Few cycling teams, if any, are able to conjure up hype in the same way as L39ION of Los Angeles. The group's team jerseys sell out like streetwear drops, they get recognized while training, and according to statistics, they're the most talked-about cycling team today.
Founded by brothers Justin and Cory Williams in 2019 (its name refers to 39th Street in South LA where they grew up), L39ION has been instrumental in pushing cycling culture forward.
"I am really proud of what we started," Cory tells us over email. "Looking back at 2019, we had nothing but the willingness to race. I was always on the social media bus and thought that we could blow this thing up."
But the duo didn't just start the team for clout, getting eyes on L39ION means getting eyes on a new, more inclusive version of cycling. "I decided to help my brother start the team because it felt like we could make a change in the sport. We wanted to make a positive change for the athletes," Cory explains.
One of those changes is making the sport more diverse. A 2020 report by USAC, the national governing body for bicycle racing in the United States, found that 86% of participants were white, 80% were male, and the majority held either a bachelor's or graduate degree. Unfortunately, that's a reality Justin and Cory know only too well.
Starting cycling at a young age, the brothers faced hurdles on their professional journey. The two rose through the ranks of LA's youth competitions before older brother Justin made it to the US National Team and later landed a place on the prestigious Trek-Livestrong U23 team in Europe. With a more established cycling culture and famous races, Europe is often considered the mecca of cycling but in 2010, after just a year, he decided not to return.
Feelings of isolation led to him staying home and he's since been open about not feeling welcomed in the esteemed European cycling scene as a young Black man from South LA. It caused him to fall out of love with the sport, going to study graphic design at Moorpark College near Los Angeles before eventually getting back on the saddle. One of the reasons for starting the team was to make sure that others from a similar background to them don't face the same discrimination.
"I see a lot of change. We have way more diverse people showing up to races and getting into the sport. We also have people being themselves which is my biggest thing," says Cory, who along with his brother is of Belizean descent.
In their quest to create more opportunities for underrepresented communities in cycling, the team has championed American racing. Bringing more eyes to the country's athletes and its unique brand of racing, it is making a sustainable route for racers on home soil.
Cory explains, "It’s different in America to other places because of the shorter races. In America, we have shorter attention spans so we made our own type of racing." Unlike European grand tours such as the Tour de France which takes place over three consecutive weeks, criteriums (commonly shortened to "crits") will usually be done and dusted in an hour.
The races include doing several laps around a closed circuit, usually through downtown neighborhoods. Often taking place at night under stadium lights, they are known to gather a lively crowd who come to see the fast-paced street races.
L39ION races mostly in crits, citing their intensity, the higher ratio of crashes, and the big crowds as making the races more entertaining. In turn, they believe it is a format that will get more people interested in the sport.
Despite crits being better suited to America where road closures are hard to come by, they have faced pushback. "the most frustrating thing about the culture is that most people aren’t willing to accept change or our form of racing even though it is the dominant form of cycling here in America," Cory says.
Considered to have the best roster in American crit racing the team is made up of state and national champions compiled of high-profile racers such as Gavin Hoover, a Tokyo Olympian; Tyler Williams, who has been in the biggest races across Europe; and Skylar Schneider, who in 2021 dominated the Elite Women's Pro Road Tour with almost three times the points as her successor in the standings.
However, the team is not part of the newly formed National Association of Cycling Teams (NACT). Created by 19 teams after the previous USA CRITS series folded due to rumors of sexual misconduct by its managing director, the team is treating its demise as an opportunity to bring about real change in the sport. While it will be racing in some NACT events, the team is picking its own races for this season based on factors such as the crowd experience and diversity.
Led by Justin and Cory, L39ION is dead-set on bringing change to cycling and they are not afraid to ruffle a few feathers on the way. This move is only the latest example of that.
Having already begun hosting its own races, the team's future moves will likely dictate the direction of American cycling and it's something that Cory is tight-lipped about. He says, "the next step is trying to perfect what we have made and then to help duplicate it."