Senior Brooke Hannon sits in the bleachers surrounding the Little 500 track at Bill Armstrong Stadium. Sweating and out of breath, she’s just peddled around 20 laps of a practice race, going through strategy with her team, Melanzana, in preparation for the Women’s Little 500 race on April 20.
On the surface, she looks like any other cyclist on the field. She’s clad head to toe in colorful cycling attire, her hair stuffed into her helmet and her eyes hidden by a visor blocking the sun.
But Hannon isn’t just any other faceless rider chasing this year’s Little 500 crown.
To say Hannon is fast is like saying the universe is big or fire is hot. It’s an understatement.
In fact, nobody has been quite as fast as her in almost ten years.
During Little 500 Individual Time Trials on March 28, Hannon recorded a time of 2:33.083, breaking the previous women’s record of 2:34.00 set by Kristi Hewitt in 2009.
While one of her fellow riders, Rachel Brown of Kappa Alpha Theta, also broke the record this year, Hannon still came away on top. She said it all came down to the last couple of laps of her trial, where she said she’s figured out how to fight through what she calls “the wall.”
“There’s always this transition from lap three and lap four where after lap three, you just hit the wall,” Hannon said. “When you hit the wall, you have two choices. You either burst through it or you let it smack you in the face. I don’t think I really implemented that in my past trials but this time I just mentally chose to break through.”
With ITTs out of the way, there’s still one more step remaining for Hannon and that’s the race itself. Melanzana will start 23rd at this year’s Little 500 after a crash at Qualifications sent the team near the back of the pack. However, a setback such as that shouldn’t be too difficult to conquer for the fifth-year senior, whose career has been full of bumps along the way.
There was a point in time Hannon didn’t even know the Little 500 existed, despite living in Bloomington for about 12 years prior to attending IU.
Once a volleyball player at Bloomington High School North, Hannon’s life revolved around training and working her way to possibly playing intercollegiate volleyball, leaving no time for any other sports or interests.
However, her dream of continuing her volleyball career fell through during her senior year after she was not accepted to the school she had originally planned on playing at. She had to scramble and eventually decided to attend IU for academic reasons, not knowing which direction, if any direction at all, her athletic career might go next.
That all changed during the spring semester of her freshman year when a group of friends asked if she wanted to join them in attending the 2014 Women’s Little 500 race. At first she turned them down. It didn’t seem enjoyable to her at the time.
“They asked me if I wanted to go and I said, 'No, that just sounds stupid,'” Hannon said. “I thought people riding bikes just sounded weird.”
Yet her friends came back and asked her to go again, this time to the men's race. She finally caved and from there she was hooked.
Hannon’s tone changed when she recounted her first Little 500 experience. She perked up and her eyes lit up. Just the thought of that first race forced an excited smile across her face.
She can recount little detail from the Black Key Bulls’ victory that year, such as the late-race strategy the team used to the finish that ended in a monstrous wreck. It was all part of the experience.
She had caught the cycling fever and there was no cure.
“I was sitting in the bleachers of turn three and I was just glued. I couldn’t take my eyes off the racers,” Hannon said. “After watching that first race in 2014, I just immediately decided cycling was my new sport. I put down the volleyball and picked up a bike literally the next week.”
Hannon’s first ride was with the Christian Student Fellowship’s team during her sophomore year. She caught on quick and CSF did well, finishing sixth in 2015 despite Hannon being involved in a wreck during lap 98 of the race. She still has a scar on her forearm as a memento.
But it was going to take more than a hard tumble to keep Hannon away from her new obsession. That was just the start.
“I fell and what went through my head in the next 45 seconds was 'OK, I can move and I looked over and nobody was running at me so I must be fine,'" Hannon said. "In my opinion, if you don’t get up and get back on the bike, it’s just not going to happen for you.”
What followed was a string of victories in street sprint races and eventually a ninth-place finish for CSF in the 2016 Little 500 race. She was getting better with every race and was quietly becoming one of the most dangerous riders in the women’s field.
Eventually, she left the CSF team and switched to Melanzana for her senior year in 2017. Due to a Little 500 rule, riders that change teams have to sit out a year of competition. Therefore, Hannon sat out the 2017 race and focused on school and, of course, her training in preparation of one last hurrah for her fifth year.
“During that year off, I just focused on bettering my endurance,” Hannon said. “I found out pretty early in my career that I was good at sprinting. My coach just told me in my year off I needed to find something I wasn’t as good at it and get better at it.”
Hannon sits on the bleachers as many different things. She’s someone who has seen their dreams fall through after her volleyball career never made it past high school.
She’s an ultra-competitor who needed just one taste of the Little 500 to find her new passion. Now, she’s a record-breaker just a few years after taking up the sport.
But there’s still one thing missing from that list — Little 500 champion.
The thought brings another infectious smile to her face.
The scars and scrapes up and down her arms and legs — remnants of numerous wrecks along the way — tell a number of stories, each just another step of her cycling journey. At practice, her shouts of encouragement ring out above the rest of her competitors. Riders from other teams cheer her on as she rides past.
Everybody knows Brooke Hannon. She has nothing left to prove.
But a title would sure be nice.
“We’re going to try our best and that’s all we can do,” Hannon said. “In all honesty, if we win I will cry and if we lose I will cry. In my personal career, winning would be the culmination of everything I’ve experienced in Little 500, but if we don’t, we’ve just learned so many life lessons so I’ll be ok either way.”
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