Phi Kappa Psi junior Albert La Valle had every intention of being on the bike until the end.
He got off the bike at around lap 183 with roughly 70 laps already completed. At that point, he was close to exhaustion but knew his team needed one more set.
La Valle got back on the bike at lap 196 and wanted to be the one to get his team to lap 200.
That was until lap 198 hit.
He could feel it in his legs and tapped on his helmet to signal to his team that he needed to come in for an exchange.
Despite being roughly seven seconds ahead of the men’s Little 500 field heading into the exchange, it proved to be a risk that may have prevented the team from hoisting the Borg-Warner Trophy for the first time since 1978.
“It’s easy after the fact to look at it and be like ‘Wow, they shouldn’t have done that,’” La Valle said. “You don’t race the race we did to get eighth, but we recognize it was sort of a go for broke type of deal.”
The game plan for Phi Kappa Psi was to try to get other teams to react. There were about 10 to 12 teams throughout the race that had a shot to stay in the hunt until the final sets.
Instead of staying in the pack and waiting for a sprint at the finish, Phi Kappa Psi decided to separate itself at lap 175. It also gave them the opportunity to stay away from some of the teams that might cause trouble with wrecks.
On lap 185, Phi Kappa Psi had close to a 10-second advantage on Black Key Bulls, the team at the time which was in second place. When Cutters senior Noble Guyon and Black Key Bulls senior Xavier Martinez got on the bike at lap 195, Phi Kappa Psi still had the lead.
“We always knew it was a risk, going off the front was a risk,” La Valle said.
Once La Valle signaled for the exchange, Phi Kappa Psi coach Dan Gaz had 30 seconds to decide.
Since two of Gaz’s other riders had recently completed sets, the freshest legs on the team was Albert La Valle’s rookie brother, Andrew La Valle.
“Was it the smartest choice?” Gaz asked. “There’s no way to tell.”
When Andrew La Valle was given the bike on the exchange, his first thought was he had to get the bike up to speed. To him, it felt like slow motion.
Andrew La Valle said he heard Martinez yell “inside Phi Psi,” and that’s when he realized the gap was already gone. He couldn’t get up to speed fast enough and was already getting passed by multiple riders from other teams.
“Putting me on the bike was probably not our best move,” Andrew La Valle said. “One of my teammates, Eric Mercker, is a little bit better at getting the bike up to speed, so in hindsight we should’ve put him on the bike, but he was gassed.”
Phi Kappa Psi finished eighth, one spot better than its finish from last year.
No one knows what would’ve happened if Albert La Valle remained on the bike or if a different rider was used in the exchange. It’s a decision they’ll constantly reflect on heading into the 2020 men’s Little 500 with every rider returning.
“It’s hard to say if I regret it, it’s just the decision I made,” Gaz said. “There’s not much we can do now. It’s been a tough couple of days just reliving that in my mind and wondering what I could’ve done better as a coach just to put them in a better position to win.”
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