Though it’s obviously not connected to anything Michigan, Indiana University’s celebrated Little 500 bicycle race is nevertheless an interesting story, especially for cycling enthusiasts.
The event would’ve seen its 69th installment this weekend, had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s race – for the first time in its history – was canceled, wiping away not only the contests, but also a ton of intense training done by competing teams.
Founded in 1951 by the IU Student Foundation, the race takes place in the university’s Bill Armstrong Stadium and is modeled on the Indianapolis 500 car race. In 1950, student Howdy Wilcox, whose father had won the Indy 500 in 1919, helped found the IU Student Foundation, a group assembled to promote awareness of the benevolent IU Foundation.
Unsure of how to spread the word about the young organization, Wilcox had a serendipitous moment in the autumn of 1950, when he happened upon an informal bicycle race around one of the dorms. Students from the dorm were racing one another and other students were cheering.
Wilcox thought a sponsored bike race could generate scholarship money for working students while enhancing awareness of the Student Foundation itself. So, he proposed the idea of a bike race, which the board approved. The inaugural Little 500 – then just a men’s event – took place in the spring of 1951.
Since its founding, the IU Student Foundation has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships – most raised via the Little 500 – to hardworking undergraduates.
Bill Armstrong Stadium is home turf of IU’s men’s and women’s soccer teams. Encircling the playing field is a quarter-mile cinder track, where the race takes place. The stadium has bleacher seating for 6,500 fans and a professional press box with all modern amenities.
Men’s and women’s races (the women’s race was added in 1988) take place in the third weekend of April, with qualifying earlier in the month. Thirty-three teams, comprised of both independent squads and fraternities/sororities, round out the field. This is another aspect of the Indy 500 which the bicycle race emulates since the motor race features a field of 33 cars.
Teams of four take turns completing the 200 laps (men – 50 miles) and 100 laps (women – 25 miles) on the dusty, cinder track.
To qualify as a rider, each participant must be a full-time IU student carrying at least a 2.0 GPA. Each participant must also be an amateur cyclist and can compete in no more than four races over five-years.
Interestingly, Little 500 bicycles are all identical Schwinn frames. No bottle cages, toe clips, or any other add-ons are permitted. Each bike is an aluminum frame single-speed (46×18) with coaster brakes on 700c wheels, 32mm tires and flat rubber pedals.
According to IU, the bike specifications originated with the AMF Roadmaster bicycles of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Frame size is the only difference between the men’s and women’s bikes. Each year, the IU Student Foundation, which founded the race and continues to govern it, buys a fleet of the specified bicycle type and gives two to each team, each of which pays a $400 rental fee.
Schwinn custom builds these race bikes, and they aren’t available in stores.
“In 1951,” the Schwinn website says, “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 60s Schwinn disappeared from the Little 500 for a while, only to return in 2006,” the website continues. “Since then Schwinn has been making bicycles for the Little 500 …”
“World’s Greatest College Weekend”
The men’s race, which takes place on Saturday, caps off a week of festivities and related events at the Big 10 university, which bills the event as “The World’s Greatest College Weekend.”
Aside from the two featured races, there are alumni races and the Little 50 running relay race. Festivities also include campus-wide partying that has bordered on the epic. In fact, prior to cycling’s rise in popularity, the Little 500 event may have been more renowned for its legendary revelry than the race itself.
Part of the Little 500’s popularity in Indiana stems from the Academy Award-winning 1979 film Breaking Away, which tells the story of a group of Bloomington “townies” who form a team to compete in the race. The townies, who adopt the name “Cutters” to signify their parents’ jobs as limestone cutters, square off against the favored fraternity teams in their quest to win the race as outsiders.
The film gave rise to the race’s most winning team, the Cutters, an independent team which formed in 1984, five years after the film’s release. The Cutters won their inaugural race and have won more Little 500s than any other team in race history. Unlike in the film, however, members of the Cutters must be full-time IU students.
There’s a lot more to learn about the Little 500. The IU Student Foundation has a bunch of history and related information on their website, https://iusf.indiana.edu/little500/
This blog post will be accompanied by another Little 500-related post, which will detail my connection to the Cutters cycling team and how I came to photograph the race a few times.
Thanks for reading!