Rally Cycling’s Lily Williams On Her Tokyo Track Racing Dreams
In celebration of the reigning UCI world championship-winning women’s team pursuit squad getting the nod to represent the United States at this summer’s biggest sporting competition in Tokyo, we’re helping race fans get to know some of the squad members through a series of interviews here on our blog. This time around, we’re getting to know Lily Williams, who hails originally from Florida and rides professionally for Rally Cycling. A natural athlete whose experience in other endurance sports has helped propel her to incredible successes in bike racing, Williams is also incredibly passionate about the cycling community, and she's an avid reader who is always eager to learn more about being a more compassionate global citizen. Read on to learn more about her racing goals and what it’ll mean to her to represent her nation in Tokyo.
FELT: Where did you grow up, and how did you first get into bike racing?
Lily: I grew up in Florida, and I was a Division I runner in college. I went to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and after I graduated in 2016, I moved to Chicago to pursue a master’s degree in journalism, and that is where I started cycling. I was working part-time at a bike shop and I started riding road bikes and competed in the Chicago Cyclocross Cup that fall. Then I pretty quickly had some success and did some road racing the next season where I won a stage at the Joe Martin Stage Race. That’s when I had the ability to decide to become a professional cyclist, so I signed my first professional road contract in 2018.
FELT: Tell us about how you joined the USA Cycling track team.
Lily: I joined the track in 2018. I also did the UCI cyclocross circuit with my own Chicago-based privateer program in the 2017-2018 season. Then, at the very end of 2018, I got a call from Gary Sutton, who is the U.S. national team coach on the track. He invited me to come do some testing in Colorado and it went pretty well. And then I just started doing team camps the next spring until my first race on the track that summer. And now, here we are! In the subsequent February , I was part of the team that won the world championship title in the team pursuit, and now we’re pretty much all based here in Colorado full-time, training and prepping for this summer’s competition in Tokyo.
FELT: Have you always dreamed of competing in the biggest summer sporting competition, and representing your nation in the process?
Lily: Yes! As a kid, I always thought it was something I wanted to do. I grew up playing different sports—such as swimming and soccer—before becoming a runner full-time in high school and college. I think I realized in college that, unfortunately, my physical ability for running was not quite there to reach the level I wanted. But it did set me up very well for transitioning to cycling, where I think my “engine” from running transitioned over to a more muscular sport that has really suited me. When I started cycling, I didn't really have any bolder ambitions of going to such a big competition—I just wanted to have fun. I was feeling a little burned out from another sport, so I wasn’t really putting any pressure on myself. I just kind of wanted to see where it was going to take me. I was a four-minute specialist in running, and the team pursuit in cycling is the one venue on the bike that would allow my experience to really excel. And pretty much as soon as I joined the USA Cycling track program, it was pretty explicit that I would be trying out for the team headed to Tokyo, and to fit into the group that would be aiming to win the team pursuit in Tokyo.
FELT: The COVID-19 pandemic caused the unprecedented upheaval of so many sporting events in 2020. What was it like to learn that the competition in Tokyo in the summer of 2020 was going to be postponed?
Lily: At first it was certainly frightening and sad because of the postponement, and at that point, there was so much uncertainty about everything. We just knew we had, potentially, another year to figure it all out and hope for the best. If anything, I was actually pretty happy for the postponement because it would—as I mentioned earlier—effectively double the amount of time I’d been on the track bike. So it gave me a really unique opportunity to dig in and improve all the areas I needed to improve in order to be the most capable team member. So from a purely logistical standpoint, the postponement was actually pretty good for me. I started working with Gary Sutton as my coach full-time, which completely changed my training, and that put me on another level from where I was a year ago. But, of course, all of the other challenges that we’ve had in our global society over the past two years have really put a lot of this into perspective, and it’s made me think about what sport’s role in society is and how going to a global sporting event can really be a symbol of positivity and hope for a lot of people.
FELT: Tell us about your training on the track. It’s much more focused on a very specific discipline than, say, road racing, correct?
Lily: Yes! Training for track racing is hyper-specific. And my training has evolved over the course of the past year. When things initially shut down due to the pandemic, we weren’t able to get onto the velodrome track. Obviously, when it comes to the team pursuit discipline, training as a team is important. And we weren’t able to do that at the official training centers until just a few months ago when everyone moved here [to Colorado Springs] in the springtime and committed to that life transition. At the outset, we just focused on staying mentally healthy and getting the work done, and not putting too much pressure on ourselves. Each of us was doing the things we all needed to work on individually. For me, that was the technique of riding the pursuit bike, such as improving my ability to not waste energy and improving my standing start.
Since we’ve been together, the past two months have really ramped up in intensity. We’re on the track three to four times a week doing team pursuit-specific efforts. We have two days where we’re in the gym for an hour and a half, and we’re also getting some mileage in on our road bikes, and we’ll sometimes go for a long, hard ride on the weekend. Overall, it’s pretty much two training sessions each day—which is something really unique for me! I did “doubles” when I was a runner, but not quite to this extent. It’s just a lot more time spent training than I've been used to in the past, and it takes up a bigger chunk of your life than when you’re just training on the road where you’ll maybe do one longer ride each day. But I was also fortunate to travel with my Rally Cycling team to Europe in the fall last year, which was a really nice and needed break, both emotionally and physically. I got to race the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem, along with some of the other big races over there. I really fell back in love with road racing and enjoyed my time with a different kind of team around me, as well as being in a different environment over there in Europe.
FELT: You race professionally for Rally Cycling, as you mentioned. What has it been like balancing your racing ambitions on the track and the obligations of racing on the road with Rally Cycling?
