Lily Williams remembers her early days as a “professional” cyclist in 2019, when the term did not quite apply.
“We’d have eight women crammed in a minivan in Belgium, waiting out the rain before the start of a race,” Williams recalls. Now teams have full fleets of vehicles, including air-conditioned campers with showers and cooks and massage therapists at the ready.
“It’s a real professional operation now,” Williams said in May from central Spain, where she was preparing for a long-distance, multiday stage race. “In order to do our jobs, like a 10-day stage race where you’re really going to your physical limits, you need that support. It makes me feel like I’m a pro athlete, not just a woman who’s doing a sport.”
On July 24, Williams ’17 MS and her Human Powered Health teammates will compete in the inaugural eight-day, 640-mile, 24-team Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. It starts in Paris, features two mountain stages and ends atop La Super Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges Mountains. (Fellow alum Leah Thomas ’11 raced for Trek-Segafredo, and Eva van Agt ’19, a former Northwestern field hockey player, raced for Le Col-Wahoo.)
“This is the first iteration of the women’s race in many years that seems to resemble the men’s Tour de France, as opposed to just being a one-day race,” Williams says. “The men’s race — it’s probably one of the most famous sporting events outside of the Super Bowl and the FIFA World Cup — is 21 days and a massive endeavor, so to have Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift be an actual stage race feels commensurate.”
Williams, who lives in Colorado, and her team will compete in several stage races in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe throughout the summer and fall.
She grew up in Florida and ran cross country at Vanderbilt University. Williams discovered competitive cycling while in the journalism master’s program at Northwestern, starting in 2016.
Living in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood at the time, she commuted on her bicycle between the Evanston campus and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications building in the Loop. Before long she also landed a job at Turin Bicycle Chicago.
After her colleagues helped her pick out a bike and get the right equipment, she participated in group rides and then started racing for the Northwestern club cycling team.
“When I started riding, I was just doing it just for utility mostly, commuting, and then competing with my friends, and it was super low stress,” Williams says. “It was exactly what I wanted out of a sport at that point in my life, and then once I realized that I was pretty naturally talented, that made it a lot more fun.”
Williams started competing in track cycling races in 2019. At the Tokyo Olympics Williams won a bronze medal in the women’s team pursuit, a track cycling event. (Her mother is Olympic speed skater Sarah Docter Williams.)
Despite Lily Williams’ success, she says she felt emotionally and physically unprepared for the 2020 Games. COVID and logistical hurdles limited her ability to race for the 18 months preceding the Olympics. “That was definitely a challenge,” she says, “so I’m hoping that the next Olympic cycle I’ll get a full year’s worth of fitness into the body beforehand.”
That work has already begun. Williams can now dedicate herself entirely to training, thanks in part to her team joining the Women’s World Tour, which requires that riders receive a minimum salary. “Up until this year I was also working part time as the communications director of the nonprofit Bike Index,” Williams says. “It’s been really nice to just be able to focus on my sport, because we’re training a lot and recovery demands are pretty extreme.”
Even though she no longer works in the nonprofit world, Williams realizes the long-term benefits of her Medill degree. “I don’t think people quite understand the value of communication training,” she says. “It’s nice to know that I’ll have those skills when I’m finished with professional cycling.”