As Hollywood debuts go, mine was inauspicious. I was seven years
old in the fall of 1978 when Twentieth Century Fox sent a crew to
my hometown, Bloomington, Ind., to shoot what we were told was "a
bicycle movie." The studio vowed to make a donation to Indiana
University if locals filled the stands for the climax, a staged
version of the Little 500 bike race. My parents deemed it a civic
obligation that we attend, and I have memories of frittering away
the better part of a weekend on the wooden bleachers of the 10th
I was crestfallen when Breaking Away came out the following year
and--having boasted that I would be featured in the movie--I was
an unidentifiable celluloid speck in a crowd scene. Breaking
Away, however, was an endearing film about four floundering
Bloomingtonians who, as one hokey reviewer put it, "discover
cycling and, in turn, themselves." One of the townies,
Italy-obsessed Dave Stoller, became my idol. He might not have
been able to shoot the J, usually a prereq for athletic stature
in Indiana, but man, did he ride like the wind. On my Schwinn
I'd imagine I was Dave as he outpaced Team Cinzano or overcame
injury to take the Little 500 checkered flag.
After the movie everyone in town was locomoting on two wheels.
The playwright Stewart Parker wrote, "The bicycle hides nothing
and threatens nothing. It is what it does. Its form is its
function." That makes it the ideal conveyance in Indiana, where
natives shun pretense and consider self-sufficiency a cardinal
virtue. And despite the perception that the entire state is
board-game flat, southern Indiana is downright hilly. Atop your
bike it's easy to pretend you're on the bluffs of Tuscany or
The Little 500 cements the state's love affair with cycling. On
the last Saturday in April, 33 teams of Indiana undergrads orbit
a 400-meter track on single-speed Mongoose bikes for 200 laps.
The mix of self-reliance and cooperation--rules stipulate that
teams must change riders a minimum of 10 times--is pure Indiana,
where the individual and the community are valued in equal
With a nod to the car race an hour up the road in Indy, the
Little 500 begins with the announcement: "Gentlemen, mount your
Mongoose bicycles." After that, it's a deadly serious affair
suffused with drama. A nasty wreck inevitably mars the first few
laps. Time and again the race is decided by less time than it
took to read this sentence. In 1992 Demetri Hubbard, a kid I grew
up with, was the top rider on campus. A member of a quartet
called the Cutters (the name of the all-townie team in Breaking
Away), he put pedal to mettle and like a real-life Stoller won
the race for his team.
Thanks to the movie the country's best teenage cyclists began
enrolling at IU. In 1982 the Little 500 became a nationally
televised event and the centerpiece of what was dubbed the
World's Greatest College Weekend, a 72-hour party that saw
Bloomington transformed into the Heartland version of Babylon. In
the early 1980s the university razed the 10th Street Stadium and
built a shiny new venue to accommodate turnouts of 30,000.
Indiana doesn't do institutional change well. In 1997 the popular
single-class high school basketball tournament--depicted in
Hoosiers, the second-best sports movie the state has
inspired--was scrapped in favor of a multiclass format that has
siphoned soul and revenue from the event. The clumsy IRL/CART
schism has robbed the Indy 500 of prestige. And a few years ago,
seeking to return the Little 500 to its grassroots origins,
organizers foolishly banned Level I and II (read: hard-core)
student-cyclists. Coupled with community efforts to dial back the
attendant bacchanalia, the race's appeal has been neutered, and
recent crowds have thinned.
But the Little 500 is 54 years old--trivia: Dick Enberg, then an
IU student, handled the first radio broadcast of the race--and it
will survive just fine. Indiana, after all, is cycling country.
Plus, if Dave Stoller taught us anything, it's that when you get
knocked off your mount, you climb back on and keep going.
SI senior writer L. Jon Wertheim is writing a book about the
changing culture of basketball in his home state of Indiana.