Justin Williams is starting the criterium series of his dreams

With dueling multi-million dollar projects planned for 2023, it's a great time to be an elite criterium racer in America.

Photo: Kit Karzen

Caley Fretz
by Caley Fretz 27.04.2023 Photography by
Kit Karzen
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Justin Williams is launching a criterium series. 

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the founder of the L39ION of Los Angeles racing team has spoken quite openly about his dream of a criterium project for years, and his team even put on a trial event in late 2021 in Sacramento called Into the Lion’s Den.

It might also sound familiar because another group, with historical ties to Williams and L39ION, just launched something similar called the National Cycling League, or NCL. 

In the span of six months, the U.S. has gone from a rapidly dwindling national criterium and pro racing circuit (barring the commendable efforts of the ongoing American Criterium Cup) to two dueling, minority-owned, multi-million-dollar-backed criterium racing projects founded on similar core concepts. Both will be held in city centers and it appears both will utilize, at least to some extent, city-based teams. The similarities track all the way down to funding, as both are backed and guided by cash and expertise from sports agents or former agents outside of cycling. 

Williams’ version will be called CRIT, which stands for Circuit Racing International Tour, and is a collaboration between Williams Racing Development and the Wasserman talent agency that has represented Williams for half a decade. The organization issued a press release on Thursday offering few hard details but a long list of intentions. It will include “up to” three races in its first year, the locations and dates of which have not yet been announced. 

CRIT events will be “held in major markets at iconic mainstream sport venues to celebrate diverse cultures as represented by riders and fans alike,” according to the press release. (The NCL’s first press release said it would “organize a series of closed-course 1-2 kilometer criterium races in the most iconic locations of major cities around the country.”) 

CRIT is funded primarily by the newly-formed Wasserman Ventures, an outgrowth of the Wasserman talent agency. The investment has been described only as hitting the “multi-million” dollar mark. Wasserman oversees an estimated USD $9.48 billion in contracts, with Wasserman’s total potential revenue over the life of those contracts at up to $730 million. Wasserman Ventures will back CRIT entirely from its own balance sheet, and, according to Forbes, will fund a collection of projects in the $500,000 to $5 million range. 

The NCL was co-founded by Paris Wallace, an entrepreneur and CEO of Ovia Health, and David Mulugheta, one of the most prominent agents in the National Football League. Investments from NFL stars including Jalen Ramsey, Derwin James, Kevin Byard and Casey Hayward brought the project to roughly $7 million, $1 million of which goes to a prize purse to be awarded at the end of the season. 

The CRIT announcement comes just over two weeks after the NCL hosted its first event in Miami, which was won handily by the Denver Disruptors, one of two city-based teams that are part of the league. The other is the Miami Nights. 

L39ION operates two city-based teams in addition to its core L39ION of LA squad, the Miami Blazers and the Austin Aviators, the latter of which was launched this spring. 

2021’s Into the Lion’s Den in Sacramento attracted a notable lineup of racers, including Women’s WorldTour pros Coryn Labecki (far left) and the SD Worx team.

To add yet another overlapping layer, Reed McCalvin, NCL’s current VP of Ops and Teams, is the former head of operations for L39ION and was involved in the planning and preparation for the Lion’s Den test event, although he described that involvement to me as “peripheral.” 

When reached for comment and asked to respond to the announcement of a criterium project that appears to come from very much the same mold, an NCL spokesperson told Escape Collective: “We are excited to see further investment coming into cycling in the US. NCL proved the market and the model and glad to see others following in our footsteps.” 

Dueling crit leagues? 

The intended eventual scale of CRIT is still quite fuzzy. Thursday’s press release never uses the word “league,” for example, and when contacted for clarification, a spokesperson told Escape Collective that “Wasserman Ventures and WR Devo are producing up to three races later this year that are independent of league formats.”

Publicly, Williams’ vision for the future of crit racing has been explained mostly in broad terms over the years – he often referenced “changing the game” in public interviews, and that language is present in the CRIT press release as well. There is a coherent vision behind L39ION’s movements, though: including the Los Angeles-based L39ION, Williams has built three city-based teams from scratch, which is one more than NCL has at the moment. And importantly, discussions I’ve had with L39ION staff and riders, and Justin himself, over the last two years made it abundantly clear that a league of city-based teams has always been his goal. The NCL was his dream, basically. 

That project may have been quite close to L39ION at one time but has since taken off very much without them. None of the L39ION teams were involved in the NCL’s first event in Miami.

And now we have CRIT. On paper, a collection of criterium races in high-profile locations. Open format, not the league that NCL envisions building. But what’s the long play? A project with multi-million dollar backing must be a bit more ambitious than an open criterium series, a format that has proved notoriously difficult to monetize and would almost certainly not provide much of a return for Wasserman. Unless it’s a sponsorship, not an investment.

The only sure thing is that with somewhere near USD $10 million floating around the US criterium scene at the moment, it’s a good time to be a crit racer.

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