Little 500 Rider Spotlight: Esma Taylor

Every spring, Indiana University swells with excitement as alumni, fans, students, and riders gear up for the Greatest College Weekend: The Little 500 cycling race. Last spring, however, was not a typical race year.

Esma enjoying a morning bike ride

In 2020, riders and fans of the iconic Little 500 cycling race at Indiana University were notified that there would be no Little 500 that year due to the pandemic. Although it was a difficult decision, it was for the best. (And it makes this year’s Little 500 race even more epic.)

Schwinn has made the race bikes for the Little 500 since 2006. These identical, single-speed 700c wheeled racing bikes are made one-of-a-kind each year for all teams to race on. 

To learn more about the Little 500 race and its traditions, meet Esma Taylor. Esma is a senior at Indiana University who will be racing in the Little 500 for the last time on May 26th - and she is pining for a win. Read on to hear about Esma’s pre-race rituals, why her race team is considered a Little 500 dynasty, and how this year’s race will be different from past years.

Hey Esma! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your involvement in the Little 500.

I began my journey with Theta Cycling and the Little 500 spring of my freshman year at Indiana University. I was a multisport athlete all throughout high school and even did the gymnastics club when I first came to IU. Little 500 was my opportunity to continue my athletics and grow into a new sport. I think most riders can agree that we are all just washed-up athletes that weren’t quite good enough to do varsity college sports.

When did you first get into cycling?

Esma and Daniel training

I didn’t do too much serious cycling before college. As a kid I had a little Schwinn bike that I would ride around the neighborhood to escape my parents. Most people talk about their first experience with bikes as an opportunity for freedom at a young age. I would say the same for myself back then and even now. Bikes are machines for freedom and that is what really made my bond stronger and stronger for cycling.

Do you have a first memory of biking from your childhood, or any special biking stories from earlier in your life?

My parents love telling me the story of when I rode two miles on my Schwinn bike when I was a little younger than 3. It was at a local park growing up and I greatly impressed my physician at the time. Apparently, most kids don’t get pedaling down until the age of 3 and a half or 4. Almost 20 years later and I am proud to say that I am still able to ride two miles…

How did COVID affect your training for the Little 500 last year?

Last semester when we came back to campus from summer vacation in August is when Covid restrictions were at an all-time high on campus. Typically, we would ride with other teams and mingle with the rest of the Little 500 community through the fall. That was not the case this year for obvious reasons. Approaching wintertime was tough since there was not an indoor space we were all allowed to train in together. My team was lucky to go down to Florida for our annual winter training trip and be able to ride together outside in late December / early January.

At the track, Covid restrictions also affect training and some things like pack riding with other teams aren’t allowed. The Fall series, which is through the Little 500, did not go smoothly due to Covid, and not all events could happen. The Spring series, which was this last April, went much better and consisted of 3 events. We had individual time trials, Team Pursuit, and Miss N Out this spring. Team pursuit stood in place of qualifications this year and determined your team's starting position in the race. 

Due to a Covid exposure, my team unfortunately did not get to compete in team pursuit and got placed in the back. At the time, this was a very difficult thing to process. It felt like a lot of our hard work was getting thrown out the window, but we just had to readjust our perspective and look at the bigger picture. I can confidently say that the pandemic has and continues to challenge our mental fortitude. This team and this community is extremely resilient and continues to inspire me every day.

How did you feel when you learned that the Little 500 was cancelled last year?

I remember the exact moment that Little 500 was cancelled last year. It was during spring break which is when all the bikers stay on campus to train. We all got the news together and at the same time. It came in an email from the then Race Director on March 15, 2020. It read:

Riders and Coaches,

“Due to the rapidly evolving conditions around COVID-19, the Men's and Women's Little 500 bike races are canceled for this academic semester. This includes all associated events, including the qualifications events. The possibility of holding the events at some future date beyond this semester will be reassessed at a later date. The decision was made out of an abundance of caution and care for the health and safety of everyone involved. We want to thank all of the student riders and volunteers, alumni, sponsors, partners, and fans for their support of this great Indiana University tradition.”

This was news that I had been preparing for as I could tell that the virus was growing rapidly around the world. I had friends sent home from abroad and I knew it was time to start being realistic in terms of the race happening. I was a junior last year and my heart really went out to all the seniors. We had two seniors that had dedicated so much time for their last race to be taken from them. It has certainly not been easier since March of 2020, but we are learning how to deal better with these trying times and make the most out of our training for the Little 500.

How will the race on May 26th be different this year than in past years?

For the race this year, there will be no fans, family, or friends in the stands. It is disheartening knowing that college and professional sports have been able to have people in the stands at limited capacity and socially distanced, but that our entire team can’t even be there. You are limited to the four riders who are racing, a coach, student coach, and mechanic. The race this year will be just that, a race. It is hard to compare it to the historic event and the booming atmosphere that is the Little 500.

