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Cinder chess at the Little 500

Caley Fretz experiences firsthand the 200-lap spectacle of a bike race that happens in Bloomington, Indiana every year.

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I thought maybe the puking would wait until later. Nope. Noah’s stomach is over it, 190 laps into this 200-lap spectacle. Enough of the three-minute pulls, maximum effort, trying to keep that back wheel in line on a cinder track that’s loosening into kitty litter by the minute, trying to keep 32 other teams behind the Black Key Bulls for just a little bit longer.

Noah, last name Voyles, is doubled over in between two warmup bikes. Everyone near him has put a hand on his back in a collective “It’ll be OK, son.” He does not look OK. One of the hands is from the team’s coach, a skinny young bike racer named Ryan Knapp. “The best damn Little Five coach in Bloomington,” a random man in a yellow and black cap tells me, pointing with a thick finger. “You find me a better one,” is his challenge. I doubt I could. With 10 laps to go, it looks increasingly certain that Knapp will go two-for-two, win the women’s and men’s Little 500 races, a feat everyone’s pretty sure has never been done. I like him. He has a way of saying very mean but very true things in a way that’s quite funny.

Noah looks up at him, his stomach emptied. “Do I need to go on again?” he asks, pitifully, like a bad puppy that’s just yacked on the carpet. Knapp stares at him for a moment, doing some math in his head. He has three other riders he can use: senior Charlie Hammon, junior Kevin Mangel, and the sophomore, a 4-minute-mile ace they’ve been saving, Xavier Martinez. They have a lead, but not a comfortable one. A lead’s never comfortable in this race.

“Maybe,” Knapp says to the kid with puke on his shoes.

2:20pm, Saturday, April 22. A man just jumped out of an airplane 1,000 feet over our heads. We’re two-thirds of the way through a Little 500 start sequence that will take at least half an hour. Wind’s from the east, gusting. The predicted rain hasn’t come. The stands are full and getting rowdy. Some 25,000 will show up over the course of the weekend, the race director Andrea Balzano tells me. 25k! Holy hell. This might just be the biggest one-day race in America. College kids on singlespeeds, the biggest in the USA.

Someone pokes me in the shoulder and points up as a stars-and-stripes parachute unfurls and the crowd and its phones all look up at once. The jumper is dangling another American flag below him. Two flags are better than one, someone says. I think it was Smoot who said it.

The jumper’s landing is timed with the end of an a cappella group’s rendition of Indiana’s unofficial state song, “Back Home Again in Indiana:” When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash, they sing and the crowd sings, Then I loooong for my Indiana hooooome. Smoot, are those tears? “It’s always played at the start,” he says. “That’s why I love it, even though I’m from Illinois.”

Charlie was a hot mess this morning. Pacing around, double and triple checking everything. It’s how the Black Key Bulls captain copes, says my Little 5 fixer, Nick Hartman. He just worries about everything. But it works. The senior has an important job today: He’ll bear the brunt of the early work, taking long, 20-lap pulls to keep BKB (Black Key Bulls is a mouthful) out of trouble and up front. He’s also the team’s first rider. Early laps are treacherous, full of riffraff that haven’t yet dropped to lapped purgatory. There are 33 teams and maybe 15 are good. In terms of relative experience on the cinders, Little 500 is sort of like a Cat. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 race. The last-place team is going to get lapped 98 times in a 200-lap race. Riders at the back remount after an exchange like giraffes jumping on an escalator, all flailing legs and squished unmentionables. “Jesus, man, there’s always a lot of shit out there,” says Maddison, another BKB alum. And Charlie will have to dodge it.

The peloton rides two laps behind the pace car before it accelerates and swings out of the track. It’s a rolling start; Charlie is near the front. The group stands as one on their tiny gears and accelerates to an adrenaline-induced race pace. They make it exactly one and three-quarter laps before someone falls down.

“Oh, for f—k’s sake,” Maddison says, mostly to himself.

Charlie Hammon

Xavier Martinez

Noah Voyles

Kevin Mangel

Four riders, two bikes, 200 laps. Those are the underlying constants with which Knapp and the rest of the coaches play their game of cinder chess. “Timing is more important than strength,” Knapp says. “But it’s best to have both.” The tiny gear is the great equalizer. In the end, it mostly comes down to the exchanges. How they’re timed, and how few a team can get away with.

Frankly, the exchanges are terrifying. By lap 100 there’s an awful lot of blood about, and most of it is from exchanging. Think of it as a high-speed, coaster-brake version of a Madison handoff, except both riders are on foot at some point. The rider in the race usually tries to accelerate off the front — it’s called a burn — and then skids like a damn maniac into the pit at 25 mph, hops off the right side of the bike and hands it to his teammate, who is already running and hops on. If the burn is good, the fresh rider has enough of a gap to settle back into the peloton with relative ease. If the burn is bad, or the exchange is botched, then there’s no ease at all.

I do not totally understand the tactical nuance of Little 500, but I understand this: Exchanges take time, so the only way to stay out front alone is to get a gap that is longer than the time it takes to exchange. That’s a couple seconds, maybe 50-80 meters or so. Otherwise, the exchange sends a team back to the peloton. Getting a gap that size on a pan-flat track with a gear that has teams spinning over 130rpm just to sit in is like trying to cut a bad steak with a butter knife.

BKB’s exchanges look good to my inexperienced eye. So do those of Sigma Chi, right next door, and the Cutters, which is not the team of townies as it is in “Breaking Away,” but simply a team with no Greek or residence hall affiliation, just like BKB.

