Ac­tion Fig.

A cy­cling team that’s break­ing the mould.

Bicycling (South Africa) - - News - FROM THEIR SKINSUITS TO THEIR STREET EDGE, A US-BASED GROUP IS CHAL­LENG­ING CY­CLING'S NORMS. BYJAMESSTOUT PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY CE SA R AL­VAREZ

The break is not get­ting caught. When the five of them get to the fin­ish, the sprint will prob­a­bly go to 29-year-old Justin Wil­liams – a mus­cu­lar, mul­ti­ple­time na­tional cri­terium and track cham­pion. The other rid­ers in the break know this. They’re plan­ning on key­ing off Justin when the sprint starts.

So Justin does what no­body ex­pects: he at­tacks. He sur­prises even his friend and team­mate in the break­away, 22year-old Dante Young. While Dante drips with tal­ent, he lacks the ex­pe­ri­ence of the rid­ers around him, so when the break chases and then catches Justin, he’s un­sure how to re­spond. The bell rings, sig­nalling the fi­nal lap. The rid­ers all look at each other and gulp air, and as they do, a sin­gle rider goes off the front. Dante knows enough to go with the rider, to cover the move, but as he does, he looks back for Justin. And in that split-sec­ond of he­si­ta­tion, the at­tack­ing rider, Imeh Nsek, gets clear.

Dante gets caught by the break. Imeh stays away and wins. Justin, spent and frus­trated, holds off the field for eighth.

I make my way back to the car from turn four, where I’d been watch­ing. Usu­ally, Justin’s face breaks into his trade­mark huge smile when he sees some­one he recog­nises, but he’s scowl­ing now. “We don’t like los­ing,” he says. “When you join a cy­cling team, you’re sup­posed to be a ro­bot,” says Cory Wil­liams, 25, one of Justin’s two broth­ers who were also in the race to­day. “I mean hell, man, they all dress the same way, eat the same food, they’ve got the same hair­cut.”

The CNCPT team (pro­nounced ‘con­cept’) wants to do things dif­fer­ently. With a ros­ter com­prised en­tirely of young men of colour, and a so­phis­ti­cated brand­ing and so­cial me­dia strat­egy, the Los An­ge­les de­vel­op­ment team aims to rep­re­sent what it terms the city’s ‘true ur­ban and street edge’, and to broaden the ap­peal of their sport to a more di­verse au­di­ence that may not have con­sid­ered road cy­cling in the past.

These guys want to change cy­cling, but first they want sup­per. We head to a restau­rant. CJ Wil­liams is the last to get there, and stands alone at the back of the long queue. With braided hair past his shoul­ders, a stocky build, thick beard and pierc­ing stare, CJ can be in­tim­i­dat­ing. But here, the same guy who will throw el­bows at 50km/h doesn’t want to be rude and barge in.

They’re barely cov­er­ing the cost of their food with their win­nings. But there is none of the bick­er­ing about the di­vi­sion of prize money so com­mon on teams. “We’re all broth­ers, we split ev­ery­thing evenly,” Justin says. Ev­ery­body nods.

The Wil­liams broth­ers started rac­ing when Justin was 14, un­der the di­rec­tion of their fa­ther as well as rac­ing leg­ends such as Rah­saan Ba­hati, an African-Amer­i­can cri­terium racer who won high-level races on big teams. Justin won four na­tional ti­tles as a ju­nior and U23 racer, and an elite na­tional track cham­pi­onship in 2009.

But once CJ and Cory out­grew U23 rac­ing, they started to get frus­trated with the am­a­teur road rac­ing teams they joined, where they could find no bond be­tween the rid­ers that ap­proached how they’d all felt as a rac­ing fam­ily.

Justin re­mem­bers go­ing to watch CJ at a race and see­ing his team­mates at­tack each other, fo­cused more on in­di­vid­ual re­sults than on help­ing the squad win what­ever way that could best hap­pen. He grew tired of see­ing tal­ent wasted like that. He was also tired of the lack of di­ver­sity in road rac­ing, which at best re­in­forced no­tions about how rac­ers looked and who they were. He re­calls ar­riv­ing at a host house in Alabama once, where he walked into his as­signed bed­room and found the walls cov­ered in red­neck Con­fed­er­ate flags. “You can only imag­ine how un­com­fort­able it was for me,” he says.

“WEDON’TLIKE LOS­ING.”

“WE’REALL BROTH­ERS, WEALLSPLIT EVEN.”

He knew there was a di­verse group of promis­ing young rid­ers out there, es­pe­cially in the fixie scene, who were turned off by the style and at­ti­tude of the lo­cal road rac­ing scene. Justin be­lieved these black and His­panic rid­ers – rid­ers like his younger broth­ers – were of­ten over­looked, and that if they just had ac­cess to sup­port and men­tor­ing, more of them could be dom­i­nant on the road.

Even­tu­ally, Justin thought,

I’ll just do it my­self.

Bobby Endo got into cy­cling in 2007, when he started cre­at­ing the team kits for Rock Rac­ing – a squad that was spon­sored by the The hell with it, com­pany where he worked as a de­signer, Rock & Repub­lic jeans, and which quickly be­came known for its loud kits, and edgy and ur­ban aes­thetic (and lax at­ti­tude to­wards hir­ing ex-dop­ers).

It was a high-pro­file gig, but he says he felt like an out­sider (“I still have a hard time re­lat­ing to a lot of the guys who race”) un­til a co-worker got him on a bike and he fell in love with the sen­sa­tion of speed, the way the bike could be an av­enue for self-ex­pres­sion.

His ini­tial aver­sion to wear­ing ‘tights’ over­come, he started look­ing for rid­ing clothes that fit his sense of style and his stan­dard of qual­ity, and came up dis­ap­pointed. So he founded his own cy­cling cloth­ing com­pany, Endo Cus­toms. Bobby’s de­signs take the clean aes­thetic that has be­come en vogue in road cy­cling in the past five years, and gives it more street swag­ger – bold colours and pat­terns. “I want to get some­body like my­self to take a sec­ond look at the sport,” he says.

Bobby and Justin had met ear­lier, but re­con­nected in 2010 through Rah­saan Ba­hati. They started hang­ing out, talk­ing about bikes, art, fash­ion, de­sign, and, even­tu­ally, a team. In late 2014, Justin met fixed-gear-turned-road-racer Alonso ‘Zo’ Tal. Zo, a pho­tog­ra­pher who did mar­ket­ing work for sports and ur­ban life­style brands, had also been strug­gling to find a team with guys he’d want to hang with out­side of rac­ing.

With Bobby’s cre­ative flair, Justin’s rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and Zo’s sto­ry­telling abil­i­ties, they had the key in­gre­di­ents by 2015. Bobby would fund the squad. The Wil­liams broth­ers would come along as a pack­age deal. They just needed to find a few other ta­lented rid­ers.

Dante Young grew up skate­board­ing. But the cost of the boards he broke added up. This led him to bas­ket­ball, un­til a knee in­jury took him off the court at 16. At that point, he got a vin­tage road bike from a neigh­bour, and

“ISTILLHAVE AHARDTIME RELATINGTOA LOTOFTHEGUYS WHORACE.”

rode it ev­ery­where. On one of these rides, he met An­gel Munoz, and the two started rid­ing to­gether reg­u­larly.

Dante watched a lot of YouTube. Mostly, he says, he was “watch­ing cats eat peanut but­ter”, but one day, he ran across a video of a track race. He was cap­ti­vated. Turned out, there was a velo­drome 15km away. He went to the track so much that his sis­ter con­sid­ered step­ping in to keep his fo­cus on his ed­u­ca­tion. There were gangs in his neigh­bour­hood. He had seen drive-by shoot­ings. “Ev­ery night there were heli­copters look­ing for peo­ple,” he says. Even­tu­ally, his sis­ter re­laxed. She thought, “He isn’t in a gang or sell­ing drugs or shoot­ing any­one. He’s just rid­ing his bi­cy­cle.”

Dante earned a spon­sor­ship rac­ing fixedgear crits such as Red Hook, and built up a fol­low­ing. “His­panic kids, black kids, mi­nori­ties in gen­eral were su­per-ex­cited that there was this kid who grew up where they grew up,” he says.

One day, Dante’s YouTube habit led him to Justin and Cory’s GoPro race videos. He was shocked: “There’s three black guys do­ing these crazy crits.” He thought, Maybe I could be num­ber four.

Soon, he was train­ing on the road and go­ing to group rides. It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore he met Justin.

And when Justin, Bobby, and Zo be­gan plan­ning the team in the sum­mer of 2015, they reached out to Dante. Dante asked if his buddy An­gel could be on the team too. Justin agreed to let An­gel tag along on some rides, but said there wasn’t space on the team for an­other rider. Then, on one of the team’s first win­ter group rides, Pro Tour racer Tay­lor Phin­ney, a friend of Justin’s, came along and blew the group apart. “He even dropped me,” Justin says.

But An­gel hung on.

“So I fig­ured I could make some more room on the team,” Justin says.

Un­der the tute­lage of the Wil­liams broth­ers, Dante learned to take con­trol of his rac­ing. In just un­der two years, he up­graded from a Cat­e­gory 5 begin­ner to a Cat 2, al­low­ing him to join the Wil­liams broth­ers in the elite races.

The CNCPT team de­buted its first skin­suit on Valen­tine’s Day of 2016. The suit was printed from edge to edge with $100 bills. Soon af­ter, when they raced the Red Hook Crit in New York, they wore skinsuits based on the psy­che­delic pat­terns and bright colours of the Coogi sweater made fa­mous by rap­per Big­gie Smalls. “Ev­ery­one in New York just went crazy,” Dante says.

They made tie-dye jer­seys in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Team Dream. They made a skin­suit that looked like a Dodgers base­ball jer­sey, and for the photo shoot, Dante wore it to a game. Each race was a project: Bobby would de­sign a kit, Zo would take pho­tos and share them on so­cial me­dia.

