“I remember it being unpredictable. A lot of gang members in the community and kids selling drugs on the street,” Williams said. “Other than our time riding bikes, my parents kept us inside, focused on studying. They didn’t trust us to go out, which feels justified now. You could easily be caught in the wrong place and end up dead or in jail. I remember bullet holes in our street sign. I don’t know what I would have done without a bike.”
Near the end of high school, Williams’ cycling career started to take form. He focused on road racing, eyeing iconic European stage races with a dream of becoming the next Lance Armstrong. “But it was different for me,” he said.
“I was isolated, didn’t have support, and everything felt foreign,” Williams said. “Trying to develop as a young man and an athlete was impossible. It was so far from how I grew up.”
The numbers are stark. Only five of the 743 riders on cycling’s elite World Tour are Black. None of the 113 professional riders licensed by U.S.A. Cycling are Black. (In 2020, L39ION was not licensed by U.S.A. Cycling.) This year, there was one lone Black athlete, the French cyclist Kévin Reza, out of 176 riders on the start line of the Tour de France.
Williams got his start as an amateur at local crits, and in 2006, won the Junior Track National Championship.
Despite his promise in the closed circuit race scene, Williams continued to dabble in a mix of disciplines from time trials to multiday stage races, an anomaly for most riders who tend to specialize in one event.
With his race results improving, Williams moved to Europe in 2009, following the template for talented, young riders who dream of being the next great American cyclist. But even with moderate success, Williams frequently felt ostracized. “In Europe I was called ‘difficult,’” Williams said. “They called me a charity case and stereotyped me as an angry Black man.”