I started cycling seriously while living out in Colorado where I witnessed the droves of commuters on two wheels heading to work (especially on Bike to Work Day). Living in New York I’ve caught the buzz again. I recently finished my first Five Boro Bike Tour, where I cruised 44 miles through the city’s boroughs with 32,000 other cyclists. I was hooked.
Two things struck me that day: the colorful display of kits, and something more interesting – the number of Black and Brown cyclists from a wide range of backgrounds. Not that the latter was a complete surprise, during my year in New York, Black and Brown cycling groups orbiting around Prospect Park have become a familiar sight. They include the Good Co Bike Club, a Black-led cycling club formed in 2020 to provide joy for riders of all backgrounds. By creating accessibility and opportunities to cycle, Good Co Bike Club has turned into a community hub for riders of color.
Yet as diversity grows among casual cyclists, the competitive realm is still a work in progress. According to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s 2021 diversity and inclusion scorecards, there were just four Black or Brown athletes in the 58-person USA cycling team. Despite white people making up 61% of the United States population, they represent 85% of all USA Cycling athletes. Something clearly needs to change.
And there are signs that change is on the horizon. I met Belizean-American pro cyclist Justin Williams at Burton’s Culture Shifters. His experiences show what radical inclusivity looks like, and what having colleagues committed to structural change can achieve. Williams shared with me his aspirations to bring a similar energy to competitive cycling, specifically criterium circuit racing.
Williams is the creator of the Into The Lion’s Den Race. He started as a teenage cycling prodigy and made his way to Europe with the US national team, where he felt he was neglected by the association and has been forging his own path since.
“I was just tired of not seeing any faces of color in these races,” the 34-year-old Williams says. “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.”
Now he’s on a mission to shape the future of American cycling. He has founded three racing teams: L39ION of Los Angeles, Miami Blazers and Austin Aviators. He’s also starting his own race series, the Circuit Racing International Tour (CRIT), with the help of Wasserman Ventures.
When I refer to Williams as the LeBron James of cycling, he corrects me. Instead, he says, he is “creating a platform that allows cycling to have a LeBron”. He compares himself to his father, CJ, a Belizean cycling champion who shares his passion for nurturing talent.
“I wanted to give the opportunity that I got to someone else who comes from an area that looks like or feels like where I come from,” he says.
During his 16-year career, Williams has seen American friends of all backgrounds and races go to Europe and hit a wall around the age of 21. They had the talent but not the support network.
Williams aims to change that with CRIT. With inclusivity and competition at its core, CRIT will place the best riders up against each other while also representing the different cultures that make up America. Williams and his team have been hosting chats in bike shops and cafes where they use their experience and knowledge to teach riders how to navigate the industry.
“For us being able to go out and be us, there’s just an immediate connection. Especially when there’s an absence in the space,” he says.
Williams hopes the CRIT series will lead people of color in cycling to gain control of their narrative.
“To me cycling is so important to get the community into because it opens up your mind and changes your perspective of what the world is and how it functions,” Williams says.
The CRIT will debut later this year and, by Williams’s telling, it will resemble a cycling version of the spectacular chariot races of the ancient Olympic Games. Races will be held in famous venues such as Fenway Park, and will consist of 20 teams of six cyclists battling it out over around 60 laps of a one-mile circuit.
Williams says he revels in the pressure of being a cyclist turned CEO. “I live in it. It’s my favorite thing. That’s where I’m the best version of me,” he says.
He’s been raising industry standards since the day he started racing. Now he’s hoping to bring everyone along for the ride.