The Little 500 is a lot of spectacle, a lot of partying and a lot of good bike racing. And there is nothing else like it anywhere.
“Please stand and remove your caps for the National Anthem,” an announcer said Saturday, minutes before the start of the 62nd annual Little 500. More than 20,000 spectators stood in the Bill Armstrong Stadium, their roar turning to more of a drone.
It is an oddly beautiful spectacle. The only fans usually found at a non-professional bike race are other bike racers or riders’ families. But on a plateau on the Indiana University campus, as the Star Spangled Banner belted out from the cinder track’s infield; as a plane flew overhead and dropped a parachuter with a massive American flag; as fireworks shot off into the air; as thousands of fraternity brothers and sorority sisters chanted for their teams; as the race director laid 33 single-speed Schwinns with coaster brakes on the 1/4-mile cinder track; there in a small college town, in the middle of Indiana, it became tremendously clear: the Little 500 is a bike race unlike anything else in existence, ever.
“And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” the announcer said. “Gentlemen, mount your Schwinn bicycles!”
The Little 500 is the largest collegiate bike race in America, though it isn’t affiliated with the National Collegiate Cycling Association, nor does it bear any resemblance whatsoever to any other collegiate cycling event.
It is its own entity, with its own momentum, its own talent pool, its own fan-base, and its own support.
The race began in 1951 as a race around a dorm, and morphed into one of the biggest events of the year in Bloomington. Today, it is a 200-lap relay race around a 1/4-mile cinder track on the Indiana University campus and the rules bear little resemblance to any other discipline of bicycle racing.
First, the racers must ride identical Schwinn Little 500 bikes. The bikes are based on the old AMF Roadmaster. They’re mostly identical, with 46×18 single-speed drivetrains and coaster brakes, though the better-funded teams modify the bikes to make them as strong and as light as possible within the regulations — sometimes approaching 20 pounds.
Not only do all teams race essentially the same bike, but each team only gets two of them. Their four members must ride some combination of those two bikes, generally with the taller riders on one bike, and the shorter riders on the other. The more serious teams commission riser shoes to give all four members a perfect saddle height.
Speaking of which, they all race on flat pedals and in sneakers.
The teams must make 10 exchanges during the 200-lap men’s race. The benefit is a pair of fresh legs on the track. But a botched exchange — and they happen all the time — is a team’s greatest liability.
When done correctly, an exchange is a beautiful thing. A rider attacks the pack in a “burnout” on the straightaway across from his pit, gaining the largest gap possible, before peeling off toward his pit and stomping his coaster brake. His teammate runs alongside in a sprint, snatches the bike from the left side, and mounts cyclocross-style to keep the bike from ever slowing down. The exchange should only cost a team three seconds, putting the fresh rider on the back of the pack.
Also, the majority of the teams come from the university’s fraternities and sororities. All visual evidence indicates that most fans are in the school’s Greek system and the stadium was filled on Saturday by the sound of people chanting out confusing strings of Greek letters.
Only in Bloomington are shaved legs a normal part of fraternity culture.
“If you’re shaving your legs in April in Bloomington, Indiana, you’re ok,” said RJ Stuart, from Delta Tau Delta.
The “Little Five” weekend is the biggest party of the year in Bloomington — all centered around a crazy, unique bike race.
Bloomington’s Herald Times reported that 271 arrests over the weekend. “Little Five weekend” is more a name of a very inebriated week for Indiana students, but somewhere in there, some bike racing happened. And it was truly thrilling.
The Men’s Race
The independent Cutters team came into the 2012 edition as the favorite, after winning the last five years-in-a-row. But without their 2011 leader Eric Young, who moved on to a professional contract with Bissell and won the U.S. Pro Criterium Championship last year, the Cutters were just one of many teams who had what it took to win the 200-lap, 50-mile race.
But a six-peat was not to be, as a Cutters rider was immediately taken out in a massive pileup on lap three and lost the main group containing the rest of the pre-race favorites.
Beta Theta Pi, Black Key Bulls, Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Chi, Theta Chi, and Sigma Nu drilled it, but the Cutters clawed their way back over the course of 20 laps.
The lead group held together nicely for the next 150 laps with no team able to get off the front, no significant crashes, and most teams staying on the lead lap. But in lap 183, a Cutters rider washed out his front wheel riding outside of another rider in a turn. The Cutter took a Black Key Bulls rider with him, and freed up Delta Tau Delta rider Luke Mopper to make his move.
“I ended up catching a really good break from somebody burning out and kept going,” Mopper said.
Mopper handed off to teammate Phil Sojka, who rode briefly before exchanging out for Delts captain RJ Stuart.
“If you attack, you’re not attacking as an individual,” Stuart said. “You’re attacking as a unit.”
Stuart was the 2012 Spring Series ITT champion and is a Cat. 1 road racer. He easily fended off the rest of the field for twelve laps to claim the first Delta Tau Delta victory in the race’s history.
“My team kept me really fresh today,” Stuart said. “I was saving it until the end. My team laid it out, and I just went out with twelve laps to go.”
Phi Delta Theta, the Spring Series team winners, held on for second. Sigma Chi came back from a ten-second penalty to land on the podium in third.
The Women’s Race
Friday night was the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Little 500, and a full field of 33 teams lined up under the stadium lights.
Unfortunately, the beautiful weather from the past days turned sour on race day, and the skies turned darker and darker, until the heavens opened up just as the women started warming up.
Independent team Teter started from the pole position after winning the qualifications.
As the race began, Teter’s Emma Caughlin commenced to (wo)manhandle the field, riding on the front, then pulling through and pointing her finger toward third wheel. Her rival in fourth position slid back immediately and let her in. With the early pace, Teter succeeded in shedding all but four other teams.
The group of five looked like it was breaking up countless times, but held together until the end.
Kappa Alpha Theta’s Kathleen Ioniac led the pack out for the final laps, with only Delta Gamma sprinter Kayce Doogs able to hold her wheel.
Teter’s sprinter tried desperately to go around the outside, but got caught in traffic and went far too wide to carry enough speed to move up on the sprinting Kappa and Delta teams.
Delta’s Doogs sat in second, timed her sprint perfectly, and crossed the line to the cheers of Delta’s enormous cheering section.
Some of the lower-placed racers hadn’t even finished racing by the time the Delta sorority stormed the field and broke into an impromptu dance party to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” before running a lap of the track with their riders.
Any good bike race ends with a good party. The Little 500 starts with one.
Men’s brief results
1. Delta Tau Delta in 2:11:28:00
2. Phi Delta Theta at :05
3. Sigma Chi at :07
4. Cutters at :08
5. Theta Chi at :28
Women’s brief results
1. Delta Gamma in 1:12:59
2. Kappa Alpha Theta at :01
3. Teter at :02
4. Wing It Cycling at :03
5. Delta Sigma Pi at :04