In today’s world of social media, we often find two versions of people – the person we want the world to think we are and the person we are in our most vulnerable and real moments – but with Justin Williams, what you see is what you get. With social media nicknames like “The Great American Hope” and “The Answer” it would be hard to not feel the weight of your country on your back, but the American pro-cyclist’s ability to navigate a unique balance of a never quit attitude, a fierce competitive spirit, a genuine admiration of the sport, and a focus on paying it forward, Williams is one of the golden boys.
Text: Sarah Bartlett
Header Image: Bobby Endo
I scroll through Instagram and respond to emails as I wait for Justin Williams to arrive at the restaurant that he picked for us to meet at, a buffet-style Brazilian restaurant in Los Angeles that he later would tell me is one of his favorites. I don’t need to look up from my phone to know that he has arrived – he’s the type of guy where you can feel his energy in a room before you even spot him.
Looking casual in jeans, a Cylance Cycling team hoodie (Williams’ Continental UCI team) and grey snap-back, Williams walks towards me with a bit of a swagger and greets me in the same way we often see him winning races – arms stretched out and a smile so genuine that you can’t help but feel his gratitude to be competing in the sport that he loves.
As soon as he starts speaking about Red Hook Crit, you quickly realize that Williams has one goal – to have fun. “Red Hook to me is something different,” Williams says. “It’s gritty. It’s one-on-one combat. It’s everything I want cycling to be. It’s crazy passionate people that spend all of their salary to go to Barcelona to party. Some of those guys have to know they aren’t going to qualify, but they go out there and, win or lose, everyone is still happy for each other.”
Williams is no stranger to the difficult social dynamics of competitive cycling. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Williams never quite felt like he had a home in cycling until the Major Motion junior team brought him on board. The experience later helped prompt Williams to start the CNCPT team, but on his own creative terms. “I created the CNCPT team to do all the things I don’t get to do in cycling, and then do them in cycling,” Williams says with an excited laugh. “It’s my attempt at changing the sport. I want to create cool shit.” When I call the creation of CNCPT a bridge between sport and lifestyle, Williams sits up straight like a proud dad and says, “Exactly!”
“My goal for the team is to be the best California-based development team. I want guys to come to the team and from the team have everything they need to go to a pro team.” Williams will have two CNCPT riders with him in Barcelona, Alvin Escajeda and Alonso Tal, with an even stronger team showing planned for Milan.
Called “the answer” to Colin Strickland’s winning streak last year, this year Williams views the competition a bit different, despite Strickland once again sitting in the overall lead for the series heading into Barcelona. “I love the fact that Colin is winning. He’s just a nice guy. He’s humble and a great winner,” says Williams. “He’s not really my target. I’m more interested in shutting down the way some guys race with the blocking. I don’t think that has a place in Red Hook. I want to be the answer to that. Getting to the hairpin first and sitting up – that’s not real racing. I want Red Hook to continue to be this thing that people show up to and race their hearts out. Last year I didn’t do what was needed to actually be the answer. This year, I’ve kept my fitness up.”
Almost exactly a year ago on Instagram, Williams proclaimed, “2017 will be the best year I’ve ever had,” and so far it seems like his he’s manifested just that. Ten wins and at least 20 top ten finishes with his pro team, an inspiring collection of super prime wins at tour of America’s Dairyland, and a win on the borrowed bike of Cylance Cycling teammate Joelle Numainville at BC Superweek are just a few of the accomplishments Williams has achieved in 2017, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t faced challenges along the way. In fact, a quick scroll through Williams’s Instagram page paints a picture of a determined champion, reminiscent of Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and enough inspirational posts to fill a series of coffee table books. What makes his inspiration so palpable is Williams’s humble authenticity.
I discuss a few of these posts with him, hopeful myself to hear some of the motivation that keeps him pushing on the hard days.
You laugh cause I’m different. I laugh cause you’re all the same.
“That speaks to me growing up. I’m from the hood. I’ve seen hood shit. The stuff you see in movies. The small picture is that I’m not like the people that came from my environment. But on the big scale, I’ve never been into partying or going out and doing stuff that wasn’t relevant to what I saw for myself in the future. I want to get that tattooed on my body because that quote just speaks to me. Everyone is trying to be like someone else, and follow something or they have these things in front of them that aren’t good for them. And as a black kid from LA I never felt like I had the luxury to do that. I don’t have time to follow someone that’s doing stuff that isn’t going to benefit my future. I’m rebellious and that quote to me is very rebellious.”
When you understand the sacrifices you’ll understand the passion.
“That goes back to growing up. Going to Crenshaw High School and watching security guards get beat up. If you understand where I come from, if you understand everything that I’ve sacrificed, and everything that I have seen and been a product of, then you will understand why I am the way I am. You’ll understand why I am so driven. You’ll understand why I don’t let anyone tell me that I can’t do something.”
Those days you’re tested give you the opportunity to show the kind of champion you are.
“I remember being 16 or 17 years old and me and Coryn [Rivera] were training before Interbike. And we didn’t want to be on the bike. And I just started laughing and she looked over at me like ‘why are you laughing?’ And I was just thinking, this is our life. This is what we get to do. There are a bunch of people that would go home and wouldn’t do what we are doing. It was super cold and we were miserable, but we were doing it because good was not good enough. You’re going to be tested. Nothing in life comes easy, which I know all too well. The hurdles in life are supposed to be there. If it was easy, everyone would do it. The days that you’re tested are the days you should push harder because those are the days you are going to make the biggest gains.”
Those days most people dream of.
“Just living the life! Collecting a paycheck to ride a bike. It’s dreaming. It’s not real life. Bradley Wiggins said in one of his documentaries that bike racing is not real life, and it’s not! People pay for you to go on vacation and you get to do what you love. I am competitive. We could be playing Monopoly and I would be trying to win. So when I get to go to Barcelona on someone else’s dime, I am so grateful. These are the days most people dream of and I have to remind myself not to get too comfortable.”
Learn how to race with patience and positivity. Always give yourself the chance to win or at a very minimum make everyone hurt.
“That’s attributed to the negativity in racing. I hate negative racing. Nobody is paying to fly to wherever to have someone race negatively against them. Go out there to have fun. Give yourself a look at the win and if you win, great. If you can’t win, make sure you have fun suffering and make sure you make other people suffer because that’s the best part about bike racing. For me, I will let people have wheels when it’s not important or I will push someone back on a wheel if I see them working hard. I will encourage people. I think that’s the way you want to race. If you’re doing that then people are going to want to race against you and are going to have respect for you when you beat them. But beat them with dignity and not with negativity.”
By the end of our dinner I am left more inspired to go home and get on my bike than I have been in a long time. Despite knowing Williams for the last year, today is the first time I’ve been able speak this deeply with him about cycling and get to know him more as the man he is off the bike.
“As a black man it’s never been about me accepting others, it’s always been being insecure about others accepting me.” Williams sits back humbly and looks off in the distance. It’s clear that his mind is constantly thinking ahead to the next thing – focused a bit on his own competitiveness and a bit on leading those coming up behind him. They say that those who can’t do, teach. Those people haven’t met Justin Williams.
About Author Sarah Bartlett:
Sarah is originally from Chicago, IL and currently resides in Los Angeles, CA where she works in commercial real estate brokerage. Sarah entered the cycling scene after watching her friend Kym Nonstop compete in a local race. Six months after buying her first bike, Sarah raced Red Hook Brooklyn No.9 and hasn’t looked back since.