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Tuesday, May 28
The Indiana Daily Student

sports little 500

‘Fear is healthy, but panic is deadly’: Audrey La Valle puts a cap on the La Valle legacy

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Kappa Alpha Theta’s team training schedule is in a document shared between all eight riders. At team meetings every Sunday, they schedule their rides throughout the week.  

“Fear is healthy, but panic is deadly,” is written on the top of the document. Senior captain Audrey La Valle picked the mantra up from her roommate who got it from the movie “Chasing Mavericks.” 

To Audrey, it’s about recognizing what could go wrong throughout the entire Little 500 season and focusing on how her team can adapt to it, instead of running from it. She says if you're nervous, it only proves how much you care. 

Audrey has raced for the team since she was a freshman. She’s come close to winning multiple times, but her team has never been the first to celebrate. She’s learned a lot from the losses and has taken defeat in past races as lessons and learning opportunities for what went wrong. 

Her teammates say she expects a lot of them, there’s a standard of perfection, but her drive and resilience don’t overshadow her love and energy. The Little 500 superlative for loudest at the track consistently goes to Audrey. 

“I think that goes for just anywhere she is, not just at the track,” sophomore teammate Claire Tips said. “You could immediately tell that she's entered the house because she'll just be yelling because she's just so excited.”  

It’s less than three days until race day. Audrey jumps on her bike, grasps her handlebars and begins to pedal. Dust from the dry cinder track consumes the air as the crowded track of women cyclists practicing overwhelms the empty Bill Armstrong Stadium bleachers.  

The sun beats down on the riders on an 80-degree Tuesday evening. The intense temperatures don’t deter the riders. First place in the Little 500 won’t settle for the teams that avoid the heat. 

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Senior Audrey La Valle gets ready to perform a bike exchange with her teammate Claire Tips on April 17, 2024, at Bill Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington. La Valle has raced for Kappa Alpha Theta in the last three Little 500 races.

Audrey flies around the track sporting a white and yellow Theta jersey. Her black shoes pair nicely with her black socks decorated with yellow stars. A large bright yellow “87” is easily visible from her black biker shorts. Kappa Alpha Theta attempted to qualify for the men’s race in 1987. It didn’t qualify, but jumpstarted the first women’s Little 500 race the following year. 

“She has the most incredible, pristine form,” Tips said. “She never looks like she's like trying super hard when she's on the bike.”  

After racing around the track for a long time, she pulls off, outside into her team’s pit. A tall white wooden sign with the number five written in bold black font is the team’s pre-assigned spot. Its pit is on the same side as the stadium’s grandstand. It’s the second closest pit after the finish line. Only Teter is closer. 

It’s the same pit spot that Phi Kappa Psi held April 13, 2019, when Audrey’s brothers — Albert and Andrew — raced in the men’s Little 500 together.  

*** 

It was junior Albert La Valle’s second Little 500 race. He dawned a bright red cycling jersey, handlebars styled in different neon colored tape – red on the left and green on the right. The Little 500 broadcast insinuated the race was over as Albert held a 6.6 second lead over second place JetBlach on lap 198. Phi Kappa Psi had not won a Little 500 race since 1978. He was about to break the drought.  

He looked back, looked ahead and then back behind again. Tapped his helmet seven times and motioned to his pit with his right hand. As he cruised and finished the lap, he beat his chest and pointed back to the pit. 

The broadcast mistook the gestures for celebration — Albert was calling for an exchange. After he completed the lap, the gap grew to 7.9-seconds between Phi Kappa Psi and the new second place team, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. 

Setting up just outside of his pit for the exchange was his freshman brother, Andrew La Valle. As Albert cruised through turn four on lap 199, he drifted to the outside, finishing the lap and immediately exchanging with his younger brother. 

It was a smooth exchange and Andrew kept the lead throughout the first turn but faltered quickly. It took about 15 seconds from when the brothers exchanged at the start of the last lap for Andrew and Phi Kappa Psi to lose their near eight-second lead and get pushed to the back of the peloton.  

They finished eighth. 

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Then-freshman Andrew La Valle cries on his teammate's shoulder after conclusion of the men's Little 500 race April 13, 2019, at Bill Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington. La Valle competed in both the 2021 and 2022 races.

At the time, it was difficult for the brothers. Andrew says he felt like he let people down that day. Five years later, that feeling hadn’t lingered for either brother. 

“It’s not some deep wound,” Albert said. “I think people have made it out to be that. I look back on that day fondly.” 

The 2019 Phi Kappa Psi team was a young and relatively inexperienced team. There was a common belief among the riders that they could compete come race day. But no one believed they would be in position to win with just a lap to go. They were happy they had an opportunity to be in that position. 

