In Bloomington, students fondly refer to the Little 500 bike race as "the world's greatest college weekend." For many, that title has come to refer at least as much to the culture of partying that surrounds the event (which for many lasts an entire week) as it has the race itself.
But Jim Kirkham, coach of the Cutters men's cycling team, sees it differently. "There are two worlds. There's the bike race where people are actually doing something. And then there's the partying," he says.
Kirkham, an emergency room nurse at Bloomington Hospital, has been coaching the team since 1997. "The university likes to pretend it's an intramural event," Kirkham notes, "but in reality people spend a lot of time trying to win it."
That is, people like Kirkham and his team of riders, who officially began training for the race in October.
Going for three in a row
The Cutters take their name from the townie team that beats the frats in Breaking Away
, the 1979 film about the race. They are one of the few "independent" (neither fraternities nor residence halls) teams to compete in the event. With eight championships since 1984, the year they formed their own team after being kicked out of Delta Chi fraternity, and the most for any team in the race's 58-year history, the Cutters are consistently some of the toughest competitors on the track. (See sidebar for highlights of this year's competition.)
Having won the 2007 and 2008 races, the team is now hoping to become the first since 1981 to win three years in a row, when the race moved to Bill Armstrong stadium.
Kirkham seems guardedly optimistic about the prospect. "It's a hard race to win," he says, adding that it was "almost unfortunate" to have won the past two years in a row since a three-peat victory "never happens."
But the team has reason to be hopeful. They placed a close third at this year's qualifications and they have the fastest rider on the track, sophomore Eric Young, who won the individual qualifications.
And, according to Kirkham, the team has certainly put in enough effort to win: "They've worked so hard, I have to think that's going to pay off for them."
Training on country roads
On the Saturday two weeks before the race, Kirkham takes the team out to the Martinsville countryside to practice drafting for the first time. The guys cycle directly behind Kirkham as he drives his car, which reduces wind resistance and forces them to pedal faster. This exercise prepares them for the type of increased leg speed they will need on race day.
Since the speedometer on Kirkham's 1992 Honda Civic is broken, he has to listen to the sound of the engine and the shouts of the riders to gauge his speed.
This proves not to be a problem. As the guys pedal through sprawling Southern Indiana farmlands, their voices funnel into the car through the open hatchback. They call out warnings about cars (which are infrequent) and road kill (which is not).
Senior Clayton Feldman, who was part of last year's winning team and is the "de-facto" group leader, walks the newer guys through the ins and outs of drafting.
Tensions often mount this close to a race, Kirkham warns, and this is reflected in the occasionally terse exchanges behind the car. But by the end of their second loop along narrow country roads, the guys are singing. Feldman, whose nickname is "Jabberjaw" (and alternately "Side Show Bob"), even recites a scene from Breaking Away
Though the team is quick to disassociate itself from the Cutters in the film, Kirkham notes it does have a psychological impact. "We watch that movie and at the end we win. Other teams watch that movie and at the end we win."
He adds that he has traveled widely in his "Cutters" T-shirt and it often evokes an emotional response from people about "overcoming adversity and fighting authority."
"It connects with people more than the bike race itself," he says.
The team's history, too, with its much-storied (and, according to Kirkham, often overblown) rivalries with the fraternities, is a source of motivation.
It might be easy then for the guys to get overly confident. "They have really high expectations," Kirkham says, expectations that he both understands and encourages but also tries to tamp down.
"I talk to them about losing a lot," he says, quickly adding, "But I know they can't help but think they're going to win."
If Kirkham's confidence in the team has wavered, it is largely because of their inexperience. Three of the five members of this year's team are rookies and two are underclassmen.
Pitfalls of the party scene
The level of commitment required of Cutters riders can be difficult - so much so that, usually by second semester, the team has dwindled to about half the group of guys who came out in the fall. "They spend hours and hours and sacrifice a lot of social time," Kirkham says.
Add youth and inexperience to that stress and it can get really difficult, as freshman Michael Schroeder can attest.
Schroeder, a Brebeuf Jesuit Prepatory School graduate, came to IU last fall with a bit of cycling experience and thinking he might want to try to ride in the Little 500. A friend introduced him to the Cutters and Schroeder decided to join the team simply because they would have him. He was not immediately sure he made the right choice.
The first time he hung out with the Cutters, it was a weeknight and one guy showed up with a backpack full of beer. Schroeder remembers wondering what he had gotten himself into. "I came to [IU] wanting to really, really focus on school," he says.
Schroeder, who is majoring in math and economics, has managed to avoid the pitfalls of the party scene well enough. On paper he had a wonderful first semester. "I was on what was supposed to be the best team for Little Five. I managed a 4.0," he notes.
But he wasn't happy. "First semester sucked," he says. He slept about four hours each night, was sick all the time, riding practice felt more like an obligation than a hobby and he was not enjoying school. "I wasn't enjoying anything here."
