Two riders, 200 laps.
That was the task for Theta Chi in the men’s Little 500. The two riders, junior Matt Wiertel and senior Brett Knorr, who had never ridden in a Little 500 before, had to keep up with 22 other teams that all had more riders than them, many of which had a full four-member team, in order to complete the 50 mile race.
They didn’t quite make it.
When the red flag waved, marking the end of the Little 500, Theta Chi was on the 171st lap, 29 short of finishing. The 22nd place finishers, Novus Cycling, had rounded the track 13 more times.
But finishing was never the goal, Knorr and Wiertel knew it was unrealistic. The goal was to finish the warm up laps, to be a part of the 70th running of the Little 500 and to extend the life of Theta Chi cycling. And to beat the 2018 Theta Chi team.
“In 2018 Theta Chi had two riders again because of injury,” Wiertel said. “They had completed 161 laps, so our goal was to beat that mark. We were trying to get around 170 and at the very least beat that mark of 161.”
Theta Chi had a full four-rider team ready to go for the race. Then came the March 4 email telling riders the Little 500 would take place on Wednesday, May 26. Soon after, the riders started getting jobs and internships.
Knorr started to realize Theta Chi wouldn’t have a full team.
Theta Chi was just an example of casualties this year’s race faced due to the IU Student Foundation’s decision to run the race on a Wednesday. The normal 33-team field was reduced by ten and several teams, including fourth-place finishers Chi Alpha, raced with fewer than four riders.
“If the race was on a Saturday, we would've had a full team,” Knorr said.
But the race was on Wednesday, so Theta Chi took its two riders and set out to become a part of the tradition of the Little 500.
“If we didn’t have a team this year, who knows if we would’ve had a team next year,” Wiertel said. “It was big just that Theta Chi was able to have an official team riding this year so that hopefully we can keep the tradition going and keep a bike team.”
The view from the back of the pack is far from glamorous.
In fact, once you’re far enough back, race directors will guide riders to the outside if the pack is coming. Knorr and Wiertel, who spent more time on the bike than most riders — they rode 95 and 76 laps, respectively — found themselves guided to the outside plenty.
It didn’t take long for Theta Chi to fall behind the lead pack and off the lead lap, and with their 170 lap target, they needed any motivation they could find.
Their coach on race day, Kevin Robson, who just graduated, became the Theta Chi team cheerleader as much as their coach. Each time Knorr or Wiertel would come around, Robson would clap and cheer them on. But Robson was mainly there just to help on race day.
“Throughout most of the year Brett was pretty much our coach as a rider, which is a lot of why we decided to do it with two people,” Wiertel said. “Being a senior, he didn’t get to ride last year. I know I for sure wanted, even though it was just two of us, to come back and help Brett at least get one race in his career.”
Knorr first joined Theta Chi’s cycling team in his sophomore year. Knorr was slated to race before breaking his collarbone in an accident during training. His junior year was wiped out when the 2020 race was canceled due to COVID-19.
As a senior this year, despite running a shorthanded team, Knorr said he was just happy he and Wiertel made it to race day.
“At the end of the day I was super stoked just to get the chance to ride and compete,” Knorr said.
Wiertel started cycling during quarantine when Knorr reached out to him about joining the team. He had thought about joining the team his sophomore year before deciding against it, but Knorr pushed him to ride as a junior.
Wiertel will be tasked with taking over Theta Chi cycling as the only member who has rode in the Little 500.
Odds are that he’ll have a team with him to ride. Maybe the 2022 team will be the first Theta Chi team to finish in ten years.
But at least there will be a team to race.