Andrew La Valle remembers the crash.
He remembers feeling his bike disappear from under him. He remembers landing on the handlebars, trying to get back up and watching his lead slowly disappear.
La Valle was in control of the 2021 Little 500, guiding Phi Kappa Psi toward a victory they had long been hunting for.
He was about to lap the pack when a rider in front of him lost control of his bike, knocking into La Valle and causing him to crash.
La Valle can’t help but think back to it — how close he was to winning. He’s been thinking about winning for three years. He fell a lap short as a freshman. He didn’t get to race as a sophomore. As a junior, the crash may have cost him a victory.
Now, in year four, Phi Psi is sitting on the pole. La Valle is sick of seeing other people win.
He’s training for the 2022 race, trying to finally cross the finish line first. He only has one more shot to do it.
Three weeks before the 2022 Little 500, La Valle and his team are spending their Friday on the track at Bill Armstrong Stadium. Training has consumed most of their free time since the semester began.
La Valle, sophomore Kaleb Cooper and senior Carson Etnyre arrive at Bill Armstrong Stadium for a 90-minute practice. They push themselves through harder workouts and more pain than their competitors, Etnyre says. They aren’t there to have fun.
The past three years have hit hard for the team, but they know they can’t afford to get discouraged.
“If you come in thinking anything short of you’re gonna win, you probably won’t,” Etnyre says.
Phi Psi rides its bikes in a line on the track, with Cooper leading the pack and Etnyre behind him. La Valle, from the back, lets out a gleeful laugh. Other teams, practicing alongside Phi Psi on the track, move to the outside as Phi Psi flies past them.
Every day is a battle for La Valle and his teammates. When he’s struggling to finish the last few laps on his bike, La Valle thinks back to those last three years and how close Phi Psi has come. He pushes himself to do one more lap. It could be the difference between winning and losing.
As practice continues, La Valle pulls away from his teammates, who are no longer able to keep up with his pace. Neither are his competitors, even when they’re going for shorter bursts.
“He’s like no one you’ve ever seen train before,” Etnyre says. “He’ll sacrifice himself for three to four hours indoors. He’ll literally push himself to the extreme.”
La Valle only brings up the previous losses occasionally, picking his moments carefully when he wants to motivate his team.
On the track, he flies around turn four, trying to suppress the memories of 2021’s crash. His mouth hangs open, sucking in air. He pumps his legs, pushing himself past the other riders, toward somewhere he hasn’t been before.
La Valle was too fast.
He had pulled ahead of the pack during the 2021 Little 500. Slowly, he pulled away from teams Jetblach, Black Key Bulls and the rest of the field, extending his lead. Then, he caught back up with them for a second time, now nearly a lap ahead.
La Valle was riding an unbelievable turn on the bike. He started on lap 119 of 200 after his teammate crashed, 24 seconds behind the leaders.
Twenty-eight laps later, La Valle was still on the bike. He had not only given Phi Psi the lead, but had built it up to 32 seconds — a swing of nearly two laps. On the broadcast of the race, they called La Valle a workhorse.
On lap 147, the Jetblach rider went to make a passing move around turn four when his bike went out from under him, spilling into the inside part of the track. Three teams in front of La Valle avoided the bike. La Valle saw the crash, saw a chance to ride as fast as he could before the yellow flag and break away from everyone else for good.
His front wheel cleared the accident. But just as he thought he had made it into the clear, his back wheel clipped the other bike’s tire. La Valle and his bike fell sideways and he landed on his handlebars as another rider flipped over him.
La Valle hopped back up, trying to get on his bike and maintain the lead. He set his handlebars facing forward, but they had broken during the crash, and the front wheel hooked left. He angled his handlebars right to get his wheel facing forward, then made his way back to the pit. It took La Valle 16 seconds to get his bike moving forward again after he got up from the crash.
When he finally got back to the pit, three-quarters of the track away, he collapsed on the ground. The lead had nearly evaporated.