The first 100 laps are well-controlled. Charlie does his big turns on the track, helped by Kevin and Noah. One botched exchange sends Kevin’s knee into the ground, but he’s fine. “I’ll have to scrape the cinders out later,” he says. Xavier sits on his road bike and spins slowly. He hasn’t entered the race yet. His particular talents will be needed later.

Slowly, but quite surely, the racing stints begin to take their toll. You can see it in the winces as they exchange. “It’s the worst feeling,” Nick says. “A burn is a sprint, so you’re pegged, then you have to slam on the brake, which cramps up your calf. Then you end up just standing there with no bike. No spin-down, nothing. Just standing there with a cramped calf and a heart rate of 190, trying not to fall over.”

Noah botches an exchange. That’s odd because he has the best handling skills of the four. A former BMXer, racing in Vans today. But he’s tired, almost takes out another rider. Tensions are high now. The Lambdas in the stands behind him begin a chant, “Asssshoole, assshoooole,” that the BKB don’t particularly like. Nick turns to one of them: “Shut the f—k up, man.” Maddison walks in as backup. Two against maybe 20? Nick, you may be my guide this weekend but I am not with you on this. But have I mentioned Spencer? Spencer is here, another BKB alum. He was runner-sized a year ago. He’s not anymore. He’s bald and bearded and 210 pounds. He turns around. The Lambdas shut up.

The other teams should have seen it coming, really. Knapp used the same tactic with his Theta ladies on Friday, and they won by half a lap. So maybe they did see it coming, they just couldn’t do anything about it.

Forty laps to go, nearly two hours in. Knapp reminds his riders of the plan: Watch for a move, follow it, attack it. Just like Theta did. It’s called a burn-plus-one. You follow a rider trying to gap for an exchange and when he jumps off the bike you keep your head down and pin it. Xavier has still hardly touched the race track. He takes an exchange from Noah after a burn that was covered by rivals, leaving him at the back of the field.

Thirty laps to go. The track has churned soft. It’s particularly bad in turns three and four. Cadence is high, has to be smooth. You can see the rear wheels skitter out and then get wrestled back.

More blood. A botched exchange sends a rider off balance. He reenters the peloton sideways. A bowling ball against tired pins. They slide on cinders on their backs and will scream in the shower later. Maddison has his hands on his head, squeezing his temples, mouthing expletives without speaking them. He and Nick can’t take it. They’re taking turns pacing. One watches the race until he can’t anymore while the other paces back and forth behind the pit, not watching. They fill each other in during their own exchanges. Xavier swings out and around the cinder-grated riders and sprints to the front of the group before the yellow flag is flown, requiring all riders to maintain their distance to the leader. Yellow is out for two laps. 171 to go.

Green flag. Race is on. Twenty-eight laps to go. Xavier goes. Goes. Goes. Goes.


Noah’s done puking. His last stint extended the team’s lead to more than a straightaway. He’s back on the trainer, spinning slowly, looking down. “Do I have to go on again?” he asks. Knapp looks at him. “Maybe.” The honest answer at the time. But it’s really a no. He won’t have to go back in. Seven to go now. Xavier takes a final pull, extends the lead again. The chasers are cracked. Dead. Pedaling squares. Gray Goat and the Cutters will not return. Kevin gets in. Four laps to go. Three. Two.

The celebration begins now and will extend well into tomorrow. It’s Kevin across the line. Sweet Kevin, they call him. Mild-mannered, polite. Blood runs down from his knee. He almost exchanges with Xavier with two to go, but why risk it? Maddison has his hands in the air and might be crying. Nick jumps over the fence. Spencer jumps over the fence. Knapp just stands there with his hands on his head. Noah runs up and down, just past the finish line, his Vans kicking up cinders. You can see him in the finish photos later: Kevin crossing the line, Noah running next to him. The chant from the stands behind is simple and growing louder: “B-K-B, B-K-B,” until it envelops everything and is everywhere. Security is letting anyone with a BKB T-shirt into the infield. Someone hoists Kevin above the crowd. He waves the new Black Key Bulls hat that Gomez gave him last night high in the air and screams.

The People’s Champions, the student paper calls them.

It’s 1:14 a.m. Kevin’s face will be on the front of the school paper tomorrow. “We gave him that because he’s the only single one,” Charlie jokes. The cover boy is sitting on a stool in the back of a bar called Nick’s, the bar you go to before you go to Kilroy’s. We haven’t gone to Kilroy’s yet. We will go to Kilroy’s. That much is pretty certain. Everyone is here: Charlie, Xavier, Noah. The four champions. And Maddison, Nick, Spencer, Smoot, Gomez, Mis, Jordan, Neff, Val, Rex, the four Thetas, Grace and Sydney and Rachel and Evelyn, who won yesterday. Knapp. Kevin’s mom. Andrea, the race director. Me, swept up in it all. Kevin has a drink in each hand. “Don’t know where these came from,” he says. He puts one glass down to pick another cinder out of his knee. “I still can’t believe it. I wonder when I’ll believe it,” he says. Random frat bros offer high-fives and to buy another round. The whole city knows what happened today. The whole city will know what Sweet Kevin looks like tomorrow. This, all of this, in Bloomington, Indiana, where for one weekend every year this little bike race seems to be everything to almost everyone.

Want more Little 500 stories? Listen to this episode of the VeloNews podcast: