The Little 500, A Reverie
Before Dave Blaze [the inspiration for Steve Tesich's Breaking Away] rode in the Little 500 in the early '60s, Little 500 riders were mostly athletes using their physical talent on a bike, rather than cyclists. Training for the Little 500 meant losing a season of something else or jumping up a notch into serious training. The Little 500 race itself was just the last 50 miles of a long, tough, and wonderful experience that in the '60s lasted from December till the race in May.
Riding in the Little 500 creates a bond not only between the members of the team and those who support it (coaches, mechanics, timers and such), but with all those who ride the course. This bonding happens in most sports or other rites of passage - like living in the Beta house. Here are a couple of examples.
In 2000, I intended to go to Indiana University in Bloomington and participate in the 50th anniversary activities for the Little 500, to visit the Beta house and so on. By coincidence I saw in the IU Alumni magazine that John Voris ('69) had moved to a new job, and it prompted me to call him, a teammate of mine in 1966, to see if he intended to sign up to ride in the special alumni race. I hadn't spoken with John since I graduated, but he has been active in IU alumni work over the years, and I expected that he might show up. When he told me over the phone that he never actually rode in the race that year - or any other - I was stunned.
In my recollection I rode with John every day as part of the 1966 Beta team. In the intervening 35 years, I had never stopped to count the guys on the track the day of the 1966 race. John, who trained and rode with me and the others, winter and spring, has been on "my Beta team" ever since, regardless. Unfortunately, I didn't get to the Anniversary.
Meanwhile, a particular memory returns me to Bloomington and reminds me of the incredible joy of being a part of the Little 500, Indiana, and Beta Theta Pi every time it occurs.
To train for the race, our regimen included quarter-mile sprints, track time, relays and exchange work, and lots of time on the road. We worked out in the old fieldhouse over the winter, were just getting into passable form in early March, and just starting to ride together on the road. We sometimes rode alone because of class schedules or before our "official" practice began.
One day riding alone on the road back from Lake Lemon to Bloomington, I saw four riders up ahead dressed in identical light blue sweats. It was the Figi team. They were known contenders and I drove myself to catch up to them so I could catch a breath in the draft behind their line, and I probably had some idea about showing them that we Betas were the team to beat - again in '65.
While I was catching up to them, I noticed they were doing a "loop draft" where the first rider in a line drops back to last, the riders move up, and each rider leads regularly every fourth change. They were riding in as tight a group as possible. I gradually realized that they were changing positions on the clock, maybe every 60 seconds on a signal from one of the riders with a stopwatch. It was a neat discipline and pretty to watch. From a distance their position switching made the group look like a single machine.
The bikes we rode then were heavy, single-geared AMF RoadMasters. What they lacked in innovative technology, they made up for in over-engineering. The brakes were in the rear hub and operated by back-pedaling slightly. The chunking noise of braking in a large group was a constant chatter. The wheels, frame, gear sprockets and chains were heavy and noisy instruments. The seething hum of chains on gears was like background music on every ride. It was small consolation for not having a nice, light 10-speed.
The leading rider in a pack is always pulling harder, breaking the way through the wind. Trailing riders tuck in behind the leader to save energy. If the wind is coming from any point ahead, the lead rider may be working 20 or 30 percent harder than the trailers.
It was an unspoken rule of good form that trailing riders in a pack continue to pedal in synch with the leader without resting or braking. Braking meant wasting energy. Unexpected braking is dangerous to the riders behind who are tucked in close. It is actually easier to continue to rotate the pedals going up a gentle grade, but somewhat harder physical work; while going down a grade, pedaling for speed and staying in synch without handbrakes requires intense concentration. It's a trip.
I pulled up behind the line of bikes and stayed in back of them in fifth position, synching up for a couple of their changes. They were pushing themselves to "hup up" as a team trying to gain energy on every change. As we rode along, I think they almost forgot I was back there. I recognized for a bunch of reasons that I couldn't join their perfectly working machine. But I also felt that staying in the fifth spot or peeling off and going the other way was going to lead to humiliation and/or guilt. So I wound myself up, jumped out of line and sprinted.
As I passed the line of riders, I must have surprised them or woke them up and they got juiced, too. I was fresher than the lead rider because of having drafted a while, but as I jumped out to pass, the leader noticed my move. Though I got slightly ahead, he had picked up the pace. That made it so I couldn't quite draw in, in front, so I stayed on the lead, but beside the lead rider. Just then, the riding timer called time for their lead change. As a courtesy, I churned harder and pushed wider to let the leader swing out and fall back. Then I sprinted a bit, and got out front about 25 yards by myself. It's a subtle delight to show your tail to a pack of hard working riders.
For the next few minutes I managed to stay ahead of the line and they stayed on their timed changes, but they were soon pulling up, right on my wheel. I didn't have a prayer of staying in front very long. I didn't want to collapse, either, though I was doing a respectable enough job that I wouldn't lose face if I fell back and rested in their draft again. But as it happened, the mental dynamic changed as I had taken the lead. None of the riders wanted to remain a part of that machine.
About that time we also must have hit a generally downhill stretch of road, because the next 10 or 15 minutes became effortless. The Figi line just broke up and we all started racing in a swarm, probably faster than I had ever run a bike on flat ground. The shape and texture of a pod of riders changes with the turns in the road, the grade, the wind, but I'm sure nobody was aware of it. There was definitely no traffic on the road, or we would have all been killed. During those few minutes, the only thing I experienced was pure joy.
When we finally started to pay attention to the world again, with traffic and muddy shoulders to lookout for on the long downstretch north of IU Stadium, the sun was going down, glaring off the road in one of Bloomington's graying, early spring sunsets. There was nothing to do but laugh.
All in all, that's what hooked me on riding in the Little 500. Every racing moment was worth the effort it took to get there.
That was a life lesson and what the experience was all about. I realized that we were helping each other, that we couldn't race without each other; that the better the other guy is, the better I am. We were all of one mind, innocent of everything else, just going through the air as fast as we could go -- the way it's supposed to be, no matter what you're doing.