It’s easy to talk about Little 500 without talking about race — if you’re white.
Little 500 is the largest collegiate intramural bicycle race in the country, held every year at Indiana University. This year will mark the 67th running of the men’s race and the 30th running of the women’s. In 1968, it was the site of an anti-racist sit-in. Throughout the 2000s, it was the subject of controversial attempts at integration.
But despite this, the race remains overwhelmingly white — even more so than the campus as a whole, which is roughly 21 percent minority.
Clarice Cross is an Indiana University sophomore who races for Team Alpha Chi Omega. I mention to her that I’ve been able to identify only two non-white riders on this year’s teams for either race, not including the all-Chinese Young Pioneers men’s team, whose qualifying time was just a few seconds too slow to make the cut. Cross, whose mother is Japanese, responds that she thinks there are more like five or six non-white riders, “but that’s still a huge minority.”
Abel Barrera Duran is a junior, a Little 500 Riders Council member, and cyclist for Team Delta Chi. He’s from Matamoros, Mexico, and moved to the United States when he was 13.
About the lack of diversity, Barrera Duran says with a laugh, “Of course, you notice. It’s hard not to notice.”
Both Barrera Duran and Cross assert that they haven’t felt uncomfortable or unwelcome in the mostly-white Little 500 community. Cross suggests that the lack of diversity in Little 500 is an extension of the lack of diversity in Greek life in general, but as Greek life is becoming more diverse, she expects the race will begin to follow suit.
Little 500 has long been a playing field upon which the racial dynamics of Indiana University student life, and especially Greek life, have played out.
The first 18 years
Little 500’s earliest years saw some involvement from African-American students, with Alpha Phi Alpha, a Black fraternity, entering a team in the inaugural 1951 race, and again in 1952 and 1954. Maple Hall North entered all-Black teams in 1956 and 1957. But participation from Black students tapered off after that.
In 1968, Black students staged a sit-in at the racetrack (at the 10th Street stadium, where the Arboretum is now) the day before the race was scheduled to take place, protesting racist enrollment practices among the white fraternities who viewed the race as a keystone of Greek life at IU. Of the fraternities competing in the race, all but one signed waivers stating that they would not enforce the discriminatory enrollment policies handed down to their chapters from their national charters. The holdout, Phi Delta Theta, was removed from the race by IU President Elvis Stahr, who resigned from the IU presidency shortly thereafter.
The students at the 1968 sit-in had no immediate interest in joining historically white fraternities themselves, nor did they express any great investment in the bike race: Their dispute was about policy. And the race organizers did nothing to engage them with the event. A Black student picnic was often scheduled at or near the same time as the race, elsewhere on campus. So Little 500 moved forward, all white, for another twenty years.
Team Major Taylor
The policy change about fraternity enrollments would eventually have an impact on the race. In 1986, Courtney Bishop became one of the first Black men to join Acacia fraternity at IU. When he attended Little 5, he fell in love with it — and saw its integration as an opportunity to push back against the racism he encountered elsewhere on campus.
From the moment Bishop came to Indiana University as an undergraduate student, he defied expectations set out for Black students. In addition to being a member of Acacia, he was a mile runner for the IU Track and Field team, at a time when Black track athletes were almost all sprinters, and he was one of only three African-American students in the School of Business.
“My first day as an athlete here, I remember talking with my academic advisor, who was pushing me not to think about pre-med, not to think about business, because it would take up too much time from sports,” he says. “And I’m sitting there thinking, there are plenty of [white] guys on the basketball team in business and pre-med. Are they getting the same speech that I’m getting? It just didn’t seem like that was the case. So it almost seemed like, while nothing was kept from Black students, there were all these flags that went up when you wanted to try something that was outside the norm.”
After Bishop attended the race for the first time, he reached out to friends in Black fraternities and asked them why none of them had bike teams.
“Most of the people I talked to had the attitude of, Why would we go out to an event, or participate in an event, that’s not our thing?” Bishop recalls. “We’re not going to go out and be part of an event and get our butts kicked in front of 40,000 people.”
But in 1992, as a graduate student, he recruited three other men and they formed team IMO Major Taylor — named after African-American cycling legend and Indianapolis native Major Taylor — and entered the race.
“My idea was to inspire people to come to the race,” he says. “I thought that once they saw what was going on, they’d be inspired to think, Hey, if we can put a Black team in the Little 5, maybe next time I go to registration I will take a shot at the business school, or take a shot at the pre-med major, and not listen to all the signs that are pushing me not to do that. Or maybe I’ll start questioning things a little bit more.”
But virtually no students showed up to support the team, and IMO Major Taylor finished the race dead last.
Bishop left IU and started a successful mortgage business. But in 2000, the university asked him to build an African-American Little 500 team.