Albert didn’t realize then, but the 2019 race would be his last as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled what would’ve been his senior year race in 2020. 

Devastating crashes in Andrew’s junior and senior years continued Phi Kappa Psi’s drought placing fifth in 2021, and sixth in 2022.  

“He really wanted to win it,” Audrey said on Andrew’s Little 500 career. 

*** 

When she was younger, both of Audrey’s parents were avid bikers. She didn’t have the same admiration for the sport. Instead, Audrey and her brothers were involved in competitive club swimming when they were younger and throughout their time at Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, Illinois.  

Growing up, there was a healthy competition that formed between the three siblings, pushing each other to be better. Audrey looked up to her brothers as role models. The three of them are always there for each other. 

Their father, Al La Valle went to school at IU, biking before he arrived in Bloomington. He never rode in the Little 500, but after he graduated in 1990, he competed in duathlons and triathlons. 

Both brothers tried to convince Audrey to bike while she was in high school. 

“She wasn’t interested,” Al said. “Just flat out, no.” 

Her focus was swimming, training daily. Then, the pandemic closed the pools, and without the opportunity to swim, Audrey started running daily, but she suffered from shin splits. It wasn’t until she asked her parents during dinner if there was a bike around that she started riding. 

The moment made Al “smile ear to ear,” according to Albert.  

She started using her mom’s old bike. Before she graduated from high school, Audrey had already started regularly riding with her parents and their cycling group Tower Racing. Even with the newfound interest in cycling, and her brothers already having found a home at IU, Audrey originally committed to go to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

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Senior Audrey La Valle drifts on the outside of the track during race practice April 17, 2024, at Bill Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington. In La Valle's three years of Little 500 race experience, her team has never placed outside the top-ten.

Toward the end of high school, second thoughts crept in about college. The day after graduation, Audrey spontaneously asked if she and her parents could visit Albert, who was in Bloomington at the time. They drove to Bloomington and brought the bikes with them.  

They went riding with Albert, allowing Audrey to experience Bloomington and ask her brother about the Little 500 community. He showed her what he was getting ready to leave. Two weeks after they returned to Illinois, she decided that IU would be her new home.  

Albert graduated in 2020, but Andrew was still racing as a junior when Audrey arrived on campus in fall. 

As a freshman, she joined Kappa Alpha Theta’s Little 500 team. As one of the younger riders in her first two years, she was part of a couple talented teams that placed third in 2021 and second in 2022. In 2023, as a junior, she served as captain for a race day lineup that featured three rookie riders. Even with the inexperience on the team, Kappa Alpha Theta finished eighth. She had three top-10 finishes in every year she raced but her team had been lapped in every single race.  

“I think last year she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders,” first year Kappa Alpha Theta coach Liz Lieberman said. 

As Audrey finished up her junior year at IU, she was excited for her senior year of racing. During July 2023, the entire La Valle family traveled to France and biked through the mountains. 

When they got back to Illinois, Audrey got sick. She was in intensive care in the hospital for three days, diagnosed with cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. A blood clot had formed in her brain’s venous sinuses, preventing blood from draining out of her brain.  

It resolved quickly, but Audrey was on blood thinners when she first got back to school, until December. At the same time, her teammate Kathleen Lemme was also dealing with a heart condition that persisted throughout the fall semester. 

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Senior Audrey La Valle is pictured racing on the inside of the track April 17, 2024, at Bill Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington. La Valle's Kappa Alpha Theta team placed eighth in the 2023 Little 500 race.

She didn’t tell many people, just sending a text to her team’s group chat and other close friends. Throughout the entire process, her teammates had overflowing admiration for Audrey and said because of the health scare, they grew closer. 

“It wasn't just about racing a bike,” Tipps said. “It was about making sure that somebody that you love and really care about is okay.” 

It threatened her ability to ride her bike. The possibility of not being able to ride for an extended period changed Audrey’s mentality as she approached her senior year.  

“When she didn't spend her time on the bike, it helped to reassure her that she could be okay without the bike,” Tipps said. 

She used to have “an extreme aversion to rest days,” especially as a freshman and as a swimmer in high school. Now, Audrey pays more attention to listening to her body and mind, prioritizing her mental and physical health and not worrying about skipping a workout or a ride. She thoroughly emphasizes it to her teammates. Burnout has affected Audrey in the past throughout the homestretch of Little 500 season, but this year, with the new approach, it hasn’t. 

Sophomore teammate Bailey Cappella said that Audrey not being able to bike when she was sick made everyone else on the team appreciate every day on the bike.  

Ahead of returning to Bloomington, Audrey and Anne had a conversation to try and answer what an ideal senior year of racing would be like. She went into the year not focusing on the pressure and instead just a desire to have fun. 

