It’s not the Final Four. Or the Rose Bowl. It’s not even graduation from Harvard or Yale. No, Indiana University holds the distinction of hosting the World’s Greatest College Weekend and it is winding down right now.
Little 500; not just a bike race but a moment in time. The bike teams, now including men and women, train for months in order to compete in this time-honored tradition. And their friends train for months in order to hold up the party participation. I remember sitting in the stands of the Little 500 stadium watching friends whoosh past, black flinty sparks flying up in the wake of their wheels. I remember celebrating — not even victory, but completion. Little 500 plays a part in a novel I’ve written and am hoping to publish. Here’s the race scene:
Eleven rows of three guys each stand holding a regulation bike. The bikes are one-speed; no toe clips, grips, water bottles, kickstands or add-ons. The president of the University strolls onto cinder track and says a bunch of welcome stuff, how great the day is, and on and on. The guys on the track are bursting to ride, the audience shouts for him to shut it and throw the starting flag. Then everyone sings the national anthem and the IU fight song. But what everybody is waiting for are the president’s words, the same every year: “Gentlemen, mount your Roadmaster bicycles.”
With that, thirty-three guys hit their bikes, and ride one parade lap around the stadium in formation. When the riders come around the final turn, the crowd takes a massive breath. Every man starts looking for a lane, an edge. The group picks up speed and at the finish line, all hell breaks loose. The crowd roars. Somebody breaks out in front. The pack forms. That’s the beginning of the race.
One bike and four guys per team. Only one bike, no matter what happens to it during the race. Two years ago, CELTS team, short for Chi Lambda Tau fraternity, was Amos, me, Coors and Moose, riding in that order.
I remember it exactly as it happened. Amos rides the first 20 laps for us, I come on in lap 21, ride 30 laps. Thinking of it, I’m right there in the midst of the race, waiting in the pit for the first hand-to-hand exchange with Amos. I am ready to jump on as he jumps off. The bike can’t bobble or we lose valuable seconds.
Amos whirls around the final turn. Cinder track crunching beneath the wheels, crowd roaring around me. Amos isn’t slowing down. I’m about to miss the first chance I have for an exchange and be forever humiliated. Shit: we practiced this thousands of times. The bike gets closer, cinders fly up onto my legs but I don’t feel them. I take four steps alongside the spinning wheels and put my hands on the bars behind Amos’ hands. Just as Amos shifts his weight to the right, I launch into the air, flying into the saddle catching the bars on my way down to the seat just the way we had practiced thousands of times. Perfect.
Now I ride. My legs pump and the wheels churn. I line up with three riders in front of me. Thirty-three guys’ wheels within inches of each other. Breathing together so it sounds like a train running loose down a track that’s disintegrating under the wheels. On the corner turns, the pedals stop. There’s a whirr of smooth noise for two or three seconds. The pumping starts again.
On lap 51, I switch the bike to Coors. On lap 52, we lose a tire. When he’s on the far side of the track, the back tire blows and Coors rides to our pit on the rim. He leaps off the bike as soon as he hits the margin. The crew grabs the bike, slams it on the rack. Two guys pull the blown tire off and another two get ready with a new one. The whole thing takes 10 seconds, but it’s enough to cost us the win. You only get one bike – something goes wrong you gotta fix it. Fast.
I ride the last ten laps. Jim Mahaffey, in his senior year, is riding anchor for PhiDelt and prepping for the Olympic trials. When the checkered flag waves signaling the last lap, Mahaffey is in front. I’m just one-second back, but we finish sixth.
I drop my feet from the pedals, heave gulps of air, cruise to the pit. There’s no champagne popping but it’s respectable. And there’s always next year. We head back to the CELT house together, loading the bikes into a van. And then it’s over. I take a shower, Amos and Coors immediately grab a brew, and Moose falls asleep.
Mahaffey went pro; I stayed here and raced again. But when I think of the race, I think of the night I met this girl with the challenge in her eyes.
They call Little 500 the World’s Greatest College Weekend. It started about thirty years ago as a way to raise scholarship money; college version of the Indy 500. Fraternities and sororities pair up for the race weekend – which means they sit together and party together. That’s all most people know about Little 5. Party. Race. Party. A couple years ago, some local guys wrote a movie called Breaking Away and the race got more famous.
But if you’re on the team, the race lasts an entire year. For some of us, it’s four years. Some guys start in high school. There’s even competition just to make a team. And then the teams have to compete to be in the race. Only 33 teams make it. The fastest team in the qualifying races gets the inside pole position, the shortest route. Just like Indy.
My team trains every day, riding for hours in the hills outside Bloomington. We have weight rooms in the house, bikes on racks to ride in bad weather. For spring break, we go to Florida together and ride for hours every day in the heat. We practice exchanges, repairs on the bikes and mainly just condition for hours. All to win for a two hour race once a year and for bragging rights too I guess. And the team jacket. Mine is green with a bright yellow “CELTS” written on the back and my team name – “Banner” – on the front. Yeah, it’s worth it.