This is where Bishop becomes controversial. The IU Student Foundation, he says with a shrug, tells a different version of events than the one he remembers — with the main sticking point being about rider eligibility. He remembers clearly establishing that for the race to be successfully integrated, he’d need to have leeway to bring in riders who could be competitive with current riders.
“If you qualify 32nd out of 33 teams, it doesn’t excite people to come cheer for you, which is the whole point,” he says.
His only criteria for candidates: They just had to like to race bikes. They didn’t have to be great cyclists, though several of them were. Riders from a nationwide search were admitted to IU for the 2001-2002 academic year, some under faculty sponsorship. Bishop created the Major Taylor Foundation to provide them with scholarships, funded in part through donations and in part out of his own pocket. He secured sponsorships from Trek and Nike for bicycles and gear.
Team Major Taylor qualified second for the 2002 men’s Little 500. And, Bishop says, his plan worked: At the qualifying event, the stands were packed with supporters.
But then, the fallout.
Little 500 is an amateur, intramural event, and, as such, there’s an upper limit to the ranking any rider may hold from any major American or international cycling federation in order to be eligible. Team Major Taylor was investigated, and their anchor rider, Joshua Weir, ranked too high.
The team was disqualified from the race.
Bishop says that everybody involved in creating Team Major Taylor, including all the administrators, knew from the outset about Weir’s ranking — Bishop disclosed it to them himself. But rules had been openly bent by the university and race administration to build this team, in the name of the greater goal of integrating the event. This, he had thought, was one of the flexibilities the team had been granted.
It certainly felt like the team he’d built was being punished for its success.
Team Major Taylor appealed the disqualification, and the issue went to arbitration. The arbitration hearing, staffed by IU faculty and employees, was public, and, Bishop remembers, packed with Black students. He recalls the committee asking whether the rankings of the first- or third-place teams had also been investigated. They hadn’t.
In the end, Weir was disqualified, but the team was allowed to compete in the race using one of their alternates. They finished a respectable ninth, a result that Bishop says illustrates an often-unexpected reality for first-time Little 500 contestants: Riding fast isn’t enough to win a race that’s made of complex pack dynamics, inevitable group crashes, tricky full-speed rider changes, bicycles with specs that haven’t changed significantly in the past half-century, and possibly the only cinder track still in use for any bicycle race in the country.
Team Major Taylor entered the race every year from 2002 to 2009, with a top result of second place in 2003. And insofar as the team was created to encourage Black students to invest in Little 500 — it worked. Black students came to the race during those years.
But controversy dogged the team all the way through, largely associated with the scholarship foundation. Bishop himself was, for a time, banned from involvement with the race, reportedly for recruiting violations. By 2009, the donations and sponsorships had dwindled. Bishop’s own ability to financially support the team suffered in the collapse of the mortgage market in 2008.
Team Major Taylor had had a great run but had become unsustainable. Bishop disbanded it.
And even though Bishop himself has remained involved since the end of Team Major Taylor — he recently coached the all-white Delta Tau Delta team to victory in the 2016 men’s race — Black student interest in the race has all but vanished again.
‘Little 500 Stands for Diversity, Inclusion, and Everyone’
Tara Vickers is the director of the Indiana University Student Foundation, the campus organization that hosts Little 500. The lack of diversity in the race is a problem that the IUSF, and she personally, takes seriously. “We’re working really, really hard to combat the stereotype. We’re heading into the 67th running of the men’s race and the 30th running of the women’s, and when you have that much tradition, it definitely comes with some of those not-so-great areas of the past.”
The IUSF’s approach to integration has combined marketing (in 2015, there were “Little 500 Stands for Diversity, Inclusion, and Everyone” T-shirts) with the removal of obstacles to cycling (any student can sign out a bike to ride or train on for free, as long as they have a helmet) and the removal of obstacles to attending the race (they have provided free tickets to multicultural student groups to give them an avenue around the $30 sticker price). But given the lack of diversity in the 2017 race, their efforts don’t seem to be working as well as they’d hoped. And I don’t find it hard to see why: There’s an “all lives matter” tone to the language of the T-shirts, most people who own bike helmets also own bikes and therefore don’t need to borrow them, and a free race ticket isn’t going to motivate a student to attend Little 500 when there are always many other — and potentially more relevant — things to do around campus that weekend.
Teams of minority students have sprung up over the past few years, typically racing for a few years and then dissolving. Young Pioneers, the all-Chinese men’s team, finished 29th in the 2016 race; their qualifying time was just a few seconds too slow to enter the 2017 lineup. Lioness Cycling, an African-American women’s team, competed in 2009 and 2010. La Casa, IU’s Latino Cultural Center, has intermittently fielded men’s or women’s teams, called Mezcla, since 1996. The women’s team competed almost every year between 2004 and 2014, but Mezcla has not qualified teams for either race since then.
