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VN Awards: North American team of the year

L39ion of Los Angeles adds a women's squad, and launches its own race.

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The 2021 VeloNews Awards are running all the rest of the month for VeloNews and Outside+ members.

There was perhaps no worse a year in the history of American cycling to launch a UCI professional road cycling team than 2020–2021. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered or delayed the country’s biggest pro stage races. Gravel seemed to surpass road in terms of media attention and importance. And a shortage of bicycles meant that simply obtaining gear felt impossible.

Despite these hurdles, L39ion of Los Angeles leapt into the UCI pro ranks this year, bounding over whatever hurdles stood in their way. The team truly accomplished what seemed to be impossible.

The team dominated the U.S. criterium scene, scoring dramatic wins on the USA CRITS series throughout the summer. More importantly L39ion of Los Angeles generated a tonnage of media hits and visibility rarely seen in U.S. cycling. The team’s visionary co-founder, longtime pro Justin Williams, became the darling of U.S. cycling. Stories about Williams and his L39ion of Los Angeles project were seemingly everywhere, from the Wall Street Journal to Outside Magazine.

The team’s media success stemmed from its outlier status in the history of U.S. cycling. L39ion of Los Angeles is the only pro team to be launched, organized, and operated by Black cyclists. Williams and his brother, Cory, are of African and Belizean descent. They co-founded the team in 2020 as a way to both race and prove that cycling isn’t just a sport for upper-crust White athletes. Diversity isn’t the stated mission of the team, yet the team’s push for inclusivity and victory is inextricably linked to opening the sport up to communities that are often overlooked.

“The diversity in the team comes from me and my brother and our African descent. So I think that some people get lost in diversity being a reason for the team’s existence,” Williams said in an interview. “The team exists because there’s no diversity, but we don’t try and strictly push diversity.”

The team’s mission, as well as its success in 2020 at the amateur level, attracted a smattering of big dollar sponsors, which helped L39ion attract a stronger roster and secure UCI status for 2021. Specialized was an early backer, and then virtual platform Zwift came on board as a multi-year backer.

For 2021 the team launched a women’s squad, anchored by Skylar Schneider and Kendall Ryan. The two barnstormed the U.S. crit scene throughout the summer, scoring the U.S. national criterium championships, the overall at Joe Martin Stage Race, and the top two spots at Tulsa Tough.

The men’s squad welcomed seasoned pros Freddie Ovett, Tyler Williams, Ty Magner, Sam Boardman, and Alexander Cowan, among others. Eder Fraye won the Mexican national road race title, Cory Williams won Tulsa Tough, and Tyler Williams took the overall at Joe Martin. And all the while, the team generated thousands of photos, videos, stories, and interviews on social media and abroad, furthering the stoke of its fans.

In a year that marked a step back for the U.S. road cycling scene, L39ion of Los Angeles helped take American road racing forward.