Lily: Rally Cycling has given both me and my [USA Cycling track and Rally Cycling] teammate Emma White amazing flexibility to focus on track racing in Tokyo, and hopefully bring back a win. There’s certainly a lot of incentive to do well on the track. A good part of the road racing season will be pushed back to the fall due to COVID protocols, but after Tokyo, we’ll be able to rejoin the Rally Cycling team on a regular basis, and hopefully be able to do a good block of racing after that. So I’ve experienced as good a scenario as one could possibly hope for with a team letting me focus on one discipline and then rejoin them when that objective has been completed. Hopefully we’ll get invited to some of the bigger races this fall, and I think we’re expecting that the team will continue to get invitations to races and we’ll continue to prove ourselves in Europe.
FELT: What are the track team’s goals for competing in Tokyo?
Lily: I think for each of us, the goal is to win the team pursuit. We’re fully capable of it. We have the best equipment and the best support, and we have the camaraderie and the teamwork necessary to get there. Of course, we’ve had some setbacks, not only with things related to the COVID pandemic, but also with our teammate Chloe Dygert’s crash and injury at the UCI Road World Championships last year. Chloe is very much an integral part of our team who does a massive amount of the workload in the team pursuit. So we’re having to reformulate our plan and see what we can do with a different setup than what we had when we won the track world championship in early 2020. But I know we’re capable. Also, Gary Sutton is one of the very best track racing coaches of all time, so we’re certainly being led by the best, and it’ll just all come down to what we’re capable of on that day. And I think that no matter what happens, we haven’t made any wrong steps in the preparation. So when we get there, we’re going to be ready. If we get beat, it’ll be by a team that’s simply better than us on that day.
FELT: Tell us about your TA FRD pursuit bike.
Lily: Making the transition to the Felt TA FRD—or, the “superbike,” as we call it—has really revolutionized the way I ride on the track. You get on it and immediately it feels like a faster bike than anything else you’ve ever ridden. I think the left-side drivetrain is incredibly innovative for the intended discipline, and I think we can go to any race knowing that we can have complete confidence in our equipment—there’s nothing we have to worry about on that front. Also, the TA FRD bike has already been ridden to multiple world championship victories at this point, so it’s clearly a bike that’s capable of winning at the highest level. At this point, we wouldn’t accept riding on anything else, so it’s really nice to have that underneath us.
FELT: Felt Bicycles is a proud supporter of Rally Cycling, too. Tell us about your road racing bikes.
Lily: This past year I was on the AR aero-road bike when racing for Rally Cycling. It’s certainly the bike I prefer for any racecourse that is technical, where you want a bike that is super stiff and responsive. The transition to disc brakes has also really changed the road bike game, as well, and getting onto that AR last year was a game-changer for me. Looking ahead, I’ll be switching to the FR road bike on occasion, especially for climbing here in Colorado. At this point, I can’t imagine going over to Europe and racing a Classic on anything that isn’t as responsive as my Felt road bikes. With Rally Cycling and track racing, I really haven't had to think about my bikes too much—which is really what you want as a bike racer. You want something that works, that doesn’t cause a fuss, and that is durable, so they’ve been really awesome to ride.
FELT: Let’s talk more about Tokyo. Have you ever traveled there before?
Lily: I’ve never been to Japan, and I’ve never been to Asia, in fact. I had never even traveled abroad until I started cycling in 2017. So it’s been amazing to go all over the world, thanks to my bike. There will obviously be some restrictions on what will happen in Tokyo due to COVID protocols. But I think it'll be really nice to be in a warmer climate after spending so much time in Colorado! I spent most of my life in the southeastern United States, so the transition to Colorado certainly has been different for me. And, of course, any time you get to travel and experience another culture is exciting—it helps you reframe everything you think you know about the way you operate in the world and how you interact with other people. So, when going to Japan, hopefully we’ll get to see some things outside our satellite village to gain some of that perspective. Best of all, track cycling is very popular in Japan. So I think that no matter what happens, even if the crowd is small due to COVID protocols, we’ll still have an amazing crowd inside the velodrome.
FELT: Beyond bike racing, what are some of your life or career ambitions?
Lily: I studied biology as an undergraduate and I studied science journalism in graduate school. So, at some point, I anticipate that I’ll make a transition to a science writing profession. I also work part-time for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit bike registry called Bike Index, who I’ve been working for since 2016. I love that job and I love my coworkers. And I love having a connection to the cycling community that has nothing to do with competing and racing, but rather one that really highlights all the different ways that people use bikes in their life for transportation and recreation.
FELT: Is there anything you want bike racing fans to know about you or life as a pro cyclist?
Lily: Honestly, the life of a professional athlete is way less exciting than what I think many people realize. It’s a lot of really hard training and a lot of really hard resting. We make a lot of sacrifices when it comes to relationships and family and friends. The past two years, and especially with COVID, I’ve really tried to fill that time learning and educating myself about all sorts of different topics. I’ve read some incredible books. I’m learning more about feminist theory, about the racial history of the United States, and I’m really just trying to be a more well-rounded citizen regardless of being an athlete, or someone’s employee, or anything else. I think that, due to the COVID pandemic, I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of opportunities to really grow as a person. And I think that’s what we should all hope for in life—to experience all the different people around us, and to learn and grow and be positive. That’s definitely where I see my life going, with sport and afterward. It’s been an interesting shift this year, but it hasn’t been all bad. It’s been so nice to be a part of Rally Cycling and the United States national team over the past two years, and for Felt Bicycles to have been part of both of those programs. It makes the transition between disciplines so easy and I feel like I really have a solid group behind me, regardless of which bike I’m riding or what’s going on in my life.