Cinder chess at the Little 500

I thought maybe the puking would wait until later. Nope. Noah’s stomach is over it, 190 laps into this 200-lap spectacle. Enough of the three-minute pulls, maximum effort, trying to keep that back wheel in line on a cinder track that’s loosening into kitty litter by the minute, trying to keep 32 other teams behind the Black Key Bulls for just a little bit longer.

Noah, last name Voyles, is doubled over in between two warmup bikes. Everyone near him has put a hand on his back in a collective “It’ll be OK, son.” He does not look OK. One of the hands is from the team’s coach, a skinny young bike racer named Ryan Knapp. “The best damn Little Five coach in Bloomington,” a random man in a yellow and black cap tells me, pointing with a thick finger. “You find me a better one,” is his challenge. I doubt I could. With 10 laps to go, it looks increasingly certain that Knapp will go two-for-two, win the women’s and men’s Little 500 races, a feat everyone’s pretty sure has never been done. I like him. He has a way of saying very mean but very true things in a way that’s quite funny.

Noah looks up at him, his stomach emptied. “Do I need to go on again?” he asks, pitifully, like a bad puppy that’s just yacked on the carpet. Knapp stares at him for a moment, doing some math in his head. He has three other riders he can use: senior Charlie Hammon, junior Kevin Mangel, and the sophomore, a 4-minute-mile ace they’ve been saving, Xavier Martinez. They have a lead, but not a comfortable one. A lead’s never comfortable in this race.

“Maybe,” Knapp says to the kid with puke on his shoes.

2:20pm, Saturday, April 22. A man just jumped out of an airplane 1,000 feet over our heads. We’re two-thirds of the way through a Little 500 start sequence that will take at least half an hour. Wind’s from the east, gusting. The predicted rain hasn’t come. The stands are full and getting rowdy. Some 25,000 will show up over the course of the weekend, the race director Andrea Balzano tells me. 25k! Holy hell. This might just be the biggest one-day race in America. College kids on singlespeeds, the biggest in the USA.

Someone pokes me in the shoulder and points up as a stars-and-stripes parachute unfurls and the crowd and its phones all look up at once. The jumper is dangling another American flag below him. Two flags are better than one, someone says. I think it was Smoot who said it.

The jumper’s landing is timed with the end of an a cappella group’s rendition of Indiana’s unofficial state song, “Back Home Again in Indiana:” When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash, they sing and the crowd sings, Then I loooong for my Indiana hooooome. Smoot, are those tears? “It’s always played at the start,” he says. “That’s why I love it, even though I’m from Illinois.”

Charlie was a hot mess this morning. Pacing around, double and triple checking everything. It’s how the Black Key Bulls captain copes, says…

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