Fifty Miles to Go
It was May 1965. The Vietnam war was heating up, but as college students, we had other pressing matters to deal with. It was time for the Indiana University “Little 500” cycling race between fraternities and other groups of young men. It was modeled after the Indianapolis 500 car race, but this version was fifty miles, or two-hundred trips, around an oval track.
The fat-tire bikes had one gear, and pedal brakes on a simple bulky metal frame. They wore leather helmets with slits for ventilation—no crash-proof helmets in those days.
Since the race began in the early nineteen-fifties, fraternities usually won, but in the early sixties, “independent” teams from dormitories and students who lived off-campus achieved several wins. My fiance, Kip, rode for Carven’s A, an independent team. He had joined a fraternity, but hazing and time taken away from his pre-med studies made him quit. Instead of fancy uniforms printed with the team name, or special bike shoes, like the fraternities, his team wore plain t-shirts, gym shorts, and tennis shoes. One team member was so short that they strapped three pairs of flip-flops on his shoes to help him reach the pedals.
They trained after class and on the weekends, riding many miles over the hilly, curvy, back-country roads of Brown County, Indiana. Unlike fraternities, they rode without a “sag wagon” with food, drinks, and extra bikes. If they fell and got cuts and bruises, they had to patch themselves up.
When my guy showed up one day after riding, he had a cut on his head, and his knee was bruised and bleeding. Just “par for the course,” he would say.
After the qualification event, Craven’s A placed thirty-two out of thirty-three teams. The benefit of being at the corner of the oval track was less crowding when they made the bike exchanges in front of their team’s spot.
On the day of the race, I was nervous and excited as I watched Kip riding around the track. I tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t look at me as he concentrated on the bikes surrounding him during his warm-up laps.
When the checkered flag dropped, and the riders took off, several of the bikes collided and crashed. Bodies were strewn over the cinder track. Thankfully, my guy was not involved, but my heart was in my throat as I watched.
After about ten laps, Kip made an exchange where he had to hand off the bike to another rider who waited on the track with outstretched arms. When they were side by side, he jumped off and ran with the bike while the other rider grabbed the handlebar and jumped on. I watched in horror as another team’s exchange ended with both riders on the ground, and they had had to be carried off the track.
Around the oval, the riders flew past me. They were sweating and panting and covered with black dust from the cinder-covered track. Their heads were bent low over the handlebars.
After an exchange, the exhausted riders collapsed onto a mattress at the side of the track. Their supporters cheered, waved flags, and jumped up and down on the wooden bleachers behind the team when a rider returned to the “pit.”
Whenever our team passed, our small crowd yelled encouragement. When the race was half completed, it was apparent Craven’s A was nowhere near the front of the pack, but they kept riding furiously with passion.
I watched proudly as my guy pedaled with long, muscular, tanned legs. His leather helmet was wet with sweat, and his face covered in black ash, as he bent over the handlebars with exhaustion. When he fell, I gasped and winced as other bikes sped around him. But he got up, ran with the bike, hopped back on, and continued the race.
Afterward, the winning team shared a bottle of milk, which they drank and poured over each other That evening, Bob Hope was a special guest, as well as the Association, a popular rock group at the time, who entertained us with songs we knew by heart: “Wendy,” “Cherish,” and “Never My Love.”
Kip’s team finished near the back of the pack. When the race was over, I finally got a glance and a shy smile from the man I would eventually be married to for fifty-four years. After only three years of undergrad studies, he went to medical school, became an M.D. in 1969, and practiced emergency medicine for thirty-five years, saving lives, and setting broken bones as well as reassuring patients during trauma and medical emergencies.
For years when he was younger, he would ride fifty to one-hundred miles at a time on his road bike near our home in Southern Idaho. Now, with too much traffic and an aging body, his biking days are over. The only pedaling he does is at the health club or home on a stationary bike.
The memories of those sunny days of the Indiana University Little 500 Bike race still remind me of our youth, energy, and excitement of rooting for my guy and a team in next-to-the-last place. It also reminds me of the glow I felt watching him ride that fat-tire bike on the cinder track with his buzz-cut hair and his tanned, muscular body.