BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Folks at Indiana University like to call the Little 500 "The World's Greatest College Weekend" and it just might be, with the possible exception of one memorable weekend from my own university days when one of Playboy's "Girls of the Pac-10" invited me to her costume party and well, that's another story.
The Little 500 has just about everything you could want in a college weekend. Exciting bike races between true student-athletes competing for little more than the thrill of sport. Passionate fans in team colors packing a stadium to root on friends. Alumni returning to campus for traditions that make them feel 19 again. Parties spilling out of houses, hormone-stirring bands and sorority girls in biker shorts.
Aaron Bernstein for ESPN.com
The set of "Breaking Away" is still present in Indiana, right down to the quarry.
The best way to experience the Little 500 is to ride in it but you must be an IU student and train many exhausting weeks (at a minimum) to qualify with one of the teams. The next best way is to rent a bike and ride around campus singing Italian arias like Dave in "Breaking Away." Nominated for best picture in 1979, "Breaking Away" is one of the 10 best sports movies ever made. It was filmed here at IU, and you can happily immerse yourself in the movie's many locations. You can literally ride out to the rock quarry where Dave and the Cutters went to dive and swim and discuss their life ambitions.
CYRIL: You know what I'd like to be? A cartoon of some kind. You know, like when they get hit on the head with a frying pan or something, and their head looks like the frying pan, with the handle and everything? Then they just go boiiinnng and their head comes back to normal? Wouldn't that be great?
"What makes 'Breaking Away' so good and so lasting is the characters," says Sasha Land of this year's Cutters cycling team. "It's not just one individual character -- it's the collage of them all coming together. They all have their own challenges to overcome. There's the little guy, the spacey guy, the sickly guy that becomes an athlete through cycling and the macho guy who is never going to be a football star. They all have to prove themselves.
"That's all part of cycling. That's all part of life."
Land is a wise student with a backstory as interesting as anything Hollywood could conjure up, but his tale will have to wait. Right now there is just so much to do. There's the women's race Friday and the men's race Saturday and Three 6 Mafia is playing at the Alpha Epsilon Pi house and the line to Nick's bar is already halfway down the block and we still need to find the Tri-Delt house where Dave serenades Katherine in the movie and well, if there's a fault with "Breaking Away" it's this:
As good as the movie is, it doesn't do justice to the Little 500.
CYRIL: Hey! Are you really gonna shave your legs?
DAVE: Certo! All the Italians do it.
MIKE: Ah. Some country. The women don't shave theirs.
Somewhere along that highway back there is where Dave hit 60 miles per hour in "Breaking Away" while drafting behind the semi but I'm just trying to keep up with Bill Colbert and the Delta Upsilon team as we climb a hill on a light, 21-mile tune-up ride.
"There is no event like the Little 500," Colbert says. "You can't find an event quite like this at any other school. It makes everyone proud to feel like we go to a really unique university."
Indeed. All schools have big intramural programs with highly coveted championships but where else do students dedicate themselves to year-round training (and painful injuries) for one afternoon of glory?
The IU student foundation has run the Little 500 for 57 years, raising more than $1.2 million in scholarship money for working students. The elite teams extend back decades and some go back generations. The father and grandfather of Black Key Bulls rider Chapman T. Blackwell V both raced in the Little 500 and Sasha Land's stepfather rode in it as well. (Sisters Pam and Kim Loebig, meanwhile, may start another family tradition as riders on the Cycledelics.) These elite squads ride 12 months a year, putting more miles on the road than Dave Matthews, riding up to 300 grueling miles a week and training in Florida, Texas and California during Christmas and spring break. They also ride indoors during the worst of winter, spinning in place on trainers and rollers, occasionally passing the mind-numbing hours by watching videos. "I've seen 'Breaking Away' 15 or 20 times," says Phi Kappa Psi senior rider, Erik Styacich. "I don't know how many times we've watched 'American Flyers.' That's one of those movies so bad it's good."
Team alumni help with expenses and most teams have sponsorships. John Krol of the Dodds House team says his team received $7,000 from a local business and there are rumors of $20,000 budgets for some teams, though Colbert tells me, "No one will ever give you a straight answer on their budget."
How serious is the Little 500? The rulebook is 53 pages long. Indiana alumnus Mark Cuban even televises the race on HDTV.
