Lily Williams is probably not a name you are familiar with. She has yet to win a national championship, or break world records like Coryn Rivera and Chloe Dygert. When the US Cyclocross Nationals dismount onto Louisville, Kentucky this winter, the crowds likely won’t cheer her name as profoundly as they will the names of Katie Compton and Katie Keough.
Those conquests could be well within her future, however. As a first year professional, fans watched her compete ferociously at the US Pro Road Championships and Women’s Tour of California, where she wore the most courageous rider jersey. By the end of the season, she had stood atop the podium no fewer than 8 times, specialising in hilly crits and drag-race sprint finishes.
If you’re searching for the next up and comer to follow, look no farther than Lily Williams. At the age of 24, her results point toward big things in the future.
From Two Legs to Two Wheels
Prior to cycling, Williams was an accomplished runner in high school and college. In 2012, she ran a 4-minute, 42-second mile – a Florida high school state record that still stands. As an undergraduate, she continued running while attending Vanderbilt University. Then, in pursuit of a master’s degree in science journalism and multimedia from Northwestern University, she moved to Chicago in mid 2016. In a new city and no longer tied to running, Williams was looking for something new to fill time.
Williams took a step into the unknown and applied to a bike shop. She had no experience, but had familial roots to the sport. Her mother, Sarah Docter, was a speed skater in the 1980 Winter Olympics, who used to cross-train in the summers, cycling alongside greats such as Greg Lemond and Connie Carpenter.
“When I was growing up, we watched the Tour de France every summer,” Williams explains. “We would watch the full stages every day. It really instilled a sense of excitement about the sport in me, and was part of the reason I was excited to try the bike once I was done with running.”
Shortly after being hired, those who worked with Williams at the bike shop convinced her to buy a road bike. She purchased a Focus Izalco Donna. It only took a few weeks of riding for her prowess as an athlete to become apparent in the local cycling community. When it came to keeping pace with the fastest riders, something many struggled to achieve, she accomplished it remarkably quickly. By January 2017, Williams had placed second at US Collegiate Cyclocross National Championships.
Ascending The Ranks
In 2017, while racing as an amateur, Williams won a stage of the Joe Martin Stage Race in a bunch gallop ahead of UnitedHealthcare’s Lauren Hall and Rally’s Sara Bergen. The win earned her a contract with UCI Women’s Team Hagens Berman Supermint for 2018, a milestone that marked an almighty ascension through the ranks.
What provokes such development, you ask? “Starting racing with a healthy attitude I think has really contributed to the success I have had so far in cycling,” Williams replies. “Of course, I have plenty to learn about not giving myself too hard of a time when I am training and competing, but there are so many things to love about the bike that I didn’t allow myself to find while running. Just having the bike as such a self-sufficient mode of transportation is quite a beautiful thing, and no matter if I am competing, I will have that.”
Further, she credits her cycling roots. Although a native of Florida, the Midwest is where it all began. “Chicago and the Midwest also helped me with my quick ascension through the sport. Tons of great racing and really kind people make the racing fun, laid back, and worth riding all winter for. The cyclocross scene there helped me develop my bike handling skills with races every weekend in my first season.”
The Creation of a Neo-ProEmbed from Getty Images
Unsurprising to those who follow her, Williams hit the ground running in 2018. At the start of the year, she placed 8th at the US National Cyclocross Championships in the elite women’s field. In June, she placed 5th in the elite women’s field at US Road Nationals in Tennessee, 4sec behind winner Coryn Rivera and 3sec off the podium. Victories spanned from her first race in February to the final one, The Thompson Bucks County Classic, in early September. After seven months of racing, her win count stands at eight with an additional 10 podium places.
Despite her success, Williams still considers herself a rookie. “Each race is still a work in progress. I’m excited that I get the opportunity to learn something new every time I clip in.”
Additionally, she is thankful to have found a team like Hagens Berman Supermint. “There’s no crippling pressure or judgement, and they have been patient with me while I figure out how to race and live like a pro.”
While still a neo-pro, Williams notes an important mentality that one expects from a seasoned professional. “At each race I enter, I expect to win, if that’s my job for the day. And I want to be able to win in all sorts of different scenarios. As a runner, I considered this attitude to be cocky, but I think on the bike, if you don’t go into a race thinking you can win, then your race is over before it even begins.”
Bunny Hopping Toward 2019
After an exceedingly successful 2018, Williams will again pull on a Hagens Berman Supermint skinsuit in 2019. She is focused on continuing her development and helping the team succeed rather than setting big goals for herself.
“I am reticent to define success for myself,” she tells me. “I definitely have a fear of failure and, sometimes, it’s hard to set the bar high. I think a big part of the future will be understanding what success means to me. There is so much more to cycling success than winning.”
One thing is clear: Williams has found a good home at Hagens Berman Supermint. “We’re going to have a great group again in 2019 and I am looking forward to supporting each of my teammates at their best and favourite races throughout the 2019 calendar.”
For the 2018-2019 cyclocross season, Williams will be riding for The Pony Shop presented by KPMG. The Pony Shop is a bike shop in Evanston, Illinois, and a fixture in the local cyclocross community. Lou Kuhn, its owner, opted to sponsor Williams and her boyfriend, Andrew Giniat, in 2017 despite both being what Lily calls “relative novices”.
After a successful campaign in 2017, the team will see increased resources in 2018. Professional service firm KPMG, one of the world’s four big accounting firms, is joining as a “presented by” sponsor. Other sponsors include Cannondale, SRAM, and Champion System.
Shifting Toward The Future
It’s hard to know what to expect from Williams in the coming years. If she continues to develop as an criterium specialist, we could see her become one of the strongest riders on the domestic circuit. With her history as a runner and passion for cyclocross, perhaps it’s not a far stretch to see her challenging the likes of Compton, Keough, and Ellen Noble at future World Cup races. Although Williams has never ridden on the track, her specialty as a 4-minute runner could suggest potential success as a pursuit rider. While future successes remain unknown, one thing is clear: don’t expect Williams to limit herself.
“I want to remain a multi-discipline cyclist for as long as I can,” she tells me. “It’s something I really admire in domestic and international riders like PFP [Pauline Ferrand-Prevot], Marianne Vos, Lucinda Brand, all of the women who race both track and road or mountain and cross or some crazy mixture of the four … I think that versatility is a rare ability, and I would love to have that.”
For the time being, however, the plan is steady development, even with Tokyo on the horizon. “I would love to go to the Olympics someday and represent the US, but I want to take it at my pace. I know what burnout feels like and I am not eager to repeat that in a sport I am loving so much.”
Giving Back Early
Despite only recently joining, Williams is keen to give back and help progress the sport. This season, Hagen Bermans Supermint paired her up with a 16-year-old female cyclist whom she mentors. Additionally, The Pony Shop supports a team of juniors, who she rides with while in town.
Beyond serving as a mentor, Williams also wants to help grow cycling in the States. “Mostly, I want to be welcoming to anyone who considers riding, no matter their ability, because racing and riding is a ton of fun and should be available to all.
“And I want cycling to grow in the U.S. More riders means more resources and better support, which can only elevate American racing to be even better here and around the world.”
Header image: © GETTY/ Velo/ Ezra Shaw