The other major difference this year is the number of teams that are competing. For lots of teams, being able to have three to four riders stay a month after school ends was a big ask. A full field is 33 teams. This year there will be about 18 women’s teams and 22 men’s teams. That is drastically low and will cause for a much different race in general. I hope to see the field full again next year.

What is your favorite part about racing with the Theta team?

My favorite part about racing with the Theta team is the dedication that each rider portrays throughout their life. You are surrounded by extremely motivated women who push you to be your best both on and off the bike. Theta cycling has made me gritty and more determined with everything I do. You become what you are surrounded by. I challenge everyone to surround themselves with people who inspire them and who they see as successful. I feel like I became the best version of myself through this team and this family.

Do you have any pre-race traditions or rituals?

Before a race my focus is on centering myself. There are a lot of people who can psych themselves out thinking too much about how a race may play out. This is why I make an active effort toward relaxing and clearing my mind so that I am both mentally and physically ready for the demands of a race. Aside from my mental preparation there is always proper hydration, sleep, and nutrition to be had so that I can perform at my best.

Why do you think the Theta team has seen so much success?

Theta team celebrating after a race

Theta Cycling has been called a dynasty within the Little 500 community. It is the reason why I decided to do Little 500 in the first place. I saw the support and love everyone had for them and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Our success comes from a handful of factors. First and foremost, we train hard. We ride 6 days of the week every week starting in August and going until April (in a normal year). We have wonderful coaches, Rachel and Ryan Knapp, who adapt our workouts to our team every year. Secondly, we are more than just teammates. Theta cycling creates lifelong friendships that are shown through our strong alumni base. When you become a Theta cyclist, you join a web of fierce women and are constantly uplifted by those who rode 30 years ago to those who graduated last year. Lastly, as soon as you become a part of the team, you share a common goal with every woman standing next to you. Theta cycling has a reputation and history to uphold and we wear our stars very proudly. All year we work towards a goal to train hard, support one another, grow together, and win a bike race.

Describe what it is like to race in the Little 500 - how does it feel to line up and wait to begin your race before the pistol sounds? What is the atmosphere?

I raced in the Little 500 as a rookie my sophomore year. Although we didn’t win that year, it was one of the most memorable moments in my life. You watch race tape after race tape and then once you’re finally there, it seems almost unreal. The atmosphere is unlike anything. Theta always has one of the largest fan sections and most definitely the loudest. It is really one of those moments where you feel an entire army of support behind you.

The race itself flies by. The women’s race typically lasts no more than an hour and a half. You have four riders that will rotate through depending on their skills and when they are needed. Some riders may only ride 5 laps during the entirety of the race while some may ride upwards of 50.

What are you going to miss the most about the Little 500 experience after you graduate?

What I will miss most about the Little 500 as a whole after graduation will be the community at Indiana University. The ability to be surrounded by people with similar interests all involved in the same event is something that someone would be hard pressed to find anywhere. I will miss the ability to go on rides with my teammates and create memories on the road with them all around Bloomington. The Little 500 community was the best first cycling community I could have ever experienced and I know I will be searching to find more like it in the future.

Do you have any advice for college students who are interested in getting into cycling?

Daniel and Esma practicing on the track

The best advice I can give for anyone that is interested in getting into cycling is to just get out there and explore! From the beginning of my journey as a cyclist, my greatest memories have been from the times where I had gone on the craziest adventure. Find a place and try to see if you can ride there because along the way you will fall in love with cycling and see more than you ever could from a car.

Starting cycling can be expensive, but you will find people who will help you get everything you need to get on your bike and go. It is one of those sports you can do for the rest of your life, so the initial investment is absolutely worth it.

Will you be coming back to watch future Little 500 races after you graduate?

Esma enjoying a break from biking

I will absolutely be returning to IU to watch future Little 500 races. One of the most satisfying aspects of the Little 500 is its history and seeing the growth of your team and the teams that you had competed against. Returning to campus to see girls you had recruited having grown up and now in a position to lead their team to victory is something that I greatly look forward to. Let alone all the fun that comes along with getting to watch the Little 500 race in person!

How will cycling remain a part of your life post-graduation? Will you be competing in any other races or joining another type of race team?

Cycling has worked its way into the epicenter of my life and my career. Going forward where I would not have previously sought out jobs in the industry, I will likely be working in the cycling industry in some way. Along with my career working in the bike industry, I will be continuing my own adventures on the bike wherever I find myself. Cycling for me is a way to find peace outside of the natural aspects of day-to-day life. I will continue to compete as well because there is nothing that can compare to the fun of racing with a field of strong women. This is just one of the reasons I love cycling so much because of the versatility between adventuring along with adrenaline packed racing. I hope to see more women race in the future and find themselves a community that encourages strength and individuality.

The Little 500 will take place on May 26th, 2021. Check out our interview with another Little 500 rider, Daniel Kang, here

Viewers can tune in to watch both the Virtual Little 500 Series and the Little 500 race itself at broadcast.iu.edu free of charge.

Schwinn continues to make single-speed bikes, such as 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!

Stites single speed bike

Shop the Stites single speed bike!