”
Ramirez stresses the importance of the support that Miami Blazers offers its riders both financially and when it comes to equipment support at races. From team bikes to kit and everything in between, the set-up rivals WorldTour outfits. “They are trying to create sustainability,” she says. “Justin has founded three teams now with probably 15 riders per team. That’s 45 riders that are all being fully supported and the plan is to obviously keep expanding. We have travel covered. We have food covered. We have housing covered. We have salaries, so this is a full-time job for me.”
Young also echoes his team-mate’s sentiment that having a professional working environment is crucial for the success of the team. Sharing an image of a glamorous and high-performance environment is a catalyst for ensuring more young riders see cycling as an attractive sport to get involved in, just like they might basketball or baseball.
“We have our caravan of bikes that are taken to every single race. You have just got to hop on a plane with your clothes and your carry-on, then you show up and your bikes are already in your room, ready to go. It’s a professional grade team,” says Young. “This is very special and we make sure people on our teams understand that this is a privilege and this is a big deal. Now it’s contract season and everyone is asking for contracts to come to our team. Everyone wants to be a part of it.”
Aside from the snazzy bikes and equipment, Miami Blazers is also attractive to other riders for the clear fun that the team is having at bike races. Both Ramirez and Young explain that the team has a familial atmosphere, with Young adding that their training camp at the start of the season actually involved barely any cycling at all; instead it served as a chance for the squad to bond and get to know each other. This is especially important in criterium races where riding as a team and sacrificing your own chances for those of a team-mate is crucial to success.
Spencer Moavenzadeh, a key rider on the Miami Blazers roster for this year, explains that he’s seen a big step up in his own performance since being in a team environment where everyone is close and trusts one another. “I’ve never known my team-mates at the level I do now, before I came to this team,” he says. “I want to win myself, but if someone else does, I really am happy for them and I’ll cheer them on. As an example, Dante doesn’t open up to many people unless you’re really close, but I feel like I understand where he came from and what he’s gone through to get here, the same with Alexi coming from Trinidad. Their backgrounds are so different. I care for them as people more than I do as a team-mate. I consider them really close friends. First and foremost, friends, then team-mates.”
Ramirez adds that the support the team has for each other is also extremely motivating on race day: “It doesn’t actually feel like high pressure; everyone wants the best for each other. While we’re racing, the guys on the sidelines are screaming for us. It’s super supportive and everyone is just wanting the best for everyone on the team.”
Having this type of rapport with team-mates also allows honesty after races, with each member of the squad feeling comfortable to discuss what went well or badly during the event, without any concerns of causing offence. “We are very critical towards what we do, but the accountability is shared,” says Moavenzadeh. “None of it is directed towards one person being bad at riding, because clearly we aren’t. Clearly we’re up there and we know how to win bike races. Half of us have been national champions multiple times over, but we can always improve.”
Young adds that it’s a common misconception that for the team to improve, they need to come and try racing in Europe – known as the heartland of bike racing and where the highest level of competition can be found. He argues that this attitude simply perpetuates the Eurocentricity and lack of diversity in cycling at all levels.
“There’s always this stigma, like, if you guys are so good then come to race in Europe. If we want to race road or kermesses then we’ll come over there to where the best of the best do it, but we are the best of the best at criterium racing,” says Young. “If you guys want to challenge that, then you’re more than welcome to come over and challenge it. The guys that do come over here are like, you’re insane. You guys are so fast and they can’t believe how physical the racing is.”
“I think the German team saw it when they came over for Tulsa Tough and Armed Forces crit races,” adds Moavenzadeh. “They made rookie errors which might be okay in Belgium and maybe just racing the front works there. It didn’t work for them here and they learned from that. They understood that they were stepping into American crit racing, which is very different.”
Young, Ramirez and Moavenzadeh all believe that the future of bike racing in America very much lies on the criterium racing scene. From a fan perspective, they argue it is a better experience as riders pass through the same city streets multiple times and the atmosphere is more vibrant than at a road race, but also logistically, Moavenzadeh points out that criteriums are much less of a challenge to organise.
“It’s where USA Cycling understands how they fund it and it is the ease of making a race where people can travel easily that creates appeal. It’s a unique and distinct style of racing separate from anywhere else. I hope it attracts more attention globally and brings more talent to US crit racing,” he says.
Team leader Young is in agreement with Moavenzadeh that globalising criterium racing is the key to helping both the discipline and the teams involved in it develop. He is keen to spread the message and racing atmosphere that Miami Blazers bring to events to a far wider audience.
“Next for us is taking what we’re doing global – doing what we do and having people see why it’s so valuable,” he says. “I think a lot of people may just see us as these influencer cyclists or not real bike racers, or say they only race in America. We want them to just come out and hang out with us and race and be in the community. We want them to get that same fuzzy sensation that we get and that people get when they’re at races in the States.
“I think criteriums can be just as successful and as big as Six Day Racing. I think it’s on its way. Our first team started something, and the next five years is about continuing to take advantage of what we’re building, but grow it to a global capacity.”