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When it comes to great bicycle racing films there really are only two that truly matter. Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s documentary of the 1977 Paris–Roubaix, “A Sunday in Hell,” brilliantly captures the spirit of the world’s hardest one-day race in timeless spirit; while the 1979 Academy Award-winning film “Breaking Away” is a classic Hollywood production that wraps the iconic Little 500 race at Indiana University into a larger Huckleberry Finn tale. In the four decades since these two movies were produced it is impossible to say which one inspired more people to ride or race bikes.
While thousands of cyclists make their own pilgrimage to ride the legendary Roubaix cobbles in northern France year in and year out, it is virtually impossible to ride around the Little 500’s 440-yard cinder track. After all, it is on private property, housed in the Bill Armstrong stadium of the Indiana University soccer team. To ride here you have to be a Little 500 cyclist. It’s as simple as that!
So when we were invited to test the Panaracer Pasela tire with two modern-day Cutters on the actual Little 500 track, the answer was easy. The Cutters, of course, need little introduction today. Taking their name from the team in “Breaking Away,” they have gone on to win this iconic race more than a dozen times. And because Panaracer is the official tire sponsor of the event, riding around these cinders gave us a unique opportunity to see the Pasela tire in its element.
As Little 500 rules stipulate, both Victor Grossling and Zach Stevens are Indiana University students. And both are proud to be part of the Cutter tradition. “When I got to IU, I had a job delivering San Francisco Jimmy John’s on my bike and just fell in love with cycling,” says Victor. “And being at Indiana University where cycling is such a part of the university’s sporting tradition, I definitely knew that the Little 500 was something I wanted to do.”
“Unlike the fraternity teams, we are all on this team for this race. We joined this team because getting first position at Little 500 is our No. 1 goal,” Zach says. But he adds that being a Cutter, in fact, is about much more than being a bike racer. “To be a Cutter you have to be open to all kinds of different personalities. This is a sport where you spend so many hours together out on the road, and it is all about how the team gels. So to be a Cutter you have to be in a position to get along with a lot of people around a common goal.”
After getting their Schwinn single-speed Little 500 bikes with their distinctive coaster brakes set up, Zach and Victor are only too eager to test out the track. “You constantly have to change your tire pressure because track conditions change all the time,” says Victor. “The cinders are always changing. One day you can get on them and it is like an ice-skating rink—you are just slipping and sliding all over the place. You get a different animal every day!”
Even for Little 500 riders like the Cutters, access to the track is limited. As a result, after stretching and warming up, they use the track to practice hand-offs and bike-exchanges that the four-rider teams must master. Created in 1951, the Little 500 is modeled after the Indianapolis 500 motor race. Like the Indy 500, there are qualifying rounds, and 33 teams qualify. But for this event, the equivalent of the 33 Indy 500 drivers are 33 four-man teams that relay each other throughout the race.
Using the distinctive coaster brake inherited from the original Little 500 bikes, the incoming rider skids into the pits while dismounting just as the other then sprints off. Dust rises quickly from the cinders, providing images that are truly unique to this iconoclastic event. And it goes without saying that the race can be won or lost in such exchanges.
As a result, you learn to ride the slide early as a Little 500 rider. It is an integral part of the event. “You know a lot of us race in the summer, and riding on the cinders is a good school for racing on the road,” says Zach. “The cinders really help with cornering because, well, no corner in a crit ever feels as bad as this!”
And while the track conditions make this race truly one of a kind, so do the bikes. “They are tough!” Victor says flatly. “And that is key. There are a lot of crashes. The bikes have to be able to take a beating. The wheels and tires have to be able to take a beating, because, well, they most certainly will. The Pasela tires are a great for the Little 500 because they are just so tough. We use our Little 500 bikes for a lot of things. We train on them. We ride them on the road. We go to class on them. The tires are a constant.”
The Little 500 has run every year since its inception and, according to Zach, the longevity and history are just some of its defining features. “In addition, there is the pure amateurism of the event that gives it a very special feel. The Indiana University Student Foundation stipulates that it is only open to amateurs. That protects the event I think. It prevents professionals from coming in and dominating it. As a result, everyone that does Little Five can enjoy it. Okay, we are out here to win every year, but that is not the goal of every team here. And I don’t think it should be. Everyone should find a reason to do Little 500. For some it is just to qualify. For others it is to build friendships. So there are so many different paths to this event. On race day we all come with unique goals and that makes it really special.”
After working on bike exchanges, Zach and Victor playfully mix it up using their elbows and shoulders. Maintaining position in the Little 500 pack is also crucial. And it is often very physical. And then, after doing some intervals, they start warming down. On the infield, the sprinkler system that waters the soccer pitch is in full operation. And it can’t have come at a better time, as this early-summer afternoon is heating up quickly and the sprinklers instantly provide the perfect respite at the end of the day’s ride.
“It’s really cool, because Little 500 is such a singular moment,” Victor says as he relaxes on the infield. “You build all year for it, for this one day. You build these ties. But out of this one day come ties that will last for years and years.”