When Lily Williams was in graduate school at Northwestern in 2017, she needed a part-time job that would give her some flexibility around her classes and assignments and wasn’t too far from her apartment on the far north side of Chicago. She took a job at Turin Bicycles. She started with sweeping floors and then learned how to fix bikes, but more importantly, she learned about road racing.
When she started to have success in road races, USA Cycling’s Gary Sutton took notice. He invited Williams to try team pursuit, a cycling race that takes place in a velodrome with a special bike that’s quite different from a road bike.
“He brought tons of people in and was testing them to see: A) if they were physically able and B) if they just wanted to do it,” Williams said. “And so in very late 2018, I think the end of December, I came to Colorado Springs and did a mini-camp by myself and did power testing on the bike and some effort on the track itself.
“Of course, I'd never ridden a pursuit bike. So it was just kind of throw you in and see if it works out. And he said that if I wanted to come back then he would be willing to bring me into some individual camps and invest a little bit, and I was definitely interested. And I kind of spent the first half of 2019 just coming into the Springs regularly and working with Gary to get ready at that point.”
Williams’ goal at that point was to make the 2020 Olympic team, but she knew it was a tight turnaround. She did a few races and world cup events in 2019, and this new type of cycling clicked with her. In February of 2020, she was part of the team that won gold at the UCI World Championships.
You know what happened next. The pandemic shut down gyms and velodromes, including the ones at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Williams trained as best as she could, but she was stuck training by herself for a sport that requires precision and speed as a team. Finally in the fall, she was able to join her team in Belgium for some races.
“We kept our bubble really tight when we were there,” Williams said. “Riders didn't really go out and about. Staff got all our food and kind of interacted with the world and nobody got COVID. So it was really awesome. It felt really safe and healthy and good while we were there. It was just so good to have some immediate goals and to be back in a team environment.
“We've been seeing the same people every day for the past six months, so it was really nice to see other people and have some other objectives. And, of course, it's always good to go race in Europe. It's kind of where cycling is. So the more experienced you can get there, the better. So I think mentally it was a good relief that has broken up this huge training block over the past year and a half.”
Williams also got to spend time at her other job. She has degrees in biology from Vanderbilt and in science journalism from Northwestern. To put her education, and love of bikes to use, she is the communications director for Bike Index, a nonprofit in Chicago that helps cyclists retrieve their stolen bikes.
“I started it with one of my friends who was on my club cycling team when I was in Chicago,” Williams said. “I just kind of been there as it's grown and become a really successful business. They've given me complete flexibility to train and race. As long as I get the work done, there's really no requisites. So it's been the perfect gig for a professional athlete.
“As we get towards the Olympics, I've been training twice a day, pretty much every day for the past year and it's getting really hard right now. So I'm taking my first break from working since I started, and they've given me the opportunity to not work for July as we lead into Tokyo. So I'm super thankful about that.”
Going into the Olympics as world champions, Williams and her team have high expectations. But she knows winning gold isn’t easy.
“I super strongly believe that we can win a gold medal on the team pursuit,” Williams said. “It's going to be tough. Great Britain has won the past two Olympics and got the world record in Rio, and they kind of always are on a four-year build where they peak at the Olympics and they do it really well. They're going to be tough to beat.
“So it's going to be really close, but I believe that if we don't win a gold medal, it's not because we didn't do everything we possibly could have. It’s because other teams were just better. So it feels good to be going in with a lot of confidence and faith in each other and the team and the staff, but of course, you got to actually do the race to see how it goes.”