While fraternities and sororities form the core of the 33 teams in each year's men's and women's races, squads from the dorms and independent housing are also among the Little 500 elite. Dodds House is part of the residence halls while Land's Cutters team broke off from the very successful Delta Chi team two decades ago and took its name from the "Breaking Away" team. Cutters is the insult used by the college students in the movie to describe the blue-collar townies whose fathers worked cutting limestone for the disappearing quarry companies. It becomes a source of pride when the Cutters team wins the climactic race and the current Cutters (all IU students) have so embraced this outsider persona that their victory chant goes like this:
Aaron Bernstein for ESPN.com
Friends, family and everyone else pack Armstrong Stadium to see the Little 500.
Then there is Team Major Taylor, named in honor of the African-American cyclist who won three 1-mile world track championships from 1889 to 1891. Indianapolis businessman Courtney Bishop founded the team when he was a grad student at IU with the goal of diversifying the race and putting an African-American on the winner's podium.
"It just bothered me that you could come to an event like this and that there weren't any blacks," Bishop says. "You heard it was because black kids don't cycle and that's a buzzword for me. 'Can't.' My thing is don't confuse the word 'don't' with 'can't."'
Major Taylor finished second in 2003 but has yet to win, though that's not for lack of effort. Bishop received a lifetime ban from the Little 500 following allegations that he offered scholarships to riders in exchange for their participation on the Major Taylor team (a violation of race rules). The school dropped the ban in March and he is back coaching. Although Major Taylor is successful enough that Nike provides gear, Bishop's original dream of a champion all-African-American team has evolved into a rainbow coalition that sounds like the setup to a joke. "We have two white kids, an Asian kid, a black kid and a Hispanic," Bishop says with a smile.
Not even Major Taylor, however, has room for a 45-year-old sportswriter, but on the final day of open practice, race organizers set me up with the official Schwinn single-speed coaster bike that all competitors must use. Riding without hand brakes on the unbanked quarter-mile cinder track of Bill Armstrong Stadium is a little tricky at first, but as I get the hang of things and ride around in the setting sunlight, I feel as honored and excited as if I were allowed to take batting practice at Wrigley Field.
MOOCH: Since you won that Italian bike, man, you've been acting weird. You're really getting to think you're Italian, aren't you?
CYRIL: I wouldn't mind thinking I was someone myself.
The Little 500 trophy the Cutters win in "Breaking Away" is kept proudly on display here in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity dining room. Which is appropriate. Steve Tesich wrote the screenplay to "Breaking Away" and he drew inspiration from his years at Indiana when he rode the Little 500 for the Phi Psis. He based the lead character, Dave Stoller, on an older Phi Psi brother named Dave Blase. Like Stoller, Blase used cycling to turn himself from an admitted 90-pound weakling into an athlete. Like Stoller, Blase won the Little 500 with an epic ride (139 of the race's 200 laps in 1962). And most importantly, like Stoller he pretended he was an Italian cyclist.
"I would walk around campus singing Italian arias and love songs," Blase recalls. "I had long hair brushed back like the Italian riders. If you don't really like yourself or are insecure, if you can fantasize another image then it doesn't bother you if they ridicule you because it isn't really you. It's just a fantasy."
Aaron Bernstein for ESPN.com
Sure, it's an intramural sport, but the Little 500 requires a grueling 12-month training schedule.
"You know what really gets me? I mean, here I am, I have to live in this stinking town and I gotta read in the newspapers about some hotshot kid, new star of the college team. Every year it's going to be a new one. And every year it's never going to be me. (Pause) I'm just going to be Mike. Twenty-year-old Mike. Thirty-year-old Mike. Old mean old man, Mike. These college kids out here are never going to get old or out of shape. Because new ones come along every year. And they're going to keep calling us Cutters. To them it's just a dirty word. To me it's just something else I never got a chance to be."
"Whether it was about cycling or whatever," Blase said, "the strength of the movie is it dealt with the problems and insecurities young people face while growing up and everyone can identify with that."
The irony is the Phi Psi house had won the Little 500 more times -- seven -- than anyone else when "Breaking Away" came out in 1979. Phi Psi hasn't won the race since. Meanwhile, the Cutters team has won more than anyone else in that span (eight).
Call it the Curse of Quaid.
"We're trying to get rid of that one and hang our eighth banner out there," says Styacich.
Styacich tells me this before leaving for a much quieter house to rest up. All the best riders take the Little 500 so seriously they check into hotels away from campus to avoid the partying that surrounds the race. IU officials don't like people focusing on this but Little 500 weekend is basically Hoosiers Gone Wild, Oktoberfest in April. One evening there is a line out the door at a downtown liquor store, where you have to show TWO pieces of ID and pass a sobriety test with an officer from the sheriff's department. In addition to the fraternity that hired Three 6 Mafia, another hired Yellowcard. A group of guys installed a dunk tank in their backyard to submerge losers of beer pong. I assume the tank is normally filled with water but who knows what the liquid might have been during Little 500 weekend.
