When I meet new cyclists on group rides, one of the things I’m most curious about is how they got into cycling. Who introduced them to it and when? Like most, I had a bike as a kid and rode it everywhere, but I had precious little concept of cycling as a sport. That’s not to say I didn’t race. Put two 12-year-olds on 10-speeds, and you have races every single day. Funny how that hasn’t changed 30 years later. And whereas I was familiar with cycling as an international sport growing up, I just didn’t know anything about it. My dad was a baseball/basketball kind of guy, and I was raised playing the stereotypical American team sports—that is, until I got to college at Indiana University.
At IU, I wasn’t good enough to play basketball anymore, so I tried out for a far less conventional sport that I had absolutely no knowledge of whatsoever: rowing. I made the team and fell in love with it. But I was also indirectly introduced to another sport, not as a participant but as an observer: cycling. And at IU, cycling meant one thing: the Little 500 bike race. Even if you’ve never heard of it, I guarantee you are familiar with it. Recognize these guys?
The 1979 movie Breaking Away used the Little 500 race as a vehicle to tell the story of Dave Stohler, the quintessential small-town kid caught between adolescence and adulthood, one foot in his childhood bedroom safe inside his parent’s house, the other on the pedals of a bike aimed out into the world. It is a brilliant movie, with some of the most well-written and poignant dialogue between movie characters I’ve ever seen. It is about growing up, being scared, and coming to terms with the struggle between being yourself and inventing who you want to be. I show this movie to everyone and anyone who hasn’t seen it. It’s kind of like a test. If you don’t like this movie, we cannot be friends. I have forced my poor significant other, the GEEC, to watch it so many times that if I don’t physically sit on her, she leaves the room as I recite the father’s refund scene word for word.
So why do I bring all of this up today? Well, I just learned that the webshow TourChats is celebrating its forthcoming 50th anniversary show by having a live chat webcast during the playing of Breaking Away with the actor who played Dave Stohler, Dennis Christopher, this Sunday evening. Never seen the movie? I’m envious of the first-time viewing experience you get to have! Are you an old fan? This is the perfect opportunity to jump in with a bunch of other obsessed idiots like me to revel in its glory. That said, invariably anyone unfamiliar with the movie asks the same question when he or she witnesses the strange bike race held on an oval cinder track in which Dave must race during the film’s climax: “Is that race real?” Well, for those who are unfamiliar with it, let me answer emphatically that, yes, the Little 500 bike race is very real. Let the following serve as a primer for those Little 500 virgins out there, sure to make your Breaking Away viewing experience all the more enjoyable.
The Little 500 is a 50-mile bike race held on an oval track made of cinders and modeled on the Indianapolis 500 car race. Thirty-three teams of four riders compete relay-style to be the fastest to complete 200 laps, which are counted down on a giant score board. All cyclists must be IU students, and non-pros. The first Little 500 was run in 1951 when the South Hall Buccaneers won in 2 hours and 38 minutes (the 2012 winners, Black Key Bulls, won in 1 hour, 31 minutes by comparison):
Each team is issued two identical single-speed (46 × 18) coaster brake steel bicycles using 700c wheels, 28mm tires, and flat rubber pedals on which to race. No clipless pedals or cages are allowed. No gears. No hand brakes. No water bottles.
In 1988, a women’s race comprised of 100 laps was added to the weekend’s events.
Each team is required to complete at least 10 rider exchanges (5 for the women) during the course of the race, in which the bike is passed between cyclists on the team. These exchanges must occur within a certain zone designated for each individual team.
All riders not in the lead lap after 198 (98 for the women) must move to the side to let those on the lead lap compete for the sprint finish.
Some Breaking Away and Little 500 fun facts:
- The character Dave Stohler was based on cyclist Dave Blase, who raced in the 1962 edition and rode 139 of the 200 laps himself.
- The original title of Breaking Away was to be Bambino, highlighting Dave’s obsession with all things Italian.
- Current Garmin pro cyclist Peter Stetina’s uncle and former pro and Olympic cyclist, Wayne Stetina, raced in the Little 500 and set the record of most laps completed by a single cyclist (144), in addition to establishing a dynasty of overall wins in the 1970s.
- Current Garmin pro Christian Vande Velde’s father plays an Italian pro riding for Team Cinzano in the movie (not the one with the infamous frame pump).
- Dennis Christopher’s racing double was former racer Gary Rybar (note the muscular legs on the cyclist drafting off of the semi-truck). Gary later went on to have a sex change and now goes by the name Karen.
And here are some images from the Little 500 over the decades. All photos courtesy http://www.little500.net/.
I never got to race in the Little 500, a regret I carry to this day. But despite not being able to participate, I can still say that watching the race for the first time in 1989, and seeing the movie Breaking Away the night before in the student union, were the moments when I first truly became captivated by bike racing. To this day, when I finish dead last in a race, I think back on how badly I wanted to try this sport out while watching the Little 500. And even though I’m a Cat 4 bottom feeder, I can’t help but get excited to feel part of it, like those college kids spinning around that oval track in Bloomington—gladiators of cinder and steel.
I’m looking forward to reliving some of these memories Sunday night. Hope you can join in.