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The ‘lionesses’ of L39ION of Los Angeles on teamwork, representation, and riding bikes very fast

Skylar Schneider and Kendall Ryan are taking L39ion's mission to the top of the podium.

Last weekend, L39ion of Los Angeles dominated the podiums of Tulsa Tough on all three days of racing. You could say that both of the team’s squads were victorious, with Cory and Justin Williams going 1-2 for the men’s overall and Skylar Schneider and Kendall Ryan doing the same for the women’s, but Schneider would correct you.

‘It’s never ‘the women’s team’ and the men’s team,’ it’s just L39ion because we are one team,” the 22-year old told VeloNews.

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Schneider and Ryan, the so-called ‘lionesses of L39ion’ are two of the most exciting riders on a squad that doesn’t lack for intrigue. The women have known each other for years; both have been stalwarts in the U.S. cycling scene and spent two years racing together for the UCI continental team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank. Their synchronicity was on display in Tulsa last weekend, where they sent one or the other to the top step of the podium every single day.

VeloNews caught up with Schneider and Ryan as they transitioned from Tulsa to Tennessee for U.S. nationals.

VeloNews: What is your relationship like on and off the bike? Did you know each other well before joining L39ion? How did you prepare together for Tulsa? How do you suit each other as teammates?  

Skylar Schneider: Kendall and I were teammates on Tibco in 2013 and 2014, so we have known each other for a long time. Since then, we have had a lot of different experiences with me going World Tour and her getting World Cup podiums on the track. To come back together as teammates and share all of this experience and knowledge with each other is definitely a huge asset. That being said, we suit each other really well as teammates because we both have this mutual intuition on the bike and have very dynamic strengths, which gives us a lot of cards to play in a race. Off the bike, we get along so well! We are going into our third straight week as roommates on the road and we’ve had such a fun and enjoyable time, which also translates into giving our all for each other on the bike.

Kendall Ryan: I’ve known Sky for a long time. We were both on the same team about 10 years ago when Tibco had a junior/development rider squad and a pro road squad. Her sister Sam was also on Tibco, and we would go to all these crits together. We were a little crit hit squad, we had a lot of successes back then, too. Off the bike, we’ve always been friendly, but I’d like to say we’ve become good friends and good roommates! Being her teammate again has been pretty seamless. I think she’s probably one of the only teammates I’ve ever had where I don’t need to communicate with her on the bike, we’re pretty in sync once the whistle goes off. We go into a race with a game plan, and between the two of us, there’s a wealth of experience in racing that we know how to adapt and make it work, especially in criteriums. Our preparation for Tulsa was having the fire fueled by a hit and a miss the weekend before at the Armed Forces, and not coming home with the overall win.

VN: What is it like being on L39ion? You both came from professional road teams. How is the vibe, feel, and the direction of L39ion different, and what does that mean to you as an athlete?

SS: It feels amazing to be on L39ion. To know that you’re surrounded by individuals who genuinely want to make an impact is really inspiring. There is so much potential for each rider to grow, both on and off the bike, and everyone is encouraged to express themselves, while no dream is too big. At the same time, this is still a professional team and we work really hard to win races.

KR: L39ion has a great balance of professionalism, community interaction, and enjoyment. We focus on doing well in races, interacting with fans and the local communities of the cities we visit, and we like to have a good time; it’s called balance. We did both come from pro road teams, this is also a pro road team and we’re looking forward to adding more lionesses to the den.

VN: This team has a totally different direction than say, racing on the road in Europe or stage races like Redlands, etc. Crits are a focus — does that suit you? 

SS:  I thrive on the speed, technical courses, and skills that criteriums take. That being said, we are not only a criterium team. We will line up for stage races and UCI races this year around the U.S.

 KR: We would have done Redlands, Colorado Classic, and the UCI Delta RR at BC Superweek if they weren’t canceled. I think the common misconception about L39ion is that we are just a crit squad, we also do road races and stage races. We’re planning to do Joe Martin at the end of August.

All that aside, based on the tone of your question and based on a lot of people in cycling; people tend to undervalue criteriums vs road races. I don’t understand what the stigma about solely participating in crits is all about. Crits are really hard; they are technical, strategic, dynamic, and intense. I think crit races are worthy of a world championship jersey; hopefully, one day that can happen. The USA needs to push to make crits bigger and better. There’s so much value in it that people don’t see and I think that’s really sad. Criteriums are how I fell in love with cycling when I was nine years old. They are easily accessible to watch, usually in a downtown setting, and they bring in business to the shops in the surrounding areas. Frankly, they are easier to put on than a road race and they’re more fun. It’s a block party setting with bike racing in the middle. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Crits can be a massive segue into creating a big cycling culture in the U.S., and I think people should take it seriously instead of scoffing about it.

