Little 500, Big WeekendApril 27, 2013
Story by John Patishnock
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
Locked arm-in-arm with their two teammates, Andrea Schroering and Cecilia Oxford walk across the infield of Jerry Yeagley Field at Bill Armstrong Stadium on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus.
Andrea, a junior and 2010 Forest Park High School graduate, and Cecilia, a sophomore and 2011 Heritage Hills grad, make their way to the other side and step onto a soft, gravel track. More than a hundred competitors and thousands of fans surround them. Once on the track, the four girls hold hands. They’re all wearing black and pink shirts with a white stripe and pink shoes.
Moments away is the start of the Women’s Little 500, part of what’s dubbed “The World’s Greatest College Weekend.” The race transpires on April 19 amid events that ratchet up the energy on campus.
The vibe doesn’t disappoint as Little 500 transcends into the hub of Bloomington. Students flock to the site of the race, a few hundred yards from Assembly Hall. The soccer-specific facility also is the annual site of Little 500, referred to informally as Little 5 and showcased in the 1979 Oscar-winning movie “Breaking Away.”
The IU women’s a capella group sings the alma mater and the men give a rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana.” An overcast sky and constant winds keep the temperature in the mid-40s but that doesn’t deter fans from bringing in signs and cardboard cutouts and screaming nonstop. As “Back Home Again in Indiana” finishes, red and white balloons float into the air and seemingly every rider has her own cheering section as everyone walks around the track, taking place in the bikers parade that precedes the action.
“It defines my college career,” Andrea says of racing. “I wouldn’t give up this experience for anything.”
An announcer steps to the on-field microphone situated a few feet from the starting line and delivers the line everyone in the stadium has been waiting to hear.
“Ladies, mount your Schwinn bicycles.”
A few minutes later, after two laps behind a pace car, the race officially begins.
“You just have so much adrenaline and there’s so many people there cheering you on,” says Andrea, 21. “It’s an experience you’ve trained for and prepared for, but once you get into the race, it’s definitely a different atmosphere.”
While men have been competing in Little 500 since 1951 and completed the 63rd installment last Saturday, this year marks the 26th annual women’s race, which consists of 33 four-member teams ripping around a quarter-mile cinder track. The first team to complete 100 laps, wins. Sounds simple, right? It becomes slightly more complicated, especially since riders and coaches say race day almost never unfolds the way they envision.
Sara Broadwater, a 20-year-old sophomore, begins the race for Andrea and Cecilia’s business fraternity team, Delta Sigma Pi; Andrea and Cecilia are both marketing majors in the Kelley School of Business. Sara completes about 15 laps, as the first rider for each team typically completes an unusually high number before giving way to teammates who normally register four- to six-lap sets.
As Sara rides at the beginning, her three teammates — Andrea, Cecilia and 21-year-old junior Nina Bernardin — constantly pedal on stationary bikes within their pit area to keep their muscles loose.
Each team’s pit measures 16 feet long, 8 feet wide. No physical barriers separate teams, only white chalk on the two pit areas that line each side of the stadium.
As Sara begins the last lap of her set, Cecilia waits on the edge of the pit with her own bicycle.
There are two options with how teams make exchanges: The rider coming out can either hop off the bike, allowing a teammate to mount the same bicycle, or the team can make a bike-to-bike exchange, a common practice. Bike-to-bike exchanges are necessary for Cecilia’s team because her seat height is taller than her three teammates’. Once Cecilia makes physical contact with the outgoing or incoming rider, the exchange is made. A slap on the arm, shoulder or back, pretty much anything goes.
Cecilia hops onto her bike, peeks over her left shoulder and she’s off.
“The whole time I was riding, I was like, ”˜Oh, my God, this is Little 5,’” says Cecilia, 20. “It’s pretty surreal.”
When Andrea first enters the race around Lap 21, replacing Cecilia, she’s so excited she hops about 6 inches above the seat. Once she lands, she immediately takes off. Legs churn. Eyes stare straight ahead. She’s in a zone.