By winter break he said he was burnt out and exhausted. But he also finally had some time to breathe and began to figure out what had gone wrong first semester.
"I'm a pretty intelligent person," he says. "I didn't want to waste my opportunity here [at IU]. I didn't want to waste my opportunity with Little Five, either."
So in a characteristically systematic approach, Schroeder says he began to "work on things one at a time" in order to ensure a better experience second semester.
His goals did not change, but his perspective did. "I was doing it for the wrong reason first semester."
He explained that he had come to college wanting to become "a completely different person all at once" and had looked at it "purely from a perspective of how do other people view me and how do I want other people to perceive me."
Since that didn't work, he took a new approach. "I've tried to maintain more of a focus on what I actually want to do," he says.
In the spring he enrolled in fewer credit hours and for a while he almost went too far in the other direction and "got kind of lazy," but in the last few weeks he has finally struck a balance.
"I have made huge leaps and bounds in the past couple of weeks," Schroeder admits.
This transformation has not gone unnoticed by Kirkham, who after a decade of coaching says he has gotten pretty good at reading energy changes in his riders.
Though Schroeder may not have the natural physical gifts some of the best riders have, Kirkham is confident that if he keeps riding he will have an impact because of his persistent and methodical personality. "He will dominate," Kirkham says.
Comments like that give Schroeder and his teammates the sense that Kirkham understands exactly what's going on with everyone on the team. "He kinda pegs people," Schroeder explains.
But Kirkham largely leaves the team to itself.
"I'm never out of reach," he says, but he takes a kind of hands off approach to coaching.
He has not always coached this way. "I tried to take on that role of hard ass but it didn't work."
Kirkham was a Cutters rider himself all four years he was at IU (he was part of the team in 1992 that was the first since the new track was built to win the race by an entire lap). He took over the team in 1997, when after a few bad years they were in danger of folding because his old coaches were ready to hang it up and everyone had written the team off.
He says at first he tried to take on the persona of his old coach, but in 2004 he backed off a bit.
"It's their experience not mine," Kirkham remarks.
The team seems to relish their independence. "There's no sort of obligation," Schroeder says. "It's coming from the riders."
They rely on each other throughout the year. It was veteran rider Feldman who helped Schroeder the most with some of his adjustments. "He didn't always give me the answer I was looking for, but he gave me a helpful perspective," Schroeder says.
Despite all the anti-fraternity rhetoric used by Cutters fans and, to some extent, the team itself, Schroeder says the Cutters has "a very fraternal feel to it - I think more than a lot of the fraternities offer."
Going into Saturday's race, Schroeder is confident they will get that third win. His only concern is maintaining focus and motivation.
"The biggest thing as far being successful on the track is the right mindset," he explains. "No one's going to stop us from winning except for ourselves."
Coach Kirkham's assessment of this year's lineup
"Before every race we put together a list of teams to keep a close eye on during the race. This year's field is very even with no clear favorite to win. Qualifications (starting position) have very little correlation to race finish, because after five laps the strong teams are up front and the weaker teams have fallen off the back. Historically, previous finishes and spring track practice are the key points to watch when coming up with a list."
2009 race day list
Phi Gamma Delta ("Fiji"): a team with great history and strong alumni support. Team depth is their strength. They also have a good sprinter in David Ellis.
Best chance of winning: fast sprint finish
Black Key Bulls: a newer independent (non-Greek) team. They are very experienced in summer road racing. They have the strength to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Best chance of winning: breakaway solo
Phi Delta Theta: has a couple of experienced riders that are well coached by alumni of past winning teams. They have had some bad luck the last few races so they are due to have things come their way. They have some strong riders and a good sprinter.
Best chance of winning: either a small group sprint or breakaway with another team
Alpha Tau Omega: an experienced team that has had good results the last few years. They will be able to stay around to the finish and have the potential to mix it up at the end.
Best chance of winning: a small group sprint
Team Major Taylor: another independent team, with a great sprinter in Kenny Parks. He is the only rider in this year's race that has been in a sprint finish. If his team can get him to the end, then he has the experience to win.
Best chance of winning: fast group sprint
Phi Kappa Psi: another team with a great history but they have not won a race since 1978. They are getting really close to winning again. They are not afraid to ride hard and challenge others.
Best chance of winning: late race breakaway
Delta Upsilon: makes our list because they have an explosive sprinter who would be very competitive in a last lap battle. I would not expect to see much of them until the end of the race.
Best chance of winning: small group sprint
Acacia: a team that has historically challenged the Cutters. They have a few riders who know how to stay out of accidents and race hard at the end.
Best chance of winning: late race breakaway
Dodds House: This team is inexperienced but they seem to know to get to the end.
Best chance of winning: small group sprint.
Gray Goat Cycling: They are a new team to our list. They are very enthusiastic and full of spirit. If they shorten the learning curve and get to the end of the race then they will be fun to watch.
Best chance of winning: small group sprint