"There have been three or four times this weekend when I woke up and saw things and knew I was dreaming," one student says. "Then I woke up again and found out it was real."
DAVE: I'm not going anywhere.
KATHERINE: I don't know about that.
This was a cold spring in Bloomington but the April 20-21 race days bring beautiful spring weather: brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine that quickly burns pale Midwestern skin until shirtless students partying on the lawns look like they're wearing Bobby Knight's old red sweater.
More than 14,000 fans swell Bill Armstrong Stadium for the men's race and among them is Hans Arnesen. A 2006 IU graduate, Arnesen knows the thrills and agonies of the Little 500 better than most. Riding for the Alpha Tau Omega team, three years ago he finished the race in a sprint, crossed the line inches ahead of the closest rider and heard his team declared the winner. Then he was assessed a five-second penalty for impeding on the last turn and had the victory taken away. Two years ago he crashed on the first lap, leading to a 25-rider pileup which was among the worst in race history. He rode the rest of the race in pain and went to the hospital afterward. "They stitched me up that night and I had to come back the next morning to get the cinders from the track removed," he recalls. "They put me in a hot tub and gave me Novocain and painkillers and then they actually went into my flesh with a horse brush to get the cinders. It was horrible."
All the pain and disappointment ended last year when Arnesen rode 123 of the 200 laps, lapped the field and led his team to an overwhelming victory. "That day felt like everything was in slow motion."
Unlike either that race or Friday's women's race which Kappa Delta won in a rout, this year's men's race is as tight as a financial aid student's budget. Major Taylor's Ali Camara gives his team a great start by riding the first 65 of the race's 200 laps. He cannot ride the entire race because unlike in "Breaking Away," rules specify that each team exchange riders at least 10 times. But he does ride a total of 107 laps.
The Cutters, Dodds House, Phi Psi, Black Key Bulls and Major Taylor are packed together most of the race, trading the lead in the final laps to set up a sprint to the finish on the 200th lap. As the fans stand and roar, Cutters rider Alex Bishop, the best sprinter in the field, edges Phi Psi's Styacich by little more than the width of a textbook at the finish line. The finish is so close that those two teams and Dodds House, Black Key Bulls and Major Taylor all have the same official time: 2 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds.
The Curse of Quaid continues for Phi Kappa Psi.
Aaron Bernstein for ESPN.com
The Cutters, now all IU students, took home the Little 500 crown again.
Land grew up dirt poor a couple miles outside of Bloomington. He was home-schooled but had such severe dyslexia that when he entered formal school at 14, he tested at a second-grade reading level (though when the questions were read to him, he tested at a second-year college level). "I was functionally illiterate," he says. "I was struggling to learn to read street signs, menus, the basic things to be functional in a literate society."
He pauses. "I don't even know why I'm telling you this."
His stepfather, Tomas Perez, was taking classes toward a general studies degree and working as a custodian at IU in 2001 when he realized he had enough credits to ride in the Little 500. He became one of the oldest riders in the race's history at age 35. Sasha, watching from the stands, was hooked. That summer he and his friends rode mountain bikes 2,500 miles from Canada to Mexico -- "One thing I was surprised by was how many cows there are in the woods" -- and rode from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. the next.
"If you can figure out how to fix a broken bike chain maybe you can figure out how to fix something else," Land says of the experience. "If you can put up with people in the middle of the woods for a couple months, maybe you can get along with someone else some other time. When you can figure out how to collaborate as a group and achieve success, you can apply that to other things."
Land certainly has, working hard to overcome the dyslexia, enter IU and become a 3.8-GPA student majoring in special education.
"If somebody told me that one day I'd be doing the things I'm doing now, I would honestly not believe it,' he says. "And it isn't just that I would not believe it, I would VEHEMENTLY not believe it. I certainly didn't see myself as a university candidate. That was so far outside of my world."
And now here he is, a top student, a future teacher and a Little 500 all-star rider and champion. "I've really savored the experience."
As his mother, Susan, holds back tears of joy and his younger brother, Anthony, talks of riding in the race when he attends IU, I can't think of a better ending to Little 500 weekend. Amazing how far you can go on a bike, even while riding in circles in a single gear.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.