VN: In terms of off-the-bike, L39ion also has a huge platform, much of it based on inclusivity and representation. What has that experience been like? Is having a women’s squad important to the team, and how is that shown?

SS: The platform that L39ion has created has simultaneously attracted both cyclists and non-cyclists, which shows the impact that this team is having both within and outside of this sport. I’ve never seen a team engage with the communities we are racing in as much as I’ve seen in the past two weeks alone that we’ve been on the road. Last weekend in Tulsa there was a couple who drove eight hours just to watch L39ion race. There were young junior riders asking us to sign water bottles, flags, and even a pair of Specialized shoes. I have never doubted for a moment that the women’s squad was equally as important as the men’s squad. In fact, it’s never “the women’s team” and “the men’s team”, it’s just “L39ion” because we are one team. Something pretty cool along those lines was last weekend in Tulsa, the pro women’s races were only 50 minutes while the men’s were 80. Justin had this changed so that the women could race a full hour, while the men sacrificed some time for us to do so.

KR: I think Sky answered this question really well. I feel the same, we’ve had a lot of new experiences especially with fans and how they gravitate towards L39ion. This experience with the team the last couple of weeks has really helped get my mind off not making the Olympic track team. It’s been great to get back to racing, but it’s really magical to know you’re making an impact on so many people and inspiring future generations to race bikes, too.

VN: Tulsa was so fun to watch! Did you feel that things were ‘back to normal’ in terms of fanfare? How was the caliber of racing? 

SS: Yes, the fans showed up, and they showed up to make up for lost time. I reckon that was the most amount of fans Tulsa has ever had, which says a lot because Tulsa always has a lot of fans. It was one of the biggest women’s fields Tulsa has ever had (even despite travel restrictions), with a lot of full six-rider teams.

KR: Tulsa was crazy! Going from quarantined training at the Olympic Training Center — the eat, sleep, train, repeat vibe, to three days of crits with the entire courses lined with people screaming and cheering for you was quite a change of pace. Everyone showed up on the start line eager to race and day 1 started with over 100 women. I was super keen for hard racing especially since I didn’t make the Olympic team and I haven’t raced a road event since August of 2019. I will be honest, I’ve been having a really hard time processing the news about not making the Olympic team on the track. I haven’t had the best attitude about it, my mood has been up and down, and I’ve been less friendly than usual. But then this past weekend at Tulsa Tough a little girl came up to me and wanted to take a picture with me and told me how much she enjoyed watching the races; my heart melted. This is what it’s all about. Maybe next time I’ll make the team, but for now, I need to set a good example for the ones that are up and coming. So in a way she helped me get back to being my normal self.

VN: You all visited Greenwood Ave/Black Wall Street in Tulsa. Talk about that as it pertains to being a professional cyclist racing in Tulsa. How did that impact your team’s performance?

SS: A few days before Tulsa Tough started the entire team had the opportunity to go on a tour of Greenwood Ave, our guide was a local business owner. While on the tour, many of us were in tears —  the pain and devastation of the Tulsa massacre touched us deeply. To be able to race with the Greenwood patches was a special tribute to each of the victims of the massacre — the lost lives, businesses, and legacies. The Tulsa massacre only happened 100 years ago, there are still survivors living today. I think it’s important to mention that L39ion is the only Black-owned professional cycling team in America. The impact of Justin and Cory’s 1-2 finish on night 1 of Tulsa Tough was so meaningful that there was an article in the Wall Street Journal, another example of how important this team is and the visibility it gets for the sport. At the end of Tulsa Tough our sponsor, Fat Tire, donated $11,000 to Justice for Greenwood ($6,000 of which was based on our results).

KR: I think our races, especially the first night, were fueled with a lot of emotion. Learning about the history of what happened in the race massacre was truly crushing. It was a really emotionally taxing day when we took the Greenwood Avenue tour of Black Wall Street. Not having known about it from history class in school and it being the 100-year anniversary was the first pit in my gut, the second was realizing what could have been for all those people,  and the third was that nothing has been done for any of the survivors, ever. I think we raced for the hundreds of souls that lost their lives and livelihoods in that fire.