Delta Gamma’s bike team treaded over blades of grass covering the Bill Armstrong Stadium infield, approaching the blackened cinders of the race track March 25, 2017. Four teammates were determined to qualify for the 30th running of the women’s Little 500.
The loudspeakers overhead instructed the starting rider to take the track. After mounting the Schwinn bicycle and pacing through the first three turns to reach top speed, Delta Gamma sprinted through the start line as the clock began.
Each rider raced once around the track. With seemingly little effort, Delta Gamma passed the bike from one teammate to the next, minimizing lost time.
Tension and urgency began to set in as they had the straights and curves to themselves, racing against the clock to solidify their position within the annual bike race. When the final member crossed the finish line, all eyes turned to the eastern scoreboard.
Delta Gamma completed the fastest qualifications performance in women’s race history, ending in a time of 2:33.308. Together, the team screamed and rejoiced in its own success.
For then-senior Kristen Bignal, it was a moment she shared with not only her teammates, but also her younger sister, Laurie Bignal.
“Qualifications in 2017 was my best memory from Little 500 races. Ever,” Kristen Bignal said. “It overpowers everything, and it mostly has to do with having Laurie on the team.”
After four years as a rider, Kristen Bignal has the Little 500 to thank for shaping her college experience and strengthening the bond with her sister. Before she immersed herself in the tradition of collegiate biking in Bloomington, she had no prior knowledge that the race existed.
Kristen Bignal graduated from Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana, in 2013 where she played varsity soccer.
She decided to leave soccer behind for a Big Ten college experience at IU, where she joined her sister, Julie-Anne.
“I knew IU was such a great school,” Kristen Bignal said. “I thought about playing soccer in college, but then after I realized that I wasn’t going to do that, I just thought IU was a good fit for me. I didn’t look elsewhere after that.”
Eager to get involved, the freshman gravitated towards sorority recruitment in January that year. However, she was skeptical about joining.
“I don’t know if it’s for me. Maybe I’ll try it,” Kristen Bignal said she thought to herself that spring semester.
In the late stages of recruitment, she gazed at the students alongside her and came to the realization that Delta Gamma would be a perfect fit.
“I just felt really comfortable there,” Kristen Bignal said. “It felt like somewhere that I would want to spend the next four years.”
The decision came without knowing the sorority’s rich cycling history. Kristen Bignal had yet to understand the sport’s importance until she received an email from then-sophomore Madison Stacey, the captain of Delta Gamma’s bike team.
Delta Gamma won back-to-back Little 500 races in 2012 and 2013. Stacey needed riders to join her for the upcoming season, since graduation depleted the previous roster. The sophomore had never even raced herself.
This presented Kristen Bignal with an opportunity to continue athletics. It would be the opportunity that shaped her entire collegiate career.
“I didn’t understand really what that meant,” Kristen Bignal said. “I didn’t know how much training and how much time and effort that it took to participate in this race and to continue it year after year. I had no clue.”
She attended meetings with Stacey and a group of freshmen, while the extent of her knowledge was that the team “won the big bike race” the last two years.
Once the team was formed, they attended Rookie Week, where the Little 500 Riders Council — comprised of veteran riders — offered its guidance. At the track, Kristen Bignal met Emma Caughlin of Teter, who became someone she looked up to as a young cyclist.
Kristen Bignal recalled seeing the cinder track for the very first time. Bill Armstrong Stadium’s track was unlike anything she had ever seen before.
After the Spring Series, Delta Gamma’s riders competed in their first Little 500, finishing 11th out of 33 teams. Their goal for the race was to perform to the best of their abilities, no matter the outcome.
“We just wanted to do as best as we could and plant the seed for our team so we had room to grow, to get better and to improve,” Kristen Bignal said.
The following year, every member returned to train in the fall, sometimes riding upwards of 50 miles on bike trails or on the Bloomington streets. Kristen Bignal has vivid memories of riding hill repeats on the causeway at Lake Monroe, riding up one side and down the other, over and over again during the scorching summer months.
In the spring, the riders spent most of their time riding around the track preparing for race day once again. The seed they planted continued to grow as they notched another year of experience on their belts.
This time, Delta Gamma finished fifth in the race.
By the start of 2016, Kristen Bignal was entering her junior year with experience in two Little 500 races. A group of two seniors and two juniors made up the team, while new members were being groomed for future races.
Three freshmen joined Delta Gamma in the spring with interest in riding. Hanna Coppens, Audrey Morlan and Kristen Bignal’s sister.
“If she wanted to follow the same route I did,” Kristen Bignal said. “I wanted her to do it because she really, truly wanted it for herself.”
The sisters were best friends, doing everything with one another when the time provided. As an athlete, Kristen Bignal now had to balance being a sibling and a teammate to her sister. She wanted Laurie Bignal to be a talented rider, but couldn’t force her to give effort during training.
