Before arriving in Bloomington, some students fail to recognize that the influence cycling has to IU’s community and culture. At least until being amidst a sold-out Bill Armstrong Stadium for two races on an April weekend.
The annual Little 500 offers an opportunity for students with may have never ridden in a race before to participate in collegiate athletics. When the business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi and its members take to the track, it will be for the first time since 2006.
Its team has almost no biking experience, but the women thought that it would be a fun and exciting challenge.
Junior Ani Chalian attended the 2018 Little 500 to support two AKPsi fraternity brothers racing for the Christian Student Fellowship team. Accompanying Chalian was then-freshman Kenna Worcester, who was initiated into AKPsi that same spring.
A freshman member of AKPsi asked why their fraternity wasn’t contesting for the for 33-team field. Chalian had no answer, but by the end of the race, both she and Worcester no longer wanted to sit and watch from the stands.
“It was such an incredible energy that I hadn’t experienced anywhere else, that so many students were rallying around biking and this sport that I never even heard of before,” Worcester said. “Just watching everyone race, I just had to be a part of that.”
Hypothetical aspirations became legitimate discussions when the two began texting former high school athletes within the fraternity. In only a few weeks, sophomores Dana Walker and Emma Pappas committed to joining their friends in preparation for the 2019 Little 500.
“We were never worried that we weren’t going to have enough people to enter the race,” Chalian said. “I think it’s something so special at IU and so exciting that once people say they would do it, you kind of get sucked in.”
Now with four riders and almost no cumulative biking experience, their focus transitioned to building a foundation for their new team.
In true business fashion, they started an Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to record the logistics of their summer training. Walker said the summer was about making sure the team was familiar with their bikes and gaining comfortability with base miles.
Using a fitness app called Strava, the team logged every ride, tracking distance and miles per hour among other data.
All four members live in different cities over the summer, which made Strava essential for communication as well. With it, they could view and share each other’s outings and leave encouraging notes as they strived to hit weekly goals.
“We never rode together over the summer, but to hold each other accountable we had what we called our trainer tracker,” Walker said. “It was an Excel sheet that was kind of like a thermometer where we would put in our miles for the day and then it would fill up. We would reset it every week and reassess as we went.”
Their goals progressively became more difficult as they became acclimated to cycling in the summer heat. The final challenge for AKPsi involved each rider cycling 200 miles in two weeks before returning to Bloomington for the fall semester.
Earlier this school year Walker met Riders Council member Hayley Kwasniewski while looking for bicycle clips at the Revolution Bike and Bean on 10th Street. With insight on preparation and events leading up to the Little 500, she became a mentor to the team.
With Kwasniewski’s help, AKPsi registered for early-fulfillment requirements in the fall and competed against a mixture of rookies and veterans. On Oct. 9, Chalian placed first in Miss N Out while Walker took third in the Rookie Scratch race.
After training individually in the summer, AKPsi finally experienced its first team events in Bloomington in the fall.
“I’ve always loved good competition,” Pappas said. “Training is stressful, but when you actually get out there and compete, that’s when I started getting excited for Little 5.”
Pappas missed the Tuesday Night Race Series on Oct. 9 due to academic conflicts. With her schedule constantly looming over her, she feared the possibility of falling short of the mandatory requirements for the race.
The lone member still ineligible for the race returned to practice during Rookie Week which began February 11. During Pappas' second attempt to complete prerequisites, she wasn’t alone. Every member of AKPsi practiced during the spring semester in support of Pappas and for their own improvement.
“Knowing that we didn’t have any veterans on the team and that we were all still learning, we thought we could learn a lot from everybody else at the track,” Walker said.
The 17 hours of time at the track was cut to 15.5 due to unsafe weather conditions, allowing the last member – still void of eligibility – to complete her rookie requirements.
Through Rookie Week, the team witnessed every aspect of the biking community at IU. On rides around campus, other teams made simple efforts to wave or share smiles while training.
“In the end, you are all competing to win, but you’re all competing together," Walker said. "Everyone wants everyone else to succeed.”
With eligibility to contend for a spot in the 2019 Little 500, AKPsi set its first-year goals at a high level. First, they wanted to qualify for the race then finish among the top two-thirds of the qualifying teams.
Because of the members' training over the past year, they believe their goals are attainable. They want to establish themselves and get AKPsi excited for the Little 500, even after the original team graduates. If they fail to reach their goal, Walker said she won’t be disappointed, as long as they’ll still have a team next year.
In the final stretch of spring practices, Worcester said biking is mental. It’s a difficult sport for beginners and it takes a lot of practice. Even now she has nightmares about mistakes on the track. Her mind conjures the thought of drafting too close to another bike, causing a crash and falling to the pavement before jolting awake.
On March 23, AKPsi took the track as one of only 32 women’s teams competing at quals. They faulted their first attempt, but came back to log a time of 3:02.77 to place 19th on the day. Even with the smaller field, the team accomplished its first goal of the season. All that’s left is the race itself.
Even with the rookie nerves that linger within the members of AKPsi, they believe they’ve come a long way since last year when they fantasized racing themselves. After struggling to ride 10 miles at a time, then placing among the top-20 teams while qualifying, their fantasy became a reality.
“It’s incredible,” Worcester said. “Just from the ideation to now actually executing it, I don’t even recognize the people we were at the beginning. We’ve grown so much as people and as riders.”
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