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Little 500 Back On This Year, But At Later Date With Fewer Teams

Alpha Xi Delta rider Jessica Hamilton talks about the upcoming Little 500 race.

Alpha Xi Delta rider Jess Hamilton talks about the upcoming Little 500 race. (Joey Mendolia/WTIU)

The sound of bicycle tires crunching on the cinder track again fills the springtime air at Bill Armstrong Stadium. 

Last year, the stadium sat empty as COVID-19 forced cancellation of the Little 500 for the first time since it began in 1951.

“We spent the whole year training, and we thought we would have a normal Little 500 race,” said Jess Hamilton, a senior and the captain of Alpha Xi Delta team. “And then, you know, a month, two months beforehand, it’s just all pulled out from under you.” 

There will be races this year, they’ll just take place more than a month later than normal – and they will have no fans.

Instead of the traditional third weekend of April race dates, the men’s and women’s races will be on a Wednesday, May 26. And because the race will come well after the end of IU’s spring semester - and graduation – some teams had to drop out. 

There will be 25 men’s teams and 18 women’s teams for their races rather than the traditional full field of 33.

“The Army team, I think they had like three of their teammates get called in for their training over the summer,” said Matthew Cooper, a senior and captain of the Phi Gamma Delta Team. “Some teams had to drop because of internships or just summer plans in general, which was really unfortunate.” 

For the Christian Student Fellowship’s women’s team, an internship in Nepal for one of its riders was the final straw. 

She had to leave the country on May 24, just two days before the re-scheduled race. 

“This race is awesome, and we train for it so hard, but it was something we just couldn’t not support her,” senior Kaitlin Wagner of the CSF team said. “(We told) her, ‘you need to do this, you need to get this experience.’” 

Wagner and her teammates had been training since the fall for the race, but an injury to one rider in December left them with just three riders already. Then came the announcement on March 4 the race had been postponed.  

“We had just did this hard workout, and then they just like moved the race,” Wagner said. “It’s sort of like, ‘this is just crazy.’ So it was just like a lot of hard feelings. And the first, the initial blow was hard. And that first week was hard.

“We stopped training as hard as we were, those feelings were just very difficult to overcome.”

Wagner was on the team for qualifications but did not race as a freshman in 2018, but she rode in the 2019 race when CSF finished 13th. And while Wagner will miss out on her final two Little 500 races, she and her teammate will continue to ride their bikes with purpose.

“We were like, ‘Let’s just ride our bikes for fun. Let’s be on a mission for Christ,’” Wagner said. “We ride for Christian Student Fellowship. This is why we ride our bikes, we don’t ride to race. I’m on a mission for Christ to shine our light through the Little 5 community and the big cycling community of Bloomington.”

The student foundation made the decision along with IU’s Medical Response Team and the Monroe County Health Department. They felt holding the event, even without fans, would be safer after classes had ended and a number of students had left town for the summer. 

Andrea Balzano, the director of the IU Student Foundation, knew the decision would be unpopular with some and mean some teams would not be able to compete. 

“It’s hard to make a decision that makes everybody happy,” Balzano said. “Our goal was to be able to host the Little 500 during the spring of 2021, somehow, some way.”

The foundation was able to host its full spring schedule after canceling the fall 2020 events.

“Team pursuit, Miss-N-Out, Individual Time Trials are events that we run historically every spring, we were able to host this year,” Balzano said. 

Hamilton won the Miss-N-Out event and helped put her team, Alpha Xi Delta, on the pole for the women’s race. She’s excited to be able to race this year, but will miss having fans. 

“Having your roommates and your friends being able to come out and support you, it’s and added level of pressure to perform and another level of excitement,” Hamilton said. 

Both fields will be at their smallest. No qualifying was held, so basically anyone who could put a team together could enter the race.

“There’s definitely been jokes about, you know, getting a team of townies together and having them create a team,” Hamilton said. 

Yes, “Breaking Away,” which won three Oscars in 1979, remains relevant. 

“If it’s not watched, the alumni will force you to sit down and watch it,” Cooper said. “I promise you, it’s still a pretty big deal.” 

And everyone involved in the Little 500 is banking on things being back to normal next spring, and it will once again be the centerpiece of what used to be called the World’s Greatest College Weekend. 

“Hopefully, it will look much more like 2019 than 2020 or 2021,” Balzano said. 

Both races will be live streamed on May 26th at broadcast.iu.edu.

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

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