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For Lily Williams, finishing college was the excuse she needed to save herself from the untenable toll of an elite running career. Williams was fast (her 4:42 mile remains a Florida high school state record), and she never slowed down between seasons, competing in both track and cross country.
But after graduating from Vanderbilt in 2016, she was completely burned out from trying to balance sport, school, and life. She moved to Chicago for graduate school and took a step back from competition.
“I was sick of the nerves and pressure and wanted to do something just for fun,” she said. “I had always wanted to try cycling, and I started working at a bike shop since I wasn’t training 25 hours every week on top of my academics anymore.”
It didn’t take long before Williams was back at a start line. Her bike shop co-workers talked her into going on the local group rides and trying cyclocross; her residual fitness made riding fun. By January 2017, Williams had placed second at US Collegiate Cyclocross National Championships. Later that year, she won a stage of the Joe Martin Stage Race as an amateur.
That effort earned her a contract for 2018 with her current team, Hagens Berman Supermint. That year, she won the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic and took home a Most Courageous Rider jersey at the Tour of California, an award she’s exceptionally proud of.
“Every so often the bike race is won from a break, and it’s always a really hard but rewarding way to win,” Williams explained. “Celebrating that kind of racing — the unpredictable, risky and often fruitless kind — we can encourage people to take chances and make the racing more dynamic.”
Williams is no stranger to taking chances. Now in her third year of racing, she’s established herself as a strong multi-disciplined rider, with solid finishes in road, cyclocross, and criteriums. As a runner, Williams competed year-round, so as a rider the relentless schedule is comfortable. But, like each decision a female cyclist makes, she sees the choice to race across disciplines as part of a bigger picture.
“Multi-discipline riders are emerging as some of the best in the peloton,” said Williams. “Marianne Vos, Lucinda Brand, Jolanda Neff, Annika Langvad, I think it’s a phenomenon with merit. A lot of teams don’t want their riders to spread themselves among multiple disciplines, and I think that’s a shame when riders could be reaching a wider audience and spreading the popularity of cycling to all sorts of riders.”
Like every woman trying to ride professionally, the frustrations of low pay, fewer and fewer races, and lack of interest from sponsors can eclipse the victories. Therefore, like every woman riding professionally, Williams is always working double duty: training to win and needing to win to help advance the sport. She also takes exception to the notion that sluggish interest in professional women’s cycling is in part because men’s racing is more exciting.
“It’s just not true anymore,” said Williams. “We’re seeing women’s races with amazing entertainment value. Women’s World Cup cyclocross last fall had eight riders who could win the race each week while the same men won almost every single race.”
Williams also believes that the Colorado Classic will be huge in pushing women’s cycling further into the spotlight.
“I am really honored and thrilled that the Colorado Classic listened to women racing in the U.S. and asked us what we need,” she said. “Someone has to take the leap to set the precedent. It won’t be done until someone goes out and does it. That’s what the Colorado Classic is doing.”
The four-stage Colorado Classic kicks off Thursday in Steamboat Springs.