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Ringing ears at the Little 500

The Champs-Élyseés has nothing on this. Not in pomp nor circumstance, not in fervor, certainly not in volume. True, Indiana University’s Little 500 race lacks some global status (and some big names), but don’t even try to tell these women that. You won’t get very far. The Little 500 held…

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The Champs-Élyseés has nothing on this. Not in pomp nor circumstance, not in fervor, certainly not in volume. True, Indiana University’s Little 500 race lacks some global status (and some big names), but don’t even try to tell these women that. You won’t get very far.

The Little 500 held it’s 30th women’s edition on Friday, and my ears are still ringing. One hundred laps of a 400-meter cinder track on flat-pedal singlespeeds with coaster brakes, just over an hour of racing in front of thousands of students, drunk on enthusiasm and definitely beer, culminating in what my Indiana-born Little 5 guide described as “the most ballsy Little 5 win, maybe ever.” The Thetas (Kappa Alpha Theta) attacked early, some sixty laps in, off the back of an exchange from their rival, Delta Gamma. It was a burn-plus-one, in Little 5 parlance, taking advantage of the slowdown in a rival’s exchange. And it was ballsy. “Nobody ever goes that early,” Charlie Hammon, who will race Saturday, told me. “I’m not sure they can hold it.”

They could.

“We love our riders, we love,” the Thetas chanted, over and over and over again. At least a hundred of them, decked out in Theta Cycling t-shirts, screaming their lungs out. Most have never seen another bike race, couldn’t tell you who Chris Froome is. But they know Evelyn Malcomb, Sydney Keaton, Rachel Brown, and Grace Bennett. They love their riders, yes they do. And the noise when Bennett crossed the line, my word. Perhaps the ringing will stop before the men’s race Saturday afternoon, just so it can start all over again.

Fans rushed the track, ran behind their girls in a victory lap, yelled and cried and hugged. The pride was palpable. The bragging rights, unbeatable.

“I’m shocked. I’m shocked. I’m so happy,” Malcomb said, standing fifty yards past the finish line, her voice cracking. “It’s the best thing in the world, I can’t believe how lucky I am to have the best team that just pulled that off.”

Credit: Nick Hartman

It wasn’t luck, though. The attack was perfectly timed in a race where timing is everything. The format and long track of Little 500, raced in teams of four on two bikes with exchanges like a sort of flat-pedal Madison, make it difficult to gain any real separation. “More often than not, the window of opportunity closes before they get back around to me and I can tell them what to do on the white board,” said the team’s coach, Ryan Knapp. “I just try to teach them what an opportunity looks like. They spotted this one.” The gap reached 16 seconds — massive in this race, where speeds are governed by the tiny gear — then shrunk to zero in the waning laps as Alpha Omicron Pi bridged across. It became a battle of the closers, and there was no touching Theta’s Bennett.

“I am hit by waves of realization that it actually happened,” said Brown. When will it settle in? “In the shower later, when I’m having a beer.”