Independent teams struggle to accrue resources and build a history, Vickers says. IUSF and the Riders Council try to mitigate this by making some equipment available for free and helping new teams get connected with coaches or mentors, but they can’t completely bridge the resource chasm between new teams and well-established ones. And independent race teams often have a short life anyway: They tend to be helmed by one or two motivated students, and then dissolve after those students graduate. Greek organizations often have the resources and institutional memory to field teams every year.
But there hasn’t been a Black Greek team since 1954.
‘We don’t get anything out of it’
Devon Brown is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and president of the IU chapter of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the coordinating organization that unifies the “Divine Nine” historically Black Greek organizations. And while he stresses that he can’t speak for the Black Greek student body as a whole, he told me it’s hard to imagine that any of the Divine Nine are likely to start fielding Little 500 teams any time soon. He’s never noticed any real interest in the race in the Black Greek community.
“There’s no benefit for us,” he says. “Not that there needs to be a benefit to do something, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s for us. We don’t get anything out of it.”
And even if a fraternity or sorority were to decide to field a team, they’d probably struggle to find people with the time to train for the race. He estimates the average Black Greek organization on campus has about 15 members, and at least half of those are likely to hold leadership positions, which are time consuming. Also, for several years, the African-American Greek organizations have hosted the Little 500 Step Show (sponsored, in part, by the IU Student Foundation) as part of the race weekend events. The show takes months of preparation, happening at exactly the same time as the final preparation for the race itself.
And Brown says he’s not surprised that efforts like free tickets didn’t work as incentives for people to show up. “You still wouldn’t know anyone who was racing,” he says.
It’s all, ultimately, about where you feel comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable somewhere, you’re not going to show up. Brown draws a connection to Homecoming, where the Divine Nine have their own reserved, shared area for tailgating on game day.
“We could be at the middle of everything, but at the same time, it’s just like, well, we don’t really know anybody, and you just want to be around the people you know, and not be an outcast. But for the school to even give us our own place to host a tailgate …” he trails off, clearly a little bit uncomfortable, and then he shrugs. “I think that just … answers that.”
I’m white, but I’m visibly queer. I have no experience of the kind of de facto segregation that he’s describing and am always reluctant to draw comparisons between such different kinds of minority experiences as his and mine. But there are elements of familiarity in the stories he’s telling, so I float a suggestion: “I’ve been in situations where I’ve been asked to come to things where I want to say, ‘It’s not my job to show up just to make you look good.’”
Brown smiles and nods. “Exactly. That’s exactly it.”
Growing the Little 500 community
Abel Barrera Duran, the cyclist for Team Delta Chi from Matamoros, Mexico, understands that experience, too. He has a lot of ideas about how to make the race more appealing to more students. He hopes to hold an officer position on the Little 500 Riders Council next year — and to be able to implement some of those ideas.
Barrera Duran agrees with Bishop, and with Brown, that change needs to start with the race participants, not the race audience. People will show up to watch the race if they have a good team to cheer for. But Barrera Duran also doesn’t think that building a good team has to require the kind of aggressive recruiting that Bishop used in 2002. The under-used resource, here, is the community that builds up surrounding the riders as they train for the race.
There’s an imbalance in resources, and an imbalance in development, across Little 500 teams. Teams with long legacies of success find it easier to attract committed riders, good coaches, strong sponsors, and alumni donors. Even highly motivated riders who want to form a new independent team might not have anyone among them who knows how to write training workouts, or how to work on bikes, or how to find a coach — let alone any leverage to find these resources.
But current riders themselves have the tools to help level their playing field, Barrera Duran argues.
“Most people don’t like to do things to lose,” he says. “So, say if you’re La Casa — if you join an organization that rides Little 500 and you quickly realize how big of a disadvantage you [have] — there’s little motivation or encouragement for you to do it again the next year. Truly, it’s been our fault as the Riders Council — and other organizations who are in charge of really trying to help out the newest teams. [We should be] taking advantage of when those teams are multicultural or multinational or whatever they are, to really invest in them, whether it’s financially or finding them a partner or a coach. I think that’s truly where the issue is.”
It would be a tough sell for some of the more competitive teams, who would be asked to sacrifice some of their edge.
“The way I feel about Little 500 is the same way I feel about being a Mexican citizen,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate. There’s not many Mexican working parents who have been able to send their kids to the United States to school. So I think civically, as a Mexican citizen, I need to go back to Mexico and help people who haven’t been as fortunate. I feel the same way about Little 500. I’ve been nurtured, in terms of the Little 500 community. And whenever I leave, I’d like to see about trying to get it to where it can be. I feel like it’s a civic duty.”