The pressure-free mentality propelled Audrey to domination throughout the Spring Series events, finishing first in the women’s Individual Time Trials, Miss N’ Out and Team Pursuit. She etched her name in the record books as the first women’s rider to sweep the events since Caitlin Van Kooten did in 2011. 

Despite that, Audrey’s focus isn’t directed towards those results but towards her team’s plan before race day.   

This has value because we give it value,” former Melanzana rider Abby Green said to Audrey ahead of last year’s race. She still thinks about it, reminding her not to get too caught up in the results. 

When Audrey steps onto the track Friday, it’ll mark the sixth straight year that a La Valle has competed in a Little 500. Throughout the six-year run and seven different races, there’s been heartbreak, collapse, frustration and defeat. 

The weight of her last name feels different every year. While it always comes with a little added pressure, she calls it more of a blessing than a curse. Coming onto campus, Audrey’s last name gave her the opportunity to ride with different Little 500 teams as a rookie rider and make a name for herself.  

She’s heard mentions about “the curse of the La Valles,” but she doesn’t pay much attention to it. Andrew thinks it’s funny. 

“I think it adds to the story,” Andrew said of the so-called curse. “If you have a story that makes it a little bit more fun.” 

Al and Anne both acknowledged that it isn’t unspoken, but they pay no attention to it. 

Al has no regrets throughout their children’s outcomes and experiences in the race. The finishes the La Valle trio carries have been disappointing endings, but Al feeds off former Duke University men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s “next play” philosophy. 

“If you want to chalk up the La Valle curse to being the ball hasn't gone (our) way a couple of times, that's fine,” Andrew said. “I don't think it's negatively affecting Audrey.” 

Overall, to Audrey, the name is an honor.  

For the entire La Valle family, the focus isn’t on winning the race or even “breaking the curse.” Audrey doesn’t feel pressure to win the race this year and instead is focusing her attention on a different aspect of Little 500. She’s confident this year’s Kappa Alpha Theta team can be on the lead lap at the end of the race, but her goal as a captain falls outside of the track. 

“I want all these girls to walk out of this program, even if they're 1% a better person then I'm going to be happy and I already am,” Audrey said. 

When the team does its send off from its house Friday morning, her admiration and pride for her teammates will be the main part of her speech. The opportunity to share this journey with her teammates and mentoring them meant the most to her. 

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Kappa Alpha Theta riders talk to reporters during Little 500 Media Day on April 10, 2024, at Bill Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington. The team came in fifth place during qualifications on March 23, 2024.

Today, she and her brothers are still very close, and they give her advice. Although they admit, with the experience and skill Audrey possesses, there’s not much to give and there’s not much more from her to prove. 

“Here’s what I did wrong, try not to repeat my mistakes,” Andrew said about giving Audrey advice. 

Throughout her career, Andrew is most impressed with her growth. He says she used to focus on how she could get faster, but now her focus is solely on how she can elevate her team. Audrey says she wants people to remember her for more than just how fast she was on the track. 

“She’s just poured a lot of effort and energy into us,” Tips said. “It's going to be weird when she leaves.” 

Cappella said Audrey’s shoes will be tough to fill once she graduates because everyone on the team has learned a lot from her. 

“She is a remarkable rider,” Cappella said. “But I don't think people will really ever be able to speak to the magnitude of the person that she is.”  

Both brothers are echoing the same sentiment to her and her team as her final race nears: “enjoy the moment and race fearlessly.” They said it’s been rewarding to see her have her own experience throughout the race. 

Coach Lieberman expects Audrey to be calm on the day of the race, but confident. 

“I think she has every right to be,” she said. 

Albert came to support Audrey for qualifications March 23. On Thursday, he’ll fly into Chicago from Boston where he’ll meet Andrew. They’ll both drive down to Bloomington together where their parents will join them.

Audrey said she doesn’t want to look back and have any regrets, but still jokes win or lose, the first thing she hopes to do is get a photo with her family right after the race. She’s forgotten to get one in the past. 

If Kappa Alpha Theta does win Friday, Al says he’s not sure what the words or feelings would be, he just knows there would be a lot of emotion. 

“It would be a nice bit of closure,” Andrew said. “Some of the lessons that Albert and I learned from putting our hand on the stove and learning it was hot, someone was able to put those into practice.” 

Regardless of what Friday brings, the La Valle family will be proud of the entire team and Audrey’s journey. Audrey says her team will give its all and regardless of the results, she’ll be proud. 

She already is. 

“I've since learned that not everything in life is about the outcome,” Andrew said. “You can't just be defined by the outcome. You have to take lessons along the journey.”  

Andrew feels Audrey’s done a better job of that compared to her brothers. She doesn’t allow the result of one day define her entire experience. 

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