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The wacky, grueling bike race that captivates a Midwest college town

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(Peter W. Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The Little 500 has been a mainstay at Indiana University for decades, inspiring a movie and the entire campus. Here’s how this year’s dramatic race unfolded.

Peter Stevenson photo

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — A crowd of sorority sisters appeared outside of the Kappa Alpha Theta house in matching T-shirts that read “Theta Cycling.” As the large front door opened, the cheers erupted: It was time to send off the house’s team to the Little 500 – a grueling, fast-paced college bike race at Indiana University that has captured the heart of a basketball-obsessed college town for almost 75 years.

Theta has the most successful women’s program in Little 500 history. There’s competition to make the race day squad. A few weeks earlier, sophomore Bailey Cappella wasn’t sure she’d make the team, even after all of the hours of training in the hills of southern Indiana, all of the weekends in the wind, cold and rain.

“There’s eight of us, and there’s only four spots,” Cappella said. “It can come down to seconds and milliseconds.”

(Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The Little 500 features 33 teams of four students on a cinder track. To have a chance of winning, teams have to avoid crashes or falling behind the pack.

Cappella and her fellow Little 500 riders aren’t in line for lucrative NIL deals or commercials with local car dealerships. While Indiana men’s basketball coach Mike Woodson is busy restocking his team with the backing of one of the nation’s richest NIL collectives, Cappella and her teammates are riding in an event that raises money for student scholarships. In a way, it’s the purest form of amateur college athletics.

It’s also a cornerstone of the university’s culture — it’s the biggest party week of the year, with alumni returning to campus in droves — and a race unlike anything else in the country. Its unique rules and quaint Midwestern setting inspired the 1979 Oscar winner “Breaking Away,” which put the Little 500 on the national stage for the first time.

(Peter W. Stevenson/The Washington Post)

(Peter W. Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Indiana University sophomore Bailey Cappella leaves the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house for the house cycling team's rider send-off a few hours before the 2024 women's Little 500.

Kappa Alpha Theta riders, from left, Claire Tips, Cappella, Audrey La Valle and Greta Heyl.

Teams often train year-round, sometimes riding hundreds of miles per week.

“The college sports landscape has completely changed, and it’s all revenue generation and money,” said Jordan Bailey, who rode for the Black Key Bulls team as a student, went on to serve as Little 500 race director from 2012 to 2016 and is coaching his old team for the first time this year. The Little 500, he notes, is far different. “We’re singularly focused, and nobody’s getting paid. And we just have this common goal to try and win this made-up, wacky race.”

Race organizers order custom single-speed bicycles for each year's races. Teams can make minor changes, but not serious upgrades, before race day.

More than 15,700 people attended this year's races, according to the Indiana University Student Foundation.

Little 500 bicycles aren't typical racing bikes; they have one gear, flat pedals and coaster brakes.

The race takes place on a flat, quarter-mile cinder track. Organizers custom-order single-speed, coaster-brake bikes each year. It’s essentially a relay, in which each team has to exchange riders multiple times. Women ride 100 laps, and men ride 200.

(Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Cappella passes off the bike to teammate Greta Heyl – one of at least five required exchanges over the course of the race.

“It’s weird in the cycling world, because there’s nothing else like it,” said Little 500 legend Bill Brissman, who won three championships with Delta Chi between 1978 and 1981 and appeared in “Breaking Away” as a stunt double. “And unless you’re an IU Bloomington student, you’ve never raced it. You’ve never had to ride on a 69-inch gear on a flat track.”

Riders take it seriously. The most dedicated teams train between 10 and 20 hours weekly, putting hundreds of miles on their bikes. And it isn’t always the safest sport, requiring riders to dodge traffic and hazards on the track.

Crashes are a regular hazard during the race — and often result in riders being covered in cinders.

“You have to have a lot of will and a little bit of crazy to stick with it,” said Kelsey Jacobson, a Delta Gamma alum who rode from 2009 to 2012 and is now coaching the team. “We all have cinders in our elbows and hips. If you wreck once or twice, scrape your face, lose some teeth and still come back, you have to love it.”

(Peter W. Stevenson/The Washington Post)

(Peter W. Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Judah Thompson, a member of the Cutters, warming up before the men’s race.

Thompson in the pack during the men's race. The Cutters wore yellow jerseys this year to denote their status as reigning champions.

Coach Jim Kirkham, left, and Thompson, right, in the Cutters’ prerace huddle.

Judah Thompson, another Indiana sophomore, has been hearing about Little 500 his whole life. He grew up in Bloomington, and his dad was friends with members of the Cutters, the team depicted in “Breaking Away.” (The real-life Cutters didn’t form until a few years after the movie came out but adopted the name because of its association with winning.)

