The Little 500

I was a little tardy getting the Battenkill race report out, between getting back from the race at 9am Monday recovery and a pretty hectic week at work, it’s been a little tough to get to the blog but I went to spectate the Little 500 last weekend and felt like a good post was in order.

I feel that people fall into three categories when it comes to their opinions about the Little 500: those who don’t know what it is (or maybe vaguely will remember it as that thing from the movie “Breaking Away”), those who go to Indiana University and love it, or those who race bikes in the Midwest and have a pretty vague disdain for it. As a Purdue graduate I definitely fell into the 3rd category, for some good reasons. First obviously we dislike anything related to IU, but also as a MidWest racer you come to learn to stay the F away from anyone labeled a “Little Fiver”. They’re usually cat 4 or 5 guys who are in no way whatsoever afraid of hitting the deck. They race on a dirt track with coaster brakes; how can they fit into our sport where everything is made from carbon fiber and riders perfect their bike positoin in wind tunnels?

Lance Armstrong said that the Little 500 was a better event than the Super Bowl. This comparison might be a bit overkill, but I can now say I see were he was coming from. While it certainly could never compare to the grandiosity of any World Class sporting event, the small intimate atmosphere is exactly what makes it such a great event.

Panther teammate Ryan Knapp along with the women’s team he coaches acted as a bit of tour guides for the event. After a quick morning ride with some other 500 alums, we went tailgating…for a bike race (first instance of mind being blown). At the tailgate we met plenty of folks our age and older who had all raced or had some connection to the race from back in their day.

We headed towards the stadium and the atmosphere was more like that of a college football day than any bike race I’d ever been to. We passed mobs of fraternity brothers all in their drunken good form to support their teams (most of the teams are from the houses). The crowd was more electric than even any college football game I’d been to.

As we took our seats in the grand stands (yes 20,000 spectators, mind blown for the umpteenth time) I literally couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. we watched the parachuters and numerous a capella groups sing the school fight song before the race was finally under way. Once started the race was total chaos. Ryan and his teammates had to enlighten us about every 10 seconds as to what the hell was going on.

33 teams of four would relay race for 50 miles (200 laps around the cinder track). Teams would have to relay each other into the race, think handing off a baton, except the baton is a 30 lb Schwinn. However in order to relay smoothly, teams would “Burn Out”, or attack so that when they did exchange they would be able to jump right back into the field. Exchanges hardly were ever so easy, the top 5-10 teams seemed well practiced and were able to swap riders while hardly losing contact with the field. However, for most of the teams the swaps were a hair raising experience. Bikes would be literally flying through the air as riders would skid the coaster brakes to a stop before the next rider would sprint up to speed and jump back onto the bike. The complicated process itself caused a good number of crashes in addition to the normal bike race crashes, tangled wheels, sliding out, etc. In fact the most decisive events of the race were dictated by crashes. The entire race is on Youtube, if you skip to 2:18:30 into the video you can see the crash that really decided the race.

The cutters (5 year defending champions) crashed out and caused a field split that decided the race.

As the race came to a close the winning fraternity Delta Tau Delta, seated in the stands opposite from us was starting to lose their shit. After the race wrapped up the frat mobbed the field in full red jumpsuit garb (well one guy was in a panda costume). As we started filtering out of the stands it started to dawn on me that really what makes this race special isn’t the competition, it’s how intimate the race is. No one outside IU knows that Delta Tau Delta beating the cutters is a huge upset, and probably only a few midwestern races know the Delta finishing rider, but no one in the stadium seems to mind. There are no multi-million dollar athletes, or foreign stars that fly in to dominate the event. There are no scholarships where athletes are only at college to get noticed by a professional team, the racers are Cat 3’s at best. All the competitors are just students, people that everyone know and go to class with: they’re true local hero’s.

Not to say the race doesn’t produce talent, two recent National Criterium champions: Rahsaan Bahati and Eric Young were both Little 5-er’s and many more have gone pro. However even the most well known varsity cycling programs can’t lay claim to actually developing as many great cyclists as many of their riders are already Junior super stars when they start college (ok Bahati’s probably a bad example of this). This is a product of very strict eligibility rules for the competition. Many people know there’s no fancy carbon, but in addition riders cannot be riding in a USCF category higher than 3 for more than one year, and being a P-R-O is strictly forbidden.

Cyclist are a pretty fickle group and will always stick up their noses at something so off base as the Little 500, but until you make the trek to Bloomington late fall along with hundreds of other Little 500 Alumni it’s pretty hard to understand what everyone gets so worked up about. Trust me though, there are plenty of race weekends in the summer ahead, skip a few to go to this event.

That’s enough gushing from this Boilermaker

On to Joe Martin next weekend.

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