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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Ticket #13: Little 500 still 'breaking away'

This is the 13th in a series of 18 stories examining the best events an Indiana sports fan would want to see over a lifetime.

It's time to think about Indiana's Little 500 bike race, which means it's time to think about the greatest Little 500 movie ever made, “Breaking Away,” which gave us this life lesson — Lie and get the girl; tell the truth and lose the girl.

OK, there was more to the Academy Award winner than that. A Bloomington bike rider pretends he's Italian and shows all those cocky, arrogant Indiana University riders who the real cycling stud is by leading his newly formed Cutters team to Little 500 victory over the favored fraternity squads.

That was back in 1979, when disco was king, and all the cool guys wore bell bottoms and platform shoes, and danced like John Travolta.

Some guys – and we won't name names – still do.

Anyway, the Little 500 is still going strong, arriving every April at IU's Armstrong Stadium and featuring a men's and women's race around a black cinder track that can cause nasty abrasions if you crash and fall.

The Little 500 began in 1950 when Howard “Howdy” Wilcox, then executive director of the IU Student Foundation, saw a small bike race around a campus dormitory. The spectators got into it and Howdy (it was a popular nickname back then) figured it would make a great all-campus event and fundraiser. He decided to pattern it after the Indy 500, billed as the greatest spectacle in auto racing, which his father had won in 1919. So in 1951 the bike race began, and the IU Student Foundation has used it to raise money for scholarships ever since.

There are 33 four-rider teams. Each team has to qualify for the 50-mile race, which consists of 200 laps around a quarter-mile track.

Only Little 500 bikes — which don't have gears or toe clips or hand brakes — are allowed. Riders have to be students with at least a 2.0 grade-point average. Oh, yes, they have to be amateurs.

The amateur rule sometimes generates controversy because some good riders participate and the line between pro and amateur has blurred. Yes, in this race, as in college sports in general, competitive nature can mean pushing to the do-the-right-thing line, and then a little further.

A Cutters team is still around and dominates the race, having won a record five straight times. Last spring's win was fueled by Eric Young, whose ride with a pro team earlier in the year sparked controversy about his amateur status.

Here's a final history note: The best-known actor in “Breaking Away” was Dennis Quaid, who later married actress Meg Ryan, who eventually divorced Quaid and now hangs out with rock singer John Mellencamp, who used to be known as John Cougar, and who lives in Bloomington and rides motorcycles around town, but not at Armstrong Stadium, when he's not performing.

How's that for cool?