Rule change allows talented racer to compete in the Little 500 and pursue a pro career
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (VN) — Indiana University’s Little 500 race has been running for 61 years, longer than most any cycling race in North America. And even though the beginnings of the race were humble — from a few students racing their cruiser bikes around the Wright dormitory — the race quickly turned serious with the top riders and teams now training year-round.
One could easily assume that the university has a deep collegiate cycling program and that the pro ranks are populated by veterans of the infamous cinder track. But that is not really the case, due in large part to a race rule meant to curb recruiting of non-amateur riders and the fact that most of the racers start as non-cyclists.
The latest version of that rule imposed in the 1990s by the race organizer, the IU Student Foundation, bars new riders with the equivalent of a professional, category 1 or 2 license. While this did prevent teams from recruiting pro/elite riders and kept the spirit of the event amateur, it had an unintended chilling effect on riders’ road racing careers away from the Little 500.
However, this rule was tweaked a couple years ago to allow current Little 500 riders to upgrade to cat. 2 or 1 and still be eligible for one year of racing — in effect allowing a senior who has developed on the Little 500 track to race at a higher level in hopes of progressing beyond a collegiate career.
The biggest beneficiary of this rule change is current senior Eric Young, who led his Cutters team to its record-breaking fifth straight win on Saturday. Young is the first Little 500 rider to have a contract-in-waiting with a professional team, as he joins the Bissell team later this month.
Young was noticed by the Bissell pro team in large part because he was allowed to race as a cat. 2 last summer in some big races around the Midwest, posting top results at some big races.
“I was on a team out of Indianapolis last year and a guy on the team was good friends with (Bissell) director Glenn (Mitchell),” said Young. “So they talked about me during the summer. Then I did well at Elk Grove and a couple of results at Superweek and other races, and that was enough.”
Still, Young was venturing into the unknown at this point. So he sat down the Little 500 race director to make sure he was staying in the rules in order to race his senior season.
“We set it all up in the fall, both Glenn Mitchell and the race director Pam Loebig. I went back-and-forth between the two of them. It was kind of stressful; I asked Pam what are the limits of what I can do or what do I need to do to race Little 5’?”
“It came down to that I could not have a pro license. So I went back to Bissell (to ask) if we can hold off buying it and they said yes.”
Mitchell said that Young’s strengths would be used in races that come after the Little 500.
“We looked at the schedule and it really didn’t matter waiting to sign him until after the Little 500,” said Mitchell. “We wouldn’t have had him on the Redlands team; he is more for the NRC criteriums in June, July and August. I sent a letter to the university explaining that and so we’ll sort out his paperwork in the coming weeks. We brought him out to camp and fit him for his kit, but we won’t sign him until after the race.”
Since reaching his agreement with Bissell, Young can be seen riding around the hills of Bloomington in his full team kit and Pinarello team bike. He even raced the Little 500 pre-race events such as the individual time trial in his kit, making his win there all the more obvious and making others cry foul.
But Young is really just the best outcome of the whole process. He never raced a bicycle before coming to IU, spending his high school career as a soccer player and then a runner, and riding the bike for cross-training.
“It’s a little ridiculous, people are going a little nuts. If I had not gotten (a contract) I would not be perceived to be that much different ability-wise in the race, but now they seem to think that I am. A lot of the other riders don’t really seem to understand they process of how it all happened. They just see me in the Bissell kit — but at the same time I don’t really care about it.”
“I had bought a Trek 1500 in high school,” Young said. “I was a cross country and track runner in high school but wasn’t very good. I was an average runner — I broke my school record in the 300 hurdles, but I never even made it to state (championships). I would ride over the summer but then in junior and senior year I became aware of cycling and started watching the Tour.”
Young came to IU in the fall of 2008 and knew he wanted to ride in the Little 500, but did not know what team would take him. So the biology and neuroscience major went about it methodically; he took the 2007 results and started at the top.
“(The Cutters) had won in 2007, so I figured, why not start there. I was going to work my way down and whoever would take me would get me. They were the first and only team that I contacted — they invited me out for a ride and I started riding for them.”
After winning with the team in 2008, Young kept it going by beginning to race on the road. “The summer after my freshman year I started racing and got better and better.” The next summer Young raced as a cat. 3 and was easily one of the strongest in the fields. But still wanting to finish college and race the Little 500, he could not upgrade until after his junior year, so he resisted the urge and waited.
Now in his senior year and with a pro contract in hand, the focus has been on racing — first for the Little 500 and then as a neo-pro … though he is making his parents happy by still studying enough to get his degree in case the whole bike racing gig does not work out.
“Honestly, since senior year started I’ve been focused on cycling so I haven’t had the need to focus too much on school. But going to grad school for something would be an option. Hopefully I won’t have to do that for a few years!”
And like most new pros he has his sights aiming high. “Sure I would love to one day go to Europe but these races here are going to be hard and I am going to have to get better at those first.”
Young already has a little experience riding with professionals, having attended the Bissell team training camp earlier this year. “It was in Santa Rosa and it was really cool. All the guys are awesome and I’m really excited to start racing with them. My first race will be Athens Twilight, I’m very excited about it.”
“Oh yeah, I got dropped on a couple of climbs … but so did some of the other guys! I know where I am at and my strengths right now is not climbing — it’s the criteriums and I like doing them. But I have only been racing for 3.5 years and my body is still changing. I think I could be more than a crit racer some day.”
Being the first
While there are a few veterans of the Little 500 sprinkled around the pro ranks, with recent examples like Mike Sherer racing in his first year with Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth and Ryan Knapp who was selected to the EuroCrossCamp last season, these riders had to postpone their elite racing until either after graduation or forgoing racing in the Little 500.
Now Young is the new example, and because he owes his development as a racer to IU and the Little 500, he hopes that more can follow in his pedal strokes and that the university embraces it more.
“I would not have wanted to start cycling anywhere else. The community here is great. So it’s a shame more (students) don’t ride beyond Little 5′. There are other schools that offer scholarships, which might pull cycling people away from IU, but I guess it’s back-and-forth. The university cares about Little 5′ but not about cycling in general, so there is no reason for them to widen their scope. IU has a great opportunity to be involved in cycling but for me it was an individual thing.”
“I hope that (the rule change) opens it up for high school students to think that they can go to IU and do Little 5′, one of the most-fun events in the world, and maybe as they get better they can go on to do something in the cycling. They can also get a good education and go to an awesome school. That is what my experience was — I had Little 5′, I had my cycling in the summer and I had fun going to IU.”