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Inside the push to lengthen the women’s Little 500

The biggest event in collegiate cycling has a notable disparity between the men's and women's races, and a few riders want to change that.

Like many big ideas, the plan to lengthen the women’s race at Indiana University’s Little 500 was hatched on a bike ride.

During a training ride this past August, IU student and Little 500 veteran Céline Oberholzer and five of her friends chatted about the 68-year-old bicycle race that brands itself as collegiate cycling’s biggest event. Made famous by the 1979 film “Breaking Away,” the Little 500 attracts thousands of fans and features separate races for women and men.

The women discussed a topic that Little 500 riders have mulled over for decades. Men race 200 laps around a cinder track at Bill Armstrong Stadium while the women complete just 100 laps.

Why isn’t the women’s race the same distance?

“We said this year we’re just going to just stay on the course for 200 laps because they can’t just pull us off,” Oberholzer told VeloNews. “We started laughing. It was meant as a joke.”

What started as a joke has blossomed into an organized movement to double the distance of the women’s race to 200 laps for 2020. Oberholzer and fellow student rider Hayley Kwasniewski have circulated a petition and drafted official documents to change the distance of the race, which will be held on Friday, April 12, the day before the men’s event.

The two women will present their plan to the Little 500’s rider council in late April; the council will then vote on whether or not to change the rules. The women are expected to race 100 laps this year, as usual, but they want things to change soon with the ultimate goal of riding 200 laps like the men.

If Oberholzer and Kwasniewski succeed, the move would mark the biggest change at the Little 500 since 1988 when the school introduced a separate race for women.

“I’ve heard conversations about this as long as I’ve been involved in [the Little 500] and it’s just time that somebody tried to change it,” Kwasniewski, 22, told VeloNews. “The women’s race has gotten bigger and stronger in the last 30 years and we’re ready for 200 laps.”

A group of “Nasty Women”

Launched in 1951 by Howard Wilcox, then head of the university’s charity foundation, the Little 500 was patterned off of the Indianapolis 500 auto race. More than half a century later the race has blossomed into the centerpiece of the university’s springtime social schedule, as well as a major fundraiser for the school’s scholarship foundation. More than 20,000 students, alumni, and fans attend the race each year.

Teams of four riders race around the cinder track in a relay-style event on single-speed bicycles with flat pedals and coaster brakes. Riders exchange their team’s racing bicycle in thrilling and chaotic hand-offs.

Oberholzer, a senior who is pursuing a degree in Contemporary Dance, first participated in the race during her sophomore year. Like many Little 500 participants, the race was her entry point into cycling. She now races in the elite field in collegiate road races.

“It was so much fun — it’s what got me into cycling,” Oberholzer said. “After that, I wanted to be a pro cyclist.”

After the conversation in late August, Oberholzer couldn’t stop thinking about the race’s disparity in distance. The 100-lap format translates to 25 miles in distance; Oberholzer regularly rode twice that distance in her training.

Oberholzer started a group text chain on the app GroupMe dedicated to the topic, and invited other female riders to join. She named the group chat “Nasty Women.”

“I added every woman I could think of in the [Little 500] community and basically asked if it was a good idea,” Oberholzer said. “Was this something the community could get behind? And everyone was like, ‘Hell yeah, let’s go for it.'”

Oberholzer was not alone. Kwasniewski, 22, was also miffed by the disparity in distances, and in the fall wrote a lengthy report highlighting what she saw as inequalities between the women’s and men’s race. The women’s race is held during school hours on a Friday afternoon; the men’s race, by contrast, is held midday on Saturday.

“Last year I had to skip an exam [to race] and my professor was not happy about it,” Kwasniewski said. “That’s not very fair to the women.”

The motivation to highlight this inequity, Kwasniewski said, came after she suffered a concussion during a training crash in June. While hospitalized, Kwasniewski was asked basic questions about the Little 500 race by a friend. When Kwasniewski said that the men’s race was 200 laps and the women’s race was 100, the friend asked her the familiar question.

Why is the women’s race shorter?

“I was in this post-accident haze and honestly, I couldn’t think of a good reason,” Kwasniewski said. “The question really stuck with me. It’s like, why is it shorter?”