Key to the look of the kits was that they weren’t plas­tered with lo­gos. Aside from Endo, they started the team with no spon­sors to rep­re­sent. “We wanted to ride what we want,” Justin says. “But also we wanted to build our own brand, so that when we called com­pa­nies, they were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been wait­ing for this op­por­tu­nity.’”

To­day, CNCPT’s spon­sors in­clude Can­non­dale and Giro as well as Endo, but the kits are still clean-look­ing, and the team re­tains its dis­tinct iden­tity. Can­non­dale mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor James Lalonde was im­pressed by the group’s tight bond, and pushed to make a spon­sor­ship hap­pen. “They’re bring­ing peo­ple into this fam­ily, and Bobby puts a lot of his own money into it and just has so much pas­sion for it,” he says. “That’s just a re­ally hard thing to turn your back on.”

→or Dante, rid­ing a bike from a ma­jor spon­sor like Can­non­dale is a big con­fi­dence boost. But he still re­mem­bers that first skin­suit. “It all started with the money kit. I

wore that ev­ery­where un­til it faded and the $100 bills were yel­low.”

Over sup­per at the restau­rant, we talk about the price of Cam­pag­nolo parts, and Justin jokes, “Ital­ians don’t like us any­way. You shouldn’t ride Campy!” The com­ment makes the group crack up, but it has lay­ers of real mean­ing. Road rac­ing isn’t a place that tra­di­tion­ally em­braces young black men. There’s out­right racism, as we’ve seen. But there’s also a crush­ing ho­mo­gene­ity that can at times cre­ate a less-than-wel­com­ing at­mos­phere for any­one who’s dif­fer­ent.

There are some cul­tural dif­fer­ences. Some of these guys are from parts of Los An­ge­les that may seem for­eign to a lot of the cy­clists they race with. →or a while, they had a team­mate who was white, and older. But he left. “He didn’t like be­ing the odd one out,” says Justin. “I was like, wel­come to my life!”

“We knew it wasn’t gonna work out when we heard a fire­work and all ducked,” CJ adds. “We were like, ‘Hey dude, don’t you wanna sur­vive? Get be­hind this car!’”

There were other, less comic, mo­ments, like how some peo­ple talked about the money kits. They said they were tacky, and joked about the around in races. But this is noth­ing the team can’t han­dle. The Wil­liams broth­ers grew up bang­ing han­dle­bars. Just rid­ing along, Justin and Cory of­ten bump into each other. “That’s so you’re not scared,” ex­plains Dante, “so when some­one bumps you in a race, it’s noth­ing new.”

If you scroll down far enough in the com­ments on Cory’s videos, there’s some talk about the way the guys ride be­ing danger­ous. Cer­tainly, the Wil­liams broth­ers don’t avoid phys­i­cal con­tact, but I haven’t seen any­thing $100 bills when the guys won $20 races. Some peo­ple even said it was ‘dis­re­spect­ful’ – a word that prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been used if a white team had made the suits. Ap­pro­pri­at­ing hip-hop cul­ture is a so­cially ac­cept­able way to be ironic and funny if you’re white. But when CNCPT owned their street edge, a lot of peo­ple didn’t like it.

One big LA club took a par­tic­u­lar dis­like to the team. What be­gan as jabs about the kits and the team’s lack of a bike spon­sor pro­gressed to rid­ers bump­ing An­gel and Alvin off wheels and out of cor­ners in races. The implication was clear: These kids don’t be­long. “We all sat down, and we said we’re not gonna be dragged down into this, we’re gonna rise above it,” he says.

Still, ev­ery now and then, big­ger and more es­tab­lished teams try to push them they’ve done that isn’t com­mon in high-level cri­teri­ums. Some of these cri­tiques may be rooted in an un­con­scious bias – it’s far too easy to call young black men ag­gres­sive. Peo­ple have cel­e­brated rac­ers like Mark Cavendish for do­ing far worse.

CJ sim­ply be­lieves that “Peo­ple don’t like us be­cause we have this fam­ily vibe.” Justin’s at­ti­tude to­wards it may be summed up by the quote that he used as his In­sta­gram bio for a while: “You laugh at me be­cause I’m dif­fer­ent. I laugh at you be­cause you’re all the same.”

“YOULAUGHAT MEBECAUSE I’MDIFFERENT. ILAUGHATYOU BECAUSEYOU’RE ALLTHESAME.”

AN­GEL AT SAN FRAN­CISCO’S MIS­SION CRIT, A FIXED-GEAR RACE, IN APRIL 2018.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: 2018 TEAM KIT; ‘IT WAS ALL A DREAM’, 2017; ‘AN­TONI’ FORRED HOOK CRIT BARCELONA; 100 KIT, 2016; GREY TEAM KIT, 2018; ‘PETRO’ FOR TULSA, 2017; ‘CNCPT TEAM VS. DREAM TEAM’, 2016 TIE-DYE KIT.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.