Podiums and parties: Inside Justin Williams’s Tulsa Tough
You may have read about Oklahoma’s Tulsa Tough cycling festival, or seen videos of the surging crowds and breakneck racing action on the famed Crybaby Hill, the marquee feature over three days of racing. The entire event is a celebration of American criterium racing and crit culture; there are three road criteriums, as well as the Red Bull Last Stand fixed-gear criterium, plus plenty of parties and late nights out. This year, America’s reigning elite road champion Justin Williams traveled to Tulsa with his new Legion of Los Angeles team, to test his mettle against the country’s other great crit racers and teams.
Williams and his Legion of Los Angeles teammates had a successful weekend: He won two of three criteriums and finished second in the ominium to Elevate-KHS rider Sam Bassetti. The team also dove headfirst into the parties and the racing scene. We reached out to Williams to have him take us through his fun filled weekend at Tulsa Tough.
Williams arrives in Tulsa the Monday before the races. As he has done in years past, Williams has Legion of Los Angeles stay with a race host family.
“We flew in Monday, and we were going to stay in an Airbnb but we had stayed with a host family and had so much fun, and they did such a good job of taking care of us, that we did it again. The guys stayed with this lovely family. Their son takes care of everyone’s bikes—he’s gluing tubulars and washing chains. We had a built-in mechanic for the weekend. We flew in [teammate] Alex Briggs from London, so I stayed with Alexi at a hotel a mile from Crybaby Hill in this central location, so guys could come in, shower, and then go out and get food and take everything in.”
Legion of Los Angeles comes to Tulsa having raced primarily local criteriums in Southern California. They have yet to prove themselves on the national stage.
“We wanted to show that everything we practiced in the beginning of the season meant something. You heard Frankie [Andreu] bring up that we had only been doing local crits around LA. We were doing these races to strengthen our team for Tulsa. It was about getting these guys together and telling them that all of the things we worked on at these local races is going to come to fruition in Tulsa. These local races—the CBR races, Carlos Soto Memorial Crit—we gained a lot of stuff from these. The depth is there in those SoCal crits. It’s hard.”
Legion of Los Angeles struggled in its first national event, the Armed Forces Cycling Classic in May.
“We got our asses kicked. We were fresh off the plane and Elevate-KHS showed up and they were just flying. I had some bad luck on the first day when my battery fell out of my frame, and on the second day we had a flat tire, so we had some bad luck. But [Elevate-KHS] took advantage. They’re one of the best teams in the country, and when we came out we just got bullied. We didn’t race as good as we could have, but we did gain confidence and we rode our hearts out.”
The field in Tulsa is strong, with Elevate-KHS, Arapahoe-Hincapie, Hotel San Jose, and other midwest teams in attendance. Legion of Los Angeles will have to work for victories.
“It was all the best crit guys this year. Everybody wanted to be at the front; in fact people showed up like 30 minutes before the race even started to try and get a good position on the front row. I got a call-up so I didn’t stress, but there were 130 guys in each race, so it was critical to be at the front. It never slowed down and we were doing peak capacity. I think we averaged 31mph for the final six laps on Friday. Most of the guys I was riding around were really pro. Sure, there were some oddballs who are a pain to watch because they waste so much energy, diving at me in the corners. Guys want to be at the front, so they waste their enegy to get there and then the next thing you know they’re moving backwards. They’d burn a match trying to gain one spot. But they didn’t last long because the race was so hard. The teams that were there were strong, and guys demanded respect, so people were playing nice with each other.”
On Friday night Legion of LA goes head-to-head with Elevate-KHS, and Williams wins the sprint.
“On the first night, I think we were the best team there. We had bad luck with Corey [Williams] flatting and Alex Briggs who was fresh off the plane. We had Sean [McElroy], Diego [Binatena] and Hunter [Grove] riding the front with 10 minutes to go, and they kept me out of trouble. They allowed me to clear my legs and navigate the sprint on my own. We talk about this plan all the time. It’s like, you need to get me to the finish, and if we can, then we have a chance.”
On Saturday Williams wins the Tulsa Fine Arts Criterium, bringing the team its second win.
Night two was the same kind of thing. We were down Hunter because his bike stopped shifting. I started bad because my brakes were rubbing, and KHS lit it up for the first 15 minutes and we were on the back foot, and I was just chasing. I was pinning it in 40th place or so, and I couldn’t move up. I basically had to wait for the race to settle down and then Corey came back and dragged me to the front. I think [Elevate-KHS] was probably stronger than us, and Hincapie was probably stronger than us too. But I think I was probably the fastest guy in the race, so all we had to do was make it a field sprint, and then I can navigate those sprints on my own. I had an incredible effort from Sean [McElroy] and he went so hard on the last lap and a half. I came around Corey and had better legs. But it was so hard.”
With his two wins Williams takes the omnium lead. During Sunday’s Rivers Parks criterium, Bassetti attacks into a breakaway and wins the sprint and the overall. Williams falls to second in the omnium.
“Day three was a strongman’s race, so it played to the favor of those other teams. Hincapie was so strong and [Elevate-KHS] was really strong. I think they’re the best team in the country right now. Guys were tired and looking at other guys to do the work, and there was a lot of looking around on day three because nobody wanted to ride. It didn’t happen for us, and that’s the way it goes. It’s just another thing we learned. You find your footing, and now, I think a lot of people will look at us differently.”
Tulsa Tough also supports a three-day party, and racers go out and celebrate at local bars and restaurants after each event. Williams and Legion of Los Angeles take in the atmosphere.
“It was amazing. Night number one we ended up at Dilly Diner and had bacon and breakfast at 2 a.m. Night No. 2 was also beautiful because we won. Our main focus was those first two races, and I didn’t expect it to go so beautifully. I was very relieved and excited for the guys, so I took them to dinner and paid for their drinks. Then, Sunday comes around and from start to finish, the race is this massive party. It’s hard not to smile and stop and talk to everyone you see. The crowds are handing out dollar bills and having a bunch of fun. Then we got to celebrate again [teammate Sean Elroy finished second place], and it’s to the hotel, shower, then straight to the Soundpony [Lounge]. It was sick because we felt like celebrities. We jumped out of the Uber and there was this 100-person line to get in, and everyone was waiting for us and gave us a shout out, and we just walked in. As soon as we walked in there are people dancing on the bar and we shut down the Soundpony. There was a lot of dancing on the bar that night.”
At some races, teams maintain the competitive vibes even off the bike. That’s not the case at Tulsa, where everyone comes together on the final night to celebrate. At the final party, rivals become friends
“Everybody was so positive and warm and appreciative of each other, and that’s something I haven’t always seen before in racing. Guys can be salty if they don’t win, and sometimes there’s animosity between teams. Men and women don’t always hang out after the races even though we’re on the road together. And that was totally different at Tulsa. Everybody was stoked for each other. We’re in there hanging with the other teams and celebrating everyone’s accomplishments. It was beautiful, man. It was something that’s really special about criterium racing. I felt like this weekend I saw a glimpse of what the future of American crit racing should become.”