A movement has been churning among the women of Little 500 for some time now.
They started out on tricycles, racing in the “Mini 500.” In 1988, 37 years after the inaugural men’s Little 500, the women graduated to two wheels. Though they finally had a race of their own, things still weren’t equal.
Their 25-mile, 100-lap race is just half the length of the men’s competition.
One group of women is looking to change that. It won’t be easy.
The doubters say doubling the lap count will force some of the lower-tier teams out of the race, making the already small women’s riding community even smaller.
The women pushing for the change say progress can’t happen without a calculated leap of faith.
A petition to increase the women’s lap count to 200 began circulating through the cycling community Friday, but the conversation about equality began long before last weekend.
Melanzana Cycling alumna Brooke Hannon said most women who ride the Little 500 have thought about the lap disparity at some point.
“People talk about it every year,” she said. “You finish the race, you get off the bike and you're like, ‘I could probably do a hundred more.’”
There seems to be no real reason for the disparity. It was just a sign of the times when women started riding the Little 500 in the '80s.
“I definitely don't want people to think that the Student Foundation doesn't think women are capable of riding 200 laps,” Little 500 Race Director Andrea Balzano said. “The women's race has just always been 100 laps. That's just the way that it has been.”
Some women have been talking about reshaping the race for years. Others say they just accepted the difference.
Céline Oberholzer, senior and captain of cycling team RideOn, said she didn’t immediately realize anything was off.
“It's kind of silly because I did the race in 2017, and the thought never crossed my mind,” she said. “I just accepted it.”
After taking a year off from riding the Little 500 in 2018, Oberholzer said she started thinking about the imbalance more. She talked to a few other women about the idea on a long ride through Bloomington over the summer.
They later became the first group to do more than just talk about making the change.
“Initially, we were like, 'Let’s just stay and race for 200 laps,” Oberholzer said. “‘They can't pull us off the track.’”
After deciding there were likely better ways to propose the change, Oberholzer and the group put things in motion. They started a group chat called “Nasty Women.”
They quickly learned the process they were about to embark on would be harder than they thought.
The spectacle of Little 500, a fundraiser for scholarships drenched in Hoosier pride, sits peacefully on top of a restless governing body.
There are boards and councils, rulebooks and handbooks. There’s a multiple choice test for rookie riders.
Each year, that government tweaks rules. New this year: no one on the track can wear headphones on race day, and riders who don’t listen to medical advice could be disqualified.
Balzano, who has been race director since 2016, said she can’t remember a change as dramatic as doubling the women’s lap count ever being proposed.
The petition Oberholzer and her friends created is not part of the formal rule change process — it just measures public support. Tuesday morning, it had 375 signatures.
Those who wish to change a rule must first present their amendment to Riders Council, a board of seasoned student riders. The council will debate and then either pass or decline the amendment.
If passed by a two-thirds majority, the change will land in front of the Little 500 Rules Board. The board includes Little 500 volunteers, IU Student Foundation volunteers and a representative from the IU Foundation.
If a majority of the board moves to pass the rule, the change is recommended to the IU Student Foundation director, who holds ultimate veto power.
If the proposal to amend the rule for 2020 makes it past Riders Council, the "Nasty Women" will just have to sit back and wait.
Senior Hank Duncan is on Riders Council. He’s supports women racing 200 laps someday, but he’s worried this change could be coming too fast.
Duncan is concerned some women’s teams won’t participate in the race in the future if the lap count doubles. He said the gap between the competitive and more casual teams will widen even more with the extra 100 laps. Some teams just don’t know how to train for a 200-lap race. Others don’t have the resources.
“If you think about the Little Five community, the power it has diminishes as you have fewer teams in it,” he said.
Hannon, the Melanzana Cycling alumna, said the long-term benefits of doubling the lap count will outweigh short-term costs.
“We're not doing this for 2022 or 2020,” she said. “It’s for the women down the road. That will be a monumental day: when it's 33 teams and 200 laps.”
A main point Oberholzer said isn’t reflected in the petition is her group’s commitment to giving all women’s teams the resources to excel in a longer race.
Senior Hayley Kwasniewski, Independent Council rider and Riders Council member, has been working on a 200-lap implementation plan for a couple of months, but she’s toyed with the idea for years. She’s sketched out a manual for the one-year mark, five-year mark and 10-year mark.
Oberholzer is putting together a free training program for all women’s teams. She’s hoping this will address the concern that newer teams could struggle with the spike in laps.
“We're really being deliberate and thinking through everything,” she said. “The misunderstanding is that the only thing we're doing is changing the race.”
Oberholzer’s "Nasty Women" hope the women’s race will be 200 laps in 2020. The marketing would be perfect for IU’s bicentennial, she said. 200 laps for 200 years.
“If it doesn’t make it this year, then I would just encourage the women to try again next year,” Race Director Balzano said.
Though some riders say framing the 200-lap movement as a push for equality doesn’t give enough context to the potential harms it could cause the women’s race, Oberholzer disagrees.
“Our fundamental goal is women's rights," she said. "That is the bottom line. It's an outdated perception that women can only accomplish half as much as men.”