At various interludes throughout the race, Andrea and Cecilia each collapses onto her own stationary bike after finishing a set. Every time, 23-year-old graduate student Carrie Gorden is there for support. Carrie competed for the fraternity the last two years and now helps coach. When Cecilia struggles to reach the pit area after exiting around Lap 33, Carrie claps and pumps her fists, offering encouragement. Still, Cecilia is winded. She lurches onto her stationary bike and clutches a white trash bag, gasping for breath. Momentarily, her heads bobs in. She comes up for air. A second later, she tosses the bag aside.
“I was going to throw up, I thought about it,” Cecilia says after the race. “I was trying, but I decided not to because then I would have been done.”
Fans and alumni of Cecilia and Andrea’s coed fraternity stand on the immediate other side of the pit, close enough to reach out and touch the riders on their stationary bikes.
It’s not an accident that Andrea and Cecilia talk with as much enthusiasm for Little 500 as Guy Fieri when discussing his newest recipe for deep-frying buffalo wings, and their energy is indicative of the IU student body. The Bloomington campus goes berserk during the week of Little 500. Parties, concerts and nonstop sophomoric activity earmark this time of year, culminating in the weekend’s women’s and men’s races.
There are any number of reasons for riders to become engrossed in Little 500. Between them, Andrea and Cecilia have plenty. First, they each needed to fill a competitive void that crept in upon leaving high school. Andrea played soccer, basketball and softball and Cecilia excelled as a runner: She won the cross country regional her junior year en route to qualifying for the state finals and also comprised part of a 3,200 relay team that won three track sectional titles.
Andrea played intramurals at IU, but that didn’t satisfy her desire. Cecilia, meanwhile, stopped running as she acclimated to college life. They each pledged to the same business fraternity, not having known each other until that point. Once accepted, a handful of upperclassmen, including Carrie, coaxed Andrea onto the bike. Andrea was hesitant at first, having never ridden competitively in her life, but that quickly changed.
“I went out on a ride with them and fell in love with it,” Andrea says. “When I committed to riding, I knew it was going to be a huge time commitment but I didn’t really understand how much riding would change me. It’s definitely been a turning point in my college career.”
Cecilia began biking last summer, saying she grew tired of the idea that she was slow or out of shape. No structure existed for Cecilia, who didn’t like the idea of running every day without having a clear goal or accomplishment in mind or teammates with whom to run. And besides, she had other concerns occupying her time: Classes and extracurricular activities suddenly evaporated free time.
“In high school, you don’t realize how active you are; I was running every day, five to six miles, even in the summer,” Cecilia says. “But then you come up to college and your whole lifestyle changes.
“I like to compete, so this is definitely motivation.”
Andrea became one of the team’s two captains this year, a responsibility she shares with Sara.
Andrea says people joke the two of them never go anywhere without each other, and riding also is what brought Andrea and Cecilia together. Pledging to the same class, they became friends.
“We were together 24/7 for eight weeks,” Cecilia says.
Cecilia will study abroad next spring but hopes to ride in Little 500 her senior year. Andrea, meanwhile, raced last year, giving her the needed experience to take on more responsibility as a captain.
“Going out first, you don’t really know what’s what in cycling and then you get a race under your belt and that’s the biggest thing — you become confident,” says Carrie, an Indianapolis native majoring in sports management. “She’s out there on the track telling Cecilia what to do.”
At practice two days before the race, weather twice interrupts. The first time causes the girls to scatter under the bleachers, where a concrete alley allows some protection though rain continues unabated in some spots. Carrie began explaining Andrea’s transformation right before this moment, and the conversation continues with Cecilia describing how she gravitated toward the track.
“This is a sport that you can jump into it, you don’t really have to have experience,” Cecilia says as rain pelts the umbrella she’s holding. “It’s not like I could just all of a sudden go join the basketball team or the volleyball team — I don’t have those skills, I don’t have those kinds of capabilities, but anybody can hop on a bike and go.”
Go, they do, and not just when conditions are agreeable. It’s one of many sacrifices riders make.
