L39ION is an elite road cycling team based in Los Angeles, California, that’s currently taking criterium racing by storm. Combative, confident and non-confirmative this team is partly responsible for the rise of interest in criterium racing, or crit racing as it is most commonly referred to, in the United States and beyond its borders.
“This film documents the journey of me going so far beyond myself,” says Williams. “I’m pushing so far beyond the norm that my life spirals and evolves into new areas of what’s possible and my season on the bike becomes more and more challenging. Even through all of that, I found a way to enjoy it.”
You can watch Dear 39th Street in full in the video player above. Continue reading to learn more about the film.
Molded by his environment
Williams’ experience of growing up in Los Angeles and the nature of the city’s infrastructure ultimately guided him towards crit racing.
At an early age, Williams’s talents shone brightly as he navigated becoming a cyclist in an environment that’s not necessarily complementary to a sport where speed is everything. Los Angeles is a congested maze of a metropolis. There are stop lights galore and the roads that allow for the best training are mostly found around the city’s edges. From South Central LA, that’s a long way from home.
“The training is completely different,” says Williams. “There were like 50 lights from my house to the bike path that I used to ride. From the bike path to the coast there was another 30 minutes [riding]. I used to have an hour and a half of junk miles riding.
“That’s already three hours riding, out-and-back. You can’t compare that kind of training and that kind of environment to what guys get in Europe. A lot of them have incredible training routes or the means and the culture to go to places that have that. I grew up in LA, a lot of people don’t leave LA [on the bike]. And so, 85-90 percent of what was available to me was criterium racing.”
There aren’t many careers, if any, that can be followed without seeing a few obstacles. In Dear 39th Street, there are two moments where Williams is faced with life decisions that will directly impact his connection and involvement with the sport. The first case that the documentary briefly explores is Justin’s exit from professional road race cycling in Europe. After a season of racing in Belgium, and other countries in Europe, Williams came back to The US feeling disenchanted.
“In my head I built up Europe to be like this is the best of the best,” he says. “This is where I need to go. This is where I can prove myself. This is where I can show the world that I’m the best.”
But things don’t always go as planned. “It wasn’t a very inviting environment,” he says. “I was extremely uncomfortable. It was hard being away from my family. And then, on top of that, I would run out of money and not be able to eat.”
Ready to put racing behind him, he started a new life based on a more conventional path to success by returning home to LA and starting school. But Williams couldn’t shake the cycling buzz and realized there might still be some juice left to squeeze from the sport. He came back to the sport with a goal: make cycling fun, exciting and a place for opportunity. From that belief, the racing team L39ION emerged and came into existence in 2019.
At the end of the 2021 season, L39ION hosted a cycling event called Into the Lion’s Den that, in its first iteration, generated the biggest buzz on the entire race calendar. L39ION brought fans from across the country to Sacramento, California, for the christening of an event that will live on in the memories of those in attendance and those who scoured for clips and livestreams on the internet.
No first run will be perfect. But in an industry where many popular events struggle to find the right marketing angle, Into the Lion’s Den seemed to have a lot of the cursory steps figured out.
“People posted about that race and posted their jersey for the next four months,” says Williams. “It’s been incredibly special and there’s been nothing like it. I can’t wait to bring it back.”
The race offered one of the largest purses available to elite racers in the world outside of the global UCI World Tour. There was a surrealness about the energy that permeated throughout the Capitol Plaza in Sacramento. All of this contributed to the vision that Williams has set forth in wanting to make cycling more inclusive.
“It was this really crazy emotional experience for me. I remember before the race I was watching the women’s race go by from my window,” says Williams. “I went down stairs and Cory Williams [Justin’s brother] was like, ‘Man this is so cool… I’m so proud of you, man. I didn’t know it would be like this.’ Everyone was so proud to be there. Even the people who weren’t racing. They were so proud to be there. That’s never happened to me in bike racing.”
The love of the sport and the future
Dear 39th Street brings the viewer closer to the inner workings of the efforts that it’s taken to create a dynasty of excellence in the most unassuming circumstances. There’s a word that’s synonymous with everything Williams is contributing to the sport of cycling – watch the film in the player above now.