Bicycling (South Africa)
A cycling team that’s breaking the mould.
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.
“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.”