Andrea and Cecilia’s group rides 10 hours a week in the offseason, then doubles that time after winter break. Then when the track opens in February, the girls train for two and a half hours a day.
Even during times when all their classmates are letting loose on spring break. The girls didn’t travel to a beachside resort. Instead, they stayed in Bloomington, with the main goal to continue their training through the wintry conditions.
“We were riding through blizzards and everything,” Andrea says. “A lot of people don’t understand how much time we put in to prepare for the race.”
Andrea and Cecilia take riding seriously, mainly because they have to if they want to help their team remain competitive in the race and also distinguish themselves as one of the four best female riders of their coed fraternity. Team members aren’t chosen randomly. The best riders are selected.
Period. Cecilia notes there are seniors in other fraternities who have trained their entire college career but are still passed over in favor of faster freshmen. That Cecilia and Andrea each boasts an athletic background definitely helps.
“If they played high school in sports, they’re usually pretty good at it,” Carrie says in describing people new to riding, adding that Little 500 participants train as often as Division I athletes.
The team arrives at the track two days before the race hoping for a full practice. They don’t get it, as the first of those two weather delays hits about 40 minutes into the early evening practice.
Songs from Weezer’s “Blue Album” blare through the stadium’s speakers as Cecilia leans against the fence separating the bleachers from pit row.
In describing her approach, Cecilia explains she’s found a wonderful balance in sports: taking the competition seriously without obsessing about the results. It’s why, despite being only two days away from a race that’s sure to push her, perhaps even punish her — she’s sporting bandages on her left arm and left shin from a crash in practice the previous week — Cecilia feels at ease.
“In high school, I was so serious about sports. I don’t even know why I was,” she says. “I wanted to make every workout just crazy, so I would even get nervous for practice because I knew I had to have a good workout that day. Going into this, I love to compete, I’m so excited, but I don’t feel the nerves at all like I used to.
“I know that this is a chance of a lifetime; it’s a great experience. I don’t feel as much pressure. I don’t put pressure on myself.”
In describing her bandages, Cecilia laughs at the idea that they’d be enough to hold her out. Get her on the bike, that’s all she needs, she says. Besides, she’s used to the bumps and bruises. She was practicing with the girls during spring break, a time at which she was still a little shaky jumping off the bike and stopping within the required exchange zone, when she wiped out. Cecilia learned an early lesson: She’s part of the team, so she has to keep up.
“I tried to stop too quickly, crashed and ended up with bloody, cinder knees,” Cecilia says, referring to the crunchy gravel that covers the track. “I just remember Andrea saying, ”˜Not to sound unsympathetic or anything, but you’re going to keep practicing and we will deal with that later.’
Andrea is tough, and she pushed everyone else to be tough, too. She is a true leader out on the track.”
Beneath the bleachers on the side opposite the press box is where the event’s own repair shop exists. Each bike in the race — two per team — must stay here before the race. After a second lightning delay results in a truncated practice, the girls stand in line with other competitors as each bike is inspected, labeled with contact information and secured within the shop that looks more like a storage shed.
Close to 100 bikes line the walls. Dozens of wheels and sets of handlebars hang in rows from the back ceiling. Nearby on a work table, enough wrenches for a NASCAR crew chief surround a toolbox sitting on a table.
Finally, the bikes are transferred and the girls’ work is done for the night — at least at the track.
Andrea heads back to the campus library to continue working on a group project while the rest of the girls plan to meet at Carrie’s on-campus apartment in a little more than an hour for dinner. The host prepares spaghetti, garlic bread, salad and angel food cake.
Andrea never shows. She stays at the library, helping to finish the group project that’s due the next morning. At Carrie’s apartment, Sara begins breaking down both the basics and intricacies of the race. Cecilia, getting ready for her first race, seemingly goes minutes without blinking while she takes in everything. Sitting straight up and drinking water out of a green, plastic cup, she’s reminiscent of a soldier in boot camp, trying to remember everything her instructor is communicating. Carrie rinses out empty spaghetti sauce jars in the adjacent walk-in kitchen, listening as the teammates sit at a beautiful, large wooden table that’s surrounded by crimson-colored chairs with the IU letters emblazoned in white on the back.