Thompson could have joined the Black Key Bulls instead. He went on practice rides with both teams in high school. Or he could have joined his older brother Kobe, who rides for Novus. Ultimately, he chose the race’s most iconic team, and the pressure that comes with it. Last year, his freshman year, the Cutters won it all — but Thompson knew he still had some growing up to do if he was going to turn into a team leader and help his teammates repeat as champions.

“I put so much self pressure on myself that it was scary. It was really scary,” he said. “I didn’t know what would happen if we didn’t win the race. I couldn’t comprehend that. So going into this year, I’ve taken a step back, tried to even things out.”

Thompson’s coaches see that change in him.

The Cutters' Danny Ghalayini before the men’s race. The Cutters are the race's most famous team, featured in the Oscar-winning film “Breaking Away” in 1979.

The Cutters' Jacob Koone in the middle of the pack.

The Cutters before the race.

Thompson, center in black jacket, and the Cutters congratulate the Black Key Bulls on their win.

“For a kid to join the Cutters now, there’s an illusion of what the Cutters are,” said Cutters Coach Jim Kirkham, who has been involved with the race since riding for the team in the early 1990s. “Whoever decides to join that has got some grit in them, some warrior mentality deep inside them. They want to explore who they are, whether they can pedal a bike fast or not.”

(Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The men's race is 200 laps, or about 50 miles, while the women's race is 100 laps, or about 25 miles.

But as this year’s race played out, Thompson and the Cutters found themselves behind. Sigma Alpha Epsilon riders took a half-lap lead early in the race; the Cutters and other contenders had to work together for more than 100 laps to reel them in.

(Peter W. Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The Black Key Bulls' Will Wagner crosses the finish line to win the 2024 men’s Little 500 — an incredible resurgence just a year after the team failed to qualify for the race after faulting during qualification attempts.

Suddenly the Black Key Bulls — the other team Thompson trained with in high school, a team full of guys he knows well — had rocketed in front. Thompson and a rider from Delta Tau Delta gave it everything they had, but the lead was too big. Thompson sprinted to a second-place finish, just a few seconds behind the winners.

“I was terrified of you behind me, man,” the Black Key Bulls’ Wiley Close would confess to an emotional Thompson just after the race. It was little consolation in the moment.

(Peter W. Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Thompson after an exhausting last set on the track, during which he out-sprinted Delta Tau Delta to a second-place finish.

Cappella and the Kappa Alpha Theta team also found themselves chasing a gap early in the women’s race. Teter, a team named after one of Indiana’s undergraduate dorms, made the race’s first move. The prerace plan went out the window. Theta, Delta Gamma and a handful of other teams frantically worked together to draft and try to catch up.

When they finally did, the decisive moment in the race came. As Cappella waited for senior Audrey La Valle to come into the pit for an exchange, she saw Teter rider Seneca Simon clip La Valle’s wheel and go down hard into the cinders. It was a chance to suddenly build a lead of their own.

(Peter W. Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Cappella, right, in the pack during the women's race.

Late in the women's race, just a few teams seem to have a chance of winning — including Kappa Alpha Theta, in white, and Teter, in green.

Kappa Alpha Theta fans begin to realize their team could win the race.

A few seconds behind, Cappella remembers, Delta Gamma “didn’t even realize that Teter went down, and I basically was like: ‘They are down. We’ve kind of got to go!’ ”

Cappella raced out to a lead that her teammates built on over several more exchanges. Teter, Delta Gamma and the other teams tried frantically to catch up. But with a few laps to go, it became clear the Kappa Alpha Theta riders’ lead was too big for them to be caught. The crowd of sorority sisters behind the pit got louder with each lap.

“Just hold a good pace,” Cappella told herself.

“It was pure adrenaline,” she said. “I kind of blacked out in the moment.”

Cappella's teammates cheer her on for the last lap of the women's Little 500.

Then, victory. A place in Little 500 history. A trophy, a red and white lei, and — for some reason — a small stuffed buffalo as prizes. Rings will come later. Cappella, La Valle and teammates Claire Tips and Greta Heyl led their own victory parade around the track. They celebrated with family and friends, lingering as, slowly, everyone left.

Kappa Alpha Theta riders and coaches react in their pit after Cappella crossed the finish line.

Victory celebrations on the track's infield stage.

Cappella, La Valle, Tips and Heyl before receiving the Borg-Warner trophy.

Cappella after returning to the team's pit victorious.

Soon they were alone, reflecting on what they had achieved. Then they got on their bikes and rode home.

The Kappa Alpha Theta team was the last to leave the track, after taking time to soak in the win at a quiet Bill Armstrong Stadium.

correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly described the bicycles as being fixed-gear. They are single-speed. The error has been corrected.

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