In October Kwasniewski and Oberholzer found out they were both working toward a common goal and decided to combine forces. In early January, they circulated an online petition around the rule change, to see if other students supported their plan. Within two weeks they had 500 signatures.

“That was pretty exciting,” Oberholzer said. “We can’t change the rules with a petition but a showing of public support we think it would be harder to reject the idea.”

A distance steeped in tradition

The Little 500 women’s race was launched by the IU Student Foundation in 1988 after a woman’s team, Kappa Alpha Theta, attempted to qualify for the men’s race twice. Prior to 1988, the women participated in a female-only tricycle race called the Mini 500.

Andrea Balzano, the current race director, said the women’s distance has remained at 100 laps due largely to tradition.

“It’s just been the way it is,” Balzano said. “I don’t think the sentiment was that women can only do half as much of the men. I think the women were excited to have a race.”

Traditions and race history are engrained in the Little 500’s community and its lengthy rulebook. One cannot simply change the rules — proposed changes must survive a three-step process.

Every April, a council of 24 student riders convenes to debate and vote on changes. Should the students pass a rule with a two-thirds majority, it is then passed along to the Little 500 Rules Board, which is comprised of volunteers and representatives from the school’s foundation.

Finally, the IU Student Foundation director has the ultimate power to veto or accept a rule.

“We have a really thorough process and it’s outlined in our Little 500 manual so everyone can understand how it works,” Balzano said. “It’s important that it’s a student-driven process.”

Balzano said that the race often adopts smaller rule changes. The proposed doubling of the women’s distance, however, would represent the biggest change in years.

Female riders have discussed the length disparity between the two races for years. Caitlin Van Kooten, a member of the champion Teter squad in 2010 and 2011, said women often lamented the short distance.

“It really bummed us out that [the race] was just 25 miles because we trained so hard for it,” Van Kooten said. “I felt like there was so much build-up and the race was actually really short. I mean, 25 miles is like an easy recovery spin, and you have four riders splitting the distance.”

Van Kooten said that no riders mounted an organized move to expand the race during her time. After she graduated in 2011, Van Kooten said her perspective changed. If the race was to expand, the students, and not alumni, would have to spearhead the plan.

“The question is whether or not the students want it to change,” Van Kooten said. “Women are more than capable of doing it. But it will significantly change the nature of the race.”

Details of the plan

The petition circulated by Oberholzer and Kwasniewski drew both praise and criticism on the Little 500 discussion forum, 33to1.com. Opponents said that a longer format could remove some of the excitement from the women’s race. The longer race could also play into the hands of the stronger female teams, they said.

“The only people this benefits is top-three women’s teams,” read one anonymous comment. “What a great way to discourage participation amongst women, so empowering.”

Balzano said some students expressed fear that a 200-lap format would discourage novice women from participating. Since the event is often an entry-level race for new cyclists, doubling the distance could scare some riders away.

“The people who don’t want to see it changed are worried about participation decreasing in terms of teams and numbers,” Balzano said. “I think there is also some worry that teams don’t have the resources to train for a longer race.”

Kwasniewski points to her own racing experience as proof that novice women could handle the greater distance. Kwasniewski rides for a smaller team, called Independent Council, and she’s never finished inside the top-10 at the event.

Yet she is confident that her team could race 200 laps and enjoy themselves—even if they did not win. Simply finishing the longer race would bring her satisfaction, she said.

“Some people say that only the best women’s teams can handle [200 laps] and that the lower-tier women cannot handle it,” Kwasniewski said. “Nobody says that about the men’s teams.”

To counter the pushback, Oberholzer and Kwasniewski have drafted more documents. As part of her full 4,000-word report on the race, Kwasniewski drew up separate plans to implement the distance across one, five, and 10 years. Oberholzer then wrote up a preparation manual that included a detailed four-month training plan to help women prepare for the longer race.

The two women have produced a 30-minute presentation for the rider council. The council may reject the new distance outright, accept it for 2020, or delay the implementation until a later date.

Oberholzer believes the adoption of the new distance hinges more on perception than physical strength.

“I honestly think that the challenge is all psychological and not physical whatsoever,” Oberholzer said. “Because women’s teams up to this point have been told that they’re incapable of riding the same distance as the men’s teams, they have believed it.”