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Justin Williams and Legion of LA: redefining cycling in America

True entrepreneurs and goal-oriented people make the most of every situation no matter how uncertain the future may be. In his particular case, Justin Williams is taking advantage of this period by establishing the bases of his project, which is already disrupting the American scene and aims to redefine criterium racing. Not a lot of cycling teams or even businesses can say they have grown during the pandemic, but in a team well structured around media and their own culture instead of only results, they have been making progress during this time without races.

Overwhelmed by everything he has to daily deal with, the founder of Legion of Los Angeles took a brief break from social media to focus on his own physical and mental health, before joining us for a chat to talk about his personal and professional plans.

At the start of each season, Justin tends to be far from his peak fitness level due to what managing a team like Legion of LA (L39ION) implies, but with the increasing expectation around the roster and their pursuit to become the best team possible, he has forced himself to do an extra effort in order to cope with all the requests they are constantly receiving.

Of course he keeps training, but with no clear goal as amateur Nationals have been postponed, he is prioritizing the present and future success of the team. The perseverance and attention to detail we consider he shows in everything that he does are only a few of the key aspects that have allowed him to be where he is now.

The American rider with Belizean origins started winning local road races in his teenage years, but nonetheless his debut with the USA Cycling team was on the track after winning his first national title. He was at the top level of endurance track cycling but he still had the clear goal of succeeding on the road, and with the help of his coach Clay Worthington, he swapped disciplines.

His development as a cyclist continued and he gained a lot of experience racing abroad during his time at Rock Racing and Trek-Livestrong, where he learned from teammates that have now become training companions.

“I have been blessed with very good teammates throughout my whole career. In Rock Racing I had guys like Sterling Magnell, Jeremiah Wiscovitch and Rahsaan Bahati, guys that were local from Los Angeles and that was great because in that way I could constantly learn from them. A lot of teams get riders from all over the place and you only see them when it is time to race, but I got to hang out with these guys both on the weekend and weekdays”.

He also mentioned the likes of Alex Dowsett, Taylor Phinney or Jesse Sergent as key referents during his first stage as a professional rider. They all gave him something to aspire for.

After some rough years, Justin decided to do his own thing and in 2018 he raced as a solo rider, dominating the domestic races and having a lot of fun. That season, he won the amateur road and criterium national championships.

With success, more brands came on board. At that time, he dared to take part in some fixed gear races, and after being blown away by how cool Red Hook Crit races were, he finally got a spot in the Specialized – Rocket Espresso team, the best-known team in the discipline. He made the most of his contract with Specialized to cover both his road and fixed gear costs, something that worked out and turned into what the relation between the two parts have at the moment.

His brief journey through fixed gear was helpful to grow his personal brand thanks to the exposure he obtained and the new base of followers he was introduced to. With the addition of his non-stop grinding based on figuring out content and showing fans aspects of racing and life that people were interested in, his social media followed the same upward trend as his success on the road, and he has since then become one of the most popular cyclists. By not being constricted in a team, he had more possibilities and used them in his favor.

After realizing the great choice he had taken racing solo, he tried to persuade his brother Cory to follow his path, but refused the idea at first, being loyal to the Continental team he was racing in. Justin kept telling him what was going really well for him and pointing out all the downsides Cory and all the other professional riders had to deal with, and eventually, something clicked and since then the current crit national champion has worked hard to make sure the team grows.

Unlike his older brother, who prefers to play car-driving simulation games instead of jumping on Zwift, Cory Williams is constantly thinking of racing, willing to show how in shape he is. He is very structured and strong-minded, and quoting Justin, “this would have been a massive year for him and it is a pity that the season has been truncated”.

The Williams brothers are one of the key parts of the Legion of LA team, which is living its first full year of existence and probably has the best roster in the country. Every member of the team understands what the mission is, what their job is and that they all need each other to win, since what they are doing as a team is way bigger than any individual success.

Dealing with individual ambitions may seem a difficult task in a team flooded by stars (including several state and national champions), but with good management and continuous talking everyone has a clear idea of when they will be the leaders and when they will have to work for others.

“I have a conversation with each guy and I ask them where they want to shine and what opportunities they want at the beginning of the year. I’m very clear with them; if that race is not available, I tell them to ask for another one, and then if you get those opportunities and you don’t perform then you do not get to ask for a further choice. That is how you keep those egos in line. It is not the team’s job to give you an unlimited amount of opportunities, and that is how it has to be in a roster full of amazing riders”.

Justin and Cory win consistently throughout the year, and they try to teach the rest of the team that it is about being honest and very open.

“There are races I wanted to win and couldn’t, and I could look at Cory, Tyler or Scott asking for help to deliver. Each of the riders from our lead out knows that they might get the call and it’s my job to be honest halfway through the race and say that I’m not able to sprint so we can switch positions”.

The job of the riders is not exclusively about racing. Justin tells them that being part of Legion of LA is more than being an athlete, that they have to provide more like in an investment. He is in charge of team management, sponsorship, finance and some of the logistics, a department in which Tyler Williams also helps. Cory does all of the social media, and Hunter Grove serves also as a mechanic. There are even guys that know they have to set up the tent when the team goes racing.

Being conscious of Legion’s potential, sooner or later more people will come on board to help expand the team’s structure, including a General Manager to oversee everything. The goal is to find people that are already in the sport, figure out what they are good at and develop them within their program.

The team has the mission of redefining what success in cycling looks like in America. With the clear intention of identifying criterium racing as its own thing, they want to distance themselves with the typical road racing in Europe.

The next step would be to create a platform where people of all ages or races, with a special interest in communities from low-income areas, could feel part of something bigger, helping the future generation of cyclists to get interested in sports.

“Cycling has changed my life forever, so being able to do that for even one other kid from where I grew up would make it all worth it”.

Photos by: L39ion archives