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The Little 500: The Superbowl of Cycling

Adam Wogksch

The Little 500, The Little Five, the Superbowl of Cycling, the event that inspired the Academy Award-winning movie Breaking Away, the Greatest College Weekend, the Best College Tradition in the World!

Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Each April, Indiana University overflows with students, alumni, fans, and the national community who gather together for one purpose; to watch and cheer at the Little 500 collegiate cycling race.

The Little 500 was started in 1951 by former Indiana University President, Howdy Wilcox Jr. In 1950 Howdy happened upon an informal bicycle race on campus. As he watched the students complete the circle around their dorm building he thought about his own history, with a father who had competed in the Indianapolis 500, and he realized that a campus cycling race could be an excellent way to raise money for scholarship funds.

The first Little 500 was held that next year and raised $6,000 for student scholarships. Seven thousand people attended that first race and it only continued to grow annually. Today 25,000 people attend the Little 500 and over $1 million has been raised and awarded to students since that first race in 1951!

Today the Little 500 marks a pivotal time for students each spring semester.

Only 33 teams who successfully qualified at the Little 500 qualifications can compete the day of the race. The Little 500 race is a relay style race that, for men, consists of 200 laps, or a total of 50 miles; and the women’s ride consists of 100 relayed laps for a total of 25 miles. Each team is made up of four cyclists who must be full time undergraduate students at the time. During the race each team has to complete 10 exchanges, or bike hand-offs, which look similar to the passing of a baton in a track relay. The women must complete 5. And yes, each year there is a group called the “Cutters,” but unlike the movie Breaking Away they are students of the University.

In addition to the main race event, the University also hosts a Spring Cycling Series which is made up of an Individual Time Trial, Team Pursuit, and Miss N Out. Miss N Out is perhaps the most popular of the three. It is completed in multiple heats where the competition is slowly whittled down. There are 5-8 riders that compete in each heat depending on the size of the total group. They all start on the same line and are given one lap to get into an ideal position. When they reach the line and start their second lap the race begins. From then on, when the riders complete a lap, the last one to cross is out and leaves the race. This continues in each heat until three riders remain. Those three riders move on to the next round until ultimately the final heat decides the overall winner.

Cyclists who compete in this event have to be mentally and physically prepared for the race and once the race begins they have to be ready for anything. Many cyclists train all year in order to perform their best the day of the race each Spring. For many of them that means tuning out the excitement around campus that surrounds the Little 500, going to bed early, and eating to perform their best, at least until the race is done. It also means that, like professional cyclists, they need to be ready on the track as well. Crashes can and do happen on the Little 500 track.

In order to create an even playing field the Little 500 founder, Howdy Wilcox Jr., decided that all competitors would ride the same bike, a tradition that still carries over to today. Each year the Little 500 provides a bike to the athletes that is specified to fit the rules and requirements of the race. The bicycle cannot have toe clips or grips, kick stands, water bottles, air pumps, un-taped or un-plugged handlebars, and there are absolutely no additional accessories that can be applied to the bike after the athletes receive it. Each rider is also required to wear a helmet, for obvious safety reasons.

The bicycles built for the Little 500 are all visually identical, single speed, coaster brake, 700c wheeled racing bikes. The bikes' only variation is in size of the frame that is matched to the rider who will be using the bicycles. Two bicycles are rented out to each team at the beginning of the season and the members of the team can purchase the bike at the end of the season, but the bicycles of the Little 500 are not sold in any stores.

In 1951 the first bicycles used to outfit the Little 500 teams were Schwinn bikes. This tradition of using a Schwinn bike stayed for several years leading to a second tradition; when riders line up in their assigned rows for the start of the race the intercom will blast out the saying, “Riders, mount your Schwinn bicycles.”

In the sixties, Schwinn disappeared from the Little 500 for a while, only to return in 2006. Since then Schwinn has been making bicycles for the Little 500 and will do so again for the next one!

Schwinn continues to make single-speed bikes, such as the Kedzie and the Stites. If you can't make it to the Little 500, who knows — maybe you'll end up starting your own event with one of our fixies!


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