La Valle was furious, caught on the broadcast slamming his hands in the ground and waving toward where the accident happened. His coach, Dan Gaz, asked him if he was done riding for the day. Another coach was watching at home with his wife, who asked the coach why La Valle was throwing a fit like a child.
“I was being a little bit of a child,” La Valle said. He understands the humor of it now. “It was a lot of heat of the moment.”
If La Valle had been a quarter of a lap slower, he would have been far enough away from the crash to move around it. The bike’s handlebars wouldn't have been damaged. Phi Psi wouldn’t have lost its lead. By lap 200, La Valle had run out of energy and couldn’t keep up with four other teams on the last lap.
After the race, La Valle, covered in dirt, was fuming. He barely wanted to speak. All he could think was, “not again.”
La Valle could’ve finally chased away the ghosts that haunted his team since 2019, the last Little 500 more than two years ago, when a last-lap rider change cost his team a victory.
In 2019 it was older brother Albert La Valle on the bike. On lap 199 with victory in sight, Albert, then a senior, ran out of steam. He tapped his helmet, signaling to his coach he needed a change. Phi Psi had a 7.9 second lead, with a lap to go, and was making a switch.
“Looking back at the thought process in that moment, it all happened very fast,” Albert said.
Gaz, who has been coaching Phi Psi since 2017, didn’t have much time to make a decision.
Gaz said he should have told Albert to pace himself over the last two laps and hope the pack didn’t catch up. Phi Psi would have been better off. In the moment, Gaz could only think about which rider was the most fresh.
Another rider, then-junior Eric Mercker, was the most logical choice, but he had gotten off the bike just before Albert. Another teammate, then-freshman Jack Warner, was cramping and couldn’t ride.
“In my mind I was thinking of the risk-reward there,” Gaz said. “Eric’s already tired, having just done his job as we told him to. We made the wrong decision at the wrong time.”
That left Andrew, in his first race as a freshman, as the best option, despite not being Phi Psi’s fastest on exchanges or one lap sprints.
“I knew once it wasn’t gonna be Eric, it probably wasn’t our day,” Albert said. “It’s no one’s fault.”
Albert reached the pit, which was immediately after the finish line. Andrew hopped on his bike and tried to get up to speed as fast as possible, but it wasn’t enough. La Valle was too slow. Seven teams passed him, including Cutters, the eventual winners.
There’s no denying Phi Psi is the favorite after the last two races. This year it has a target on its back. The rest of the pack will be chasing it down, trying to knock it off — and so will Phi Psi’s past.
Phi Psi’s recent Little 500 history isn’t eye-popping on paper. Eighth place in 2019, fifth place in 2021. There wasn’t a team in 2017.
But those finishes don’t tell the whole gut-wrenching story. Phi Psi could’ve won both races. Ask the riders, they’ll say they should’ve.
La Valle thinks this year’s team is the best of his four years. They’re more experienced, with all four riders from last year returning. Those four will be challenged for race day spots by two more riders, who were on the team last year but didn’t race.
They train for roughly 10 hours a week, riding in the Phi Psi house’s bike room or on the track and lifting weights. Each session, they’re working to do what those past teams couldn’t.
“We have people who have helped build this program up from not existing in 2017 to almost winning the race,” La Valle said. “It’s been a big push of, ‘Let’s go win the race for not only the four guys on our team, not only for everyone in the house, but the alumni who helped build the program up.’”
There’s one more team La Valle says Phi Psi is racing for: the 2020 team that never got its final race. Albert was a senior then, preparing for his last race. So was Eric. The team was driven by the chance to right the wrong of 2019, to finish what it came within a lap of doing. Then the pandemic hit and the race was canceled. There was no vindication.
La Valle calls his brother at least once a week. Albert tells him to enjoy his last race and to leave everything on the track. Besides, there’s too much you can’t control, he says, so you might as well have fun.
Both of them know what it’s like to come so close and fall at the last hurdle. Except Andrew La Valle has one more chance to fix it.
“It definitely makes it a little bit easier when you’re on your last set to remember the fact that you’ve come so close to winning this race,” La Valle said. “I remind our team about it a lot: Let’s go finish the mission."