Some of the information Sara relays probably harkens Cecilia back to her prep athletic days. Try to stay focused, Sara says. Don’t think about where the teams stands. Keep pedaling. Always look ahead. For this last detail, Sara explains she always looks at the butts of the riders in front of her.
Cecilia laughs. Then Sara tells Cecilia that when she needs a rest, that she should look at the team’s coach and stick out her tongue.
Wait, what? This needs further explanation.
“It’s the way to tell the coach you won’t be able to contribute or go as far as you want to, so you need to come out to get someone else in,” Carrie says, removing the confusion. “So instead of taking your hand off the handlebar or doing anything like that, the only time you are ever really going to stick your tongue out is to do that so it doesn’t get confused with anything.”
On the day of the race, the girls meet at the on-campus apartment Cecilia and Sara share with another roommate before biking a mile or two to a nearby campus house for their fraternity’s send-off. Light hail pellets ting against the ground on their way.
Once they arrive, the girls walk into a scene reminiscent of “Animal House.” Jovial students welcome Andrea and Cecilia and their teammates. A beer pong table with a top designed as an IU-themed basketball court sits in the middle of a moshpit of celebratory Hoosiers. Dance music loudly reverberates throughout the house. It’s barely 1 p.m. If somebody smashed a guitar against the wall while walking down the stairs, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising. Still, a cool calm vibrates the room. No one is upset and no arguments need squelched. This is Little 500. Everyone is in a good mood.
At the house, Andrea and Cecilia pose for dozens of photos and classmates chat them up. After all the well-wishers fete Andrea and Cecilia’s team, the girls get back on their bikes and head to Armstrong Stadium. It isn’t long before they meet up with their coaches, including Alan Smith, a Little 500 fixture.
Technically a volunteer coach for the team, Alan does so much more. He’s been involved with Little 500 for nearly four decades and can do anything from tweak equipment to well, pretty much anything. Every rider and coach on Cecilia and Andrea’s team raves about him, painting him as an all-knowing sage. Alan rode the Little 500 twice while attending IU in the mid-1970s and began coaching men’s teams in 1982 and women’s squads in the mid-1990s.
Alan owns a tall, slim build and has brown hair that tends to whip around in the wind. During the race, he turns his neck a few dozen times while donning a red beanie cap, eyeing the riders making their turns. From behind his sunglasses, his expression indicates nothing goes unnoticed.
Periodically thought the race, Alan scoots back and forth across the track, helping the girls execute bike-to-bike exchanges. A day later, he repeats the performance when the Phi Delta Theta team he helps coach finishes third in the men’s race.
The 61-year-old property manager lives in Florida but every year returns to Bloomington for the race, during which he always carries a cowbell. If need be, he’ll use it. His system entails ringing it every time he sees one of his riders in a bad spot on the course. He’s able to see things others aren’t. Trust, he’s earned. Alan shakes the cowbell when Andrea zips by on Lap 63 as she’s surrounded by nearly a dozen riders. His system helps the girls avoid any crashes or other damage during competition.
About 90 minutes after it started, the race concludes. In the first half of the race, Andrea and Cecilia’s team fell off the lead pack and never fully recovered. The team qualified 22nd and finished 16th after placing sixth last year.
“We had a great team, we had so much fun just being out here on the track,” Andrea says.
“Although we didn’t finish as high as we did last year, it was just a great experience.”
Andrea and Cecilia receive bouquets of flowers as friends and family members reach over the fence for extended hugs.
While the girls walk out of the stadium, their minds turn to an important topic: eating. Everyone is heading to Carrie’s apartment for a cookout, though plans are also made to attend the men’s race the next day. Scattered conversation takes place around Carrie’s car in the parking lot near the track as everyone’s belongings are packed and secured.
Eventually, it’s time to go, but Andrea and Cecilia don’t leave the stadium in a car. They exit how they entered: on a bike.
Contact John Patishnock at email@example.com.
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