Laurie Bignal did all of that on her own, despite not riding with the team in the 2016 Little 500. Delta Gamma finished second with a razor-thin line separating themselves and the winning team, Phoenix. They lost by just five-hundredths of a second.
Kristen Bignal was unable to hold off the competition and now had only one more chance to cross the finish line in first place.
In the spring of 2017, Delta Gamma’s seniors were Kristen Bignal and Sarah Rivich. They were tasked with selecting two of the three riders that were rookies the year before. A group that included Laurie Bignal.
“I’m sure it was really hard because I know she loved me being on the team,” Laurie Bignal said. “She showed that it would be difficult to make that decision and that she couldn’t have a bias towards me through training.”
As a sophomore, Laurie Bignal still didn’t fully understand the time and dedication it took to be a proficient biker. When she wasn’t feeling her best, Kristen Bignal would give her a sharp stare, which meant “if you want to make the team, you ride.”
The sister-to-sister connection strengthened Laurie Bignal and allowed Kristen Bignal to confidently say her sister made the team.
Laurie Bignal was the first to mount the bike March 25, 2017, when Delta Gamma took the track for its qualifying run. She would exchange to her older sister to continue the trial that ended in a new woman’s record. Both said their favorite memory of the Little 500 was being able to share that moment together.
Kristen Bignal witnessed her sister’s growth as a rider, culminating in a Team Pursuit victory April 9, 2017. It was the last of the Spring Series events before teams gathered for the race.
Teams need a minimum of three members to finish Team Pursuit, enabling Laurie Bignal to fall behind if the pace was too quick. Delta Gamma eventually advanced to the final heat to race against Kappa Alpha Theta.
For 12 laps, Delta Gamma and Kappa Alpha Theta pedaled as fast as they could to determine a winner. Rather than falling behind against one of the strongest teams in the field, Laurie Bignal rode through the pain pulsing in her legs and finished right behind her team.
Delta Gamma edged Kappa Alpha Theta by one second as Kristen Bignal led the team through the finish line. When she looked back, not only were Rivich and Coppens gliding behind her, but so was Laurie Bignal.
“Seeing her develop as a rider made me so proud of her,” Kristen Bignal said. “I just remember that being one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. It was such a proud moment knowing all four of us, including my sister, held on and beat them that day.”
The conclusion of Kristen Bignal’s racing career was all that lay ahead for Delta Gamma: One more Little 500 before she graduated from IU.
The team took the track wearing green uniforms, signifying the field’s pole position as a result of its record-breaking qualifications time. It was cloudy, but the cinders were dry, contributing to an optimal race day.
For approximately one hour, every team scrapped for positioning. Five teams would finish the race on the lead lap, including Delta Gamma.
As a senior, Kristen Bignal made her presence felt on the track and in the pit throughout the race. She kept her team in contention when she circled the track, but also motivated her teammates before they raced themselves.
Delta Gamma was lagging behind late in the race, trailing both Kappa Alpha Theta and Alpha Omicron Pi. Coppens was getting ready for one of her final sets in her first Little 500. Before Coppens was in position for an exchange, Kristen Bignal took her face in both hands, exclaiming she could bring the team closer to victory.
“Hanna, you can do this, you’re so strong,” Kristen Bignal said to Coppens. “We need you right now.”
Coppens recalled that it was a moment that encapsulated all their preparations for that race.
“I was so ready,” Coppens said. “It was one of those moments where we’ve put all this work in and she really believes in me. She knew exactly what to say in that moment.”
On the 98th lap, Kappa Alpha Theta accelerated ahead of Alpha Omicron Pi after an exchange, leaving Delta Gamma too far for contention after the checkered flag waved.
Delta Gamma crossed the finish line to take third place in Kristen Bignal’s final race. The first person she approached was her younger sister as she came to the realization that this, in fact, was the end.
When Laurie Bignal remembered that instant, emotions flooded back to her, tears rolling down her face. She said Kristen Bignal sobbed into her shoulder at the conclusion of the race. The warm embrace of her sibling was all she could obtain that day.
“It always makes me cry, even though I’m not even sad,” Laurie Bignal said. “Probably just the worst memory, she came into my arms and me and her just hugged. I was not sad for myself, I just felt so bad for her because she rode four years and never won.”
For someone who has experienced record-breaking success, Kristen Bignal said it’s frustrating to lose and she wishes she had hoisted the Borg Warner trophy as a victor. However, her riding experience has defined who she is.
She often reflects on what it would have been like to pedal just a bit faster as a junior, or if she didn’t allow Kappa Alpha Theta to break away as a senior. In the end, she wouldn’t change the past.
“I wouldn’t change it because what I’ve gained from the Little 500 is priceless compared to a victory,” Kristen Bignal said. “Now that I am a few years out, I realize it’s way bigger than just a first-place finish.”
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