As Hollywood debuts go, mine was inauspicious. I was seven years old in the fall of 1978 when Twentieth Century Fox sent a crew to my hometown, Bloomington, Ind., to shoot what we were told was "a bicycle movie." The studio vowed to make a donation to Indiana University if locals filled the stands for the climax, a staged version of the Little 500 bike race. My parents deemed it a civic obligation that we attend, and I have memories of frittering away the better part of a weekend on the wooden bleachers of the 10th Street Stadium.
I was crestfallen when Breaking Away came out the following year and—having boasted that I would be featured in the movie—I was an unidentifiable celluloid speck in a crowd scene. Breaking Away, however, was an endearing film about four floundering Bloomingtonians who, as one hokey reviewer put it, "discover cycling and, in turn, themselves." One of the townies, Italy-obsessed Dave Stoller, became my idol. He might not have been able to shoot the J, usually a prereq for athletic stature in Indiana, but man, did he ride like the wind. On my Schwinn I'd imagine I was Dave as he outpaced Team Cinzano or overcame injury to take the Little 500 checkered flag.
After the movie everyone in town was locomoting on two wheels. The playwright Stewart Parker wrote, "The bicycle hides nothing and threatens nothing. It is what it does. Its form is its function." That makes it the ideal conveyance in Indiana, where natives shun pretense and consider self-sufficiency a cardinal virtue. And despite the perception that the entire state is board-game flat, southern Indiana is downright hilly. Atop your bike it's easy to pretend you're on the bluffs of Tuscany or Provence.
The Little 500 cements the state's love affair with cycling. On the last Saturday in April, 33 teams of Indiana under-grads orbit a 400-meter track on single-speed Mongoose bikes for 200 laps. The mix of self-reliance and cooperation-rules stipulate that teams must change riders a minimum of 10 times—is pure Indiana, where the individual and the community are valued in equal measure.
With a nod to the car race an hour up the road in Indy, the Little 500 begins with the announcement: "Gentlemen, mount your Mongoose bicycles." After that, it's a deadly serious affair suffused with drama. A nasty wreck inevitably mars the first few laps. Time and again the race is decided by less time than it took to read this sentence. In 1992 Demetri Hubbard, a lad I grew up with, was the top rider on campus. A member of a quartet called the Cutters (the name of the all-townie team in Breaking Away), he put pedal to mettle and like a real-life Stoller won the race for his team.
Thanks to the movie the country's best teenage cyclists began enrolling at IU. In 1982 the Little 500 became a nationally televised event and the centerpiece of what was dubbed the World's Greatest College Weekend, a 72-hour party that saw Bloomington transformed into the Heartland version of Babylon. In the early 1980s the university razed the 10th Street Stadium and built a shiny new venue to accommodate turnouts of 30,000.
Indiana doesn't do institutional change well. In 1997 the popular single-class high school basketball tournament—depicted in Hoosiers, the second-best sports movie the state has inspired—was scrapped in favor of a multiclass format that has siphoned soul and revenue from the event. The clumsy IRL/CART schism has robbed the Indy 500 of prestige. And a few years ago, seeking to return the Little 500 to its grassroots origins, organizers foolishly banned Level I and II (read: hard-core) student-cyclists. Coupled with community efforts to dial back the attendant bacchanalia, the race's appeal has been neutered, and recent crowds have thinned.
But the Little 500 is 54 years old—trivia: Dick Enberg, then an IU student, handled the first radio broadcast of the race—and it will survive just fine. Indiana, after all, is cycling country. Plus, if Dave Stoller taught us anything, it's that when you get knocked off your mount, you climb back on and keep going.