The Indiana University Little 500 Bicycle Race Part Two: A Connection to the Event

I grew up in the south suburbs of Indianapolis, about an hour north of Indiana University in Bloomington. My family and I were always IU basketball fans, but beyond that we didn’t pay too much attention to the school.

The Little 500 bike race – a huge spring tradition at IU – didn’t hit my radar until my teen years, when the need to party seemed to overcome a lot of other, more productive responsibilities. On more than one occasion, some of us would drive an hour south just to see how wild we could get on a cool, spring evening in a Big 10 college town.

Riders cross the start/finish line in the 2016 contest.

The drive seldom disappointed as Bloomington was then – as today – alive with partiers and related illicit revelry throughout Little Five week. Students are everywhere, walking in groups from house party to house party, bar to bar. For high school kids like us, it was easy to blend in and have a good time.

But, sadly, partying during Little 500 week was about all I knew of this legendary Hoosier event. Sure, I’d watched “Breaking Away” and it hadn’t interested me that much then.

A Cutters rider (teal) keeps pace with the bunch inside the first turn.

However, a few years later, I got a different view of the race. It wasn’t the race itself, but a post-victory celebration for the Cutters cycling team, of which a few of my former high school friends were members.

These guys, Jim Kirkham and others, who were avid high school cross country and track athletes a few years prior, had just won the 1992 race and it was then that someone explained to me how the race works and its significance.

Former Cutters who still work hard for the team are Mike Rolfsen (left) and Jim Kirkham. Both attended Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis, graduating ’87 and ’86, respectively.

Another long gap ensued as I started a family and went to work in the newspaper business. Years later, overweight and on the edge of 40, I got inspired by Lance Armstrong’s story and took up cycling as a way to regain some semblance of fitness. That led to an enthusiastic interest in all things cycling, including bike racing, which I’ve still never done, but have watched with interest both in-person and on TV.

I also watched a number of cycling films and documentaries, including “American Fliers”, a lackluster 1985 cycling drama starring Kevin Costner, and, more notably, “Breaking Away”, the Academy Award-winning 1979 comedy-drama set in Bloomington and featuring the Little 500 race.

The Cutters, decked out in green jerseys that signify their number one starting position, enter the Bill Armstrong Stadium infield prior to the 2016 race.

Perusing cycling-related videos on YouTube one snowy Indiana afternoon in 2011, I came across a video of The Cutters in action in an earlier Little 500 race. A coach was interviewed; it was Jim Kirkham, one of my high school friends and a former winning Cutter who stuck around Bloomington and continued to help recruit and coach budding cyclists in the Cutters program.

Having spent a good part of my career in photojournalism, I thought the colorful, fast-paced event would provide great subject matter for my lens. I was right.

The winningest team in Little 500 history is, of course, the Cutters.

The Little 500 racing teams are always decked out in a spectrum of colors, with each hue denoting each team’s respective place in the 33-bike starting lineup.

Enjoying the fruits of their hard pre-race training regimen, the Cutters are normally in green: poll position, the fastest qualifier. Other teams wear teal, blue, red, and other colors. On a sunny spring day, a photographer could have a worse setting. So, I thoroughly enjoyed each of the three races I was lucky enough to shoot.

I hope you enjoy the photos!

Going full gas, a Cutter is breaking away.
Cutters coaches and pit crew watch as the race unfolds before them.
Sitting on the front, a Cutter (teal) looks to his pits for guidance.
Cutters coach Jim Kirkham signals to a rider the number of laps he wants them to complete.
Eager for spring sunshine, students pack the Bill Armstrong Stadium stands.
A Cutter skids to a stop during a rider exchange in the pits.
Good sportsmanship seems to prevail at the Little 500.
Backed by loyal followers, team members keep their legs warm and watch race action.
Staying in front and out of trouble is a hallmark of an experienced Little 500 team.
After narrowly missing another win, team supporters and coaches console a devastated rider.

Holding the inside line, a Cutter (green) moves through the lead group.
Dry cinder dust fogs the track as the lead bunch powers through the straightaways.
En route to yet another victory in 2018, the Cutters’ pit area comes to life as their anchor man rounds the fourth turn leading the pack.
A Cutters rider (green) holds his position in the bunch, biding his time as the race unfolds.
Quick rider exchange experts hop onto the saddle with a shockingly brave approach.
Switching riders and bikes is exciting to watch in the Little 500 pit area.
Keeping their legs warm, but staying cool in provided shade, Cutters riders wait their turn.
A crash victim is able to continue racing.
Riding in such close proximity at high speeds often results in some spectacular crashes, mitigated somewhat by the stadium’s cinder track, a better surface for crashes than pavement.

One thought on “The Indiana University Little 500 Bicycle Race Part Two: A Connection to the Event

  1. Loved the post. I lived in Bloomington from 89 to 97 and the most memorable little 5 of all was I think 96 when Lance Armstrong, being treated for cancer at Indy, came down and road a loops as “grand marshall” in blue jeans…Bloomington, in my opinion, has some of the best cycling opportunities and culture of any city in the Midwest. Miss riding there, and the days when 34 mile bike rides were like a short stroll… The Lake Lemon loop (54 miles) was the average ride and the occasional 90 mile Nashville or Brownsville ride you had to think to take an extra water bottle and banana…


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