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How a zany race sold me on bikes and made me the woman I needed to become

Posted by on April 20th, 2016 at 8:25 am

The author.
(Photos via K.Laudermilk)

We’re pleased to welcome new contributor Kate Laudermilk, a Portlander who’ll be sharing humor and wisdom from her biking life in the occasional column Gal by Bike over the next few months.

I know firsthand that the thought of being a “cyclist” or “bike rider” can be intimidating. Often it’s even more intimidating for women to get started and break into the biking community. And using a bike as my sole form of transportation was never my plan.

That is why I think the evolution of my life on a bike is a story worth telling.

I know that sometimes it can seem easier to just drive, walk, or take the streetcar. Just kidding, it’s never easier to take the streetcar. But as a skeptic by nature, riding a bike makes me second guess things, worry, and question my capabilities. What if I can’t ride fast enough, long enough, or what if my hair gets all messed up under the helmet? Worries aside, I have and continue to deem my decision to become an avid bike rider as one of my smartest decisions to date.

Over the next several months I plan to write several articles chronicling what it means to go as a female from small-town, car-only Indiana to Portland.

Riding a bike has taught me a lot about myself — the simple act of pedaling has been an agent of personal growth for the past eleven years of my life. And it all began with a little race in a little town in the Hoosier state.

Over the next several months I plan to write several articles chronicling what it means to go as a female from small-town, car-only Indiana to Portland.

Last weekend marked the 66th annual Indiana University Little 500. Chances are you have never heard of this quirky bike race unless you, like me, rewatch the Academy-Award-winning movie “Breaking Away” every year. It’s with this race that my passion for bike riding began. Little 5, as it’s most commonly referred to, became the centerpiece of my college career. Without it, I’m not sure I would give two hoots about the biking culture in Portland, or anywhere for that matter.

The front of the pack at the Little 5. Spoiler alert: I am not in this photo.

It’s important to know that first and foremost I am a crier. Sometimes — ok, most of the time — I cry AND scream. If you find yourself fortunate enough to be present for such a spectacle, chances are you will get a good laugh out of it. It is, after all, completely ridiculous. I typically wail and sob when attempting to overcome scary challenges.

It’s my way of showing anybody that may be watching that I am serious as hell — even though, due to the excess crying, I’m really only giving roughly 40 percent of my max effort.

A great number of my scariest challenges have happened on a bike. Some of them were legit, like stopping to have a nervous breakdown midway through a hill with a grade similar to that of a wall. I can tell you with confidence that one should never stop midway through biking up a hill. I got an embarrassingly low grade in physics, but even I realize that losing all of your momentum is real dumb.

Other bike challenges have been, in retrospect, far less terrifying. Like, for instance, the time I had to learn how to jump onto a bike.

In which college-age me attempts to silence her interior monologue.

I must preface this tale by sharing that I learned to ride a bike at a slightly embarrassing age. My training wheels remained bolted to my childhood ride until I was NINE. Yes, NINE. I blame it on crippling childhood anxiety and a lifetime battle with poor depth perception. Either way, I got a slow start to the biking world and so the amount of things I have done on a bike in my adult life are quite monumental, if you ask me.

You ride in circles along with a pack of thirty or so others for one hundred laps if you’re a female and two hundred if you’re a dude — because dudes apparently need double the laps to prove their strength and righteousness.

So, I was nineteen years old and riding a bike for the first time since middle school. I was about to begin training for my first Little 5. Again, this race is very exclusive, very fun, and heavily dangerous. It entails riding on a loose, dusty track made of razor-sharp cinders on a bike with one gear that costs about as much as one wheel on a typical bike.

You ride in circles along with a pack of thirty or so others for one hundred laps if you’re a female and two hundred if you’re a dude — because dudes apparently need double the laps to prove their strength and righteousness.

This whole ordeal happens in front of a very large and drunk audience made up of everyone who’s ever stepped foot on Indiana University’s campus. Everyone has a Nalgene bottle filled with pure moonshine and they spend their time alternately cheering and singing in between vomiting and making out with the stranger next to them.

It’s college at its finest — but, at the same time, kind of a big deal. Lance Armstrong, prior to becoming one of the world’s most disappointing cycling stars, once sat in the grandstand at the race and deemed it the coolest event he had ever attended. In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama attended the race, shook my hand, and wished me luck. Don’t believe me? Here’s photographic evidence:

Boom! That’s the back of my 22 year old head.


Because it’s a relay, part of the race requires jumping onto a bike that’s moving at close to full speed. One is expected to ride out of the peloton, literally ride AT one of three teammates, and jump off a moving bike to allow for the other teammate to jump on and ride back into the peloton. Easy, right? The very thought of this made me want to shit my chamois (which is pronounced sham-eez, so this kind of rhymed). Chamois are lovely lycra shorts with a diaper-like pad stitched between the crotch and butt region. The purpose is to pad your unmentionables while you ride for hours at a time. My memories of them revolve around how incredibly unbreathable they were, often contributing to a not so sexy adult diaper rash situation. I’ve since burned my entire collection.

Here’s an example of an exchange during a race — coincidentally that goober with the red hair holding a dry erase board toward the end happens to be me during a year that I coached a team through the race. My shirt reads “Koach Kate.”

This brings me to the moment I had to learn this very specific skill. There I was, standing in a field with my college boyfriend, who at the time was the primary reason I agreed to ride around in circles on a death machine no more than an elbow distance from the person next to me. My goal was to learn how to run and jump on that damned saddle without losing speed. I was in the field because it provided the comfort of soft, supple grass beneath me instead of razor shards.

In the distance, I heard one of three main songs that blared continuously during our track practices. Typically, this song, “Black Betty,” brought me great strength and determination. But on this day, the notes fell flat. Every time Ram Jam sang “bam-ba-lam” my fear grew larger.

“She’s always ready, BAM-BA-LAM! She’s all rock steady, BAM-BA-LAM!”

The words taunted me as I plummeted to the ground on one failed attempt after another. On each fall, to convey urgency, I did what all great athletes do — grabbed my knee while wincing and sucking air in through my gritted teeth. I thought for sure that would release me from any further attempts. Wrong. This night was only the beginning.

That’s me in the middle. Go Hoosiers.

Riding in the Little 500 was literally one challenge after another. If I wasn’t learning how to jump on a bike I was learning how to scrub cinders out of my knee caps after a fall on the track. I was learning how to communicate with the other women around me at practice and during the race to assure that I didn’t rub wheels with someone and take out thirty people like a set of dominos.

I learned how to do what I was asked to do at a moment’s notice with no questions asked. And I learned how to be a leader and prepare others for the unique challenges that I had already faced. Basically, I got brave. I got bold. And now, when I’m riding and feel like there’s no way I’m going to make it another mile, I think back to my days at Indiana University and I get an extra boost.

Then, if that doesn’t work, I can look up a video of Little 500 crashes on YouTube and then suddenly everything looks a lot more rosey.

Screaming, crying, faking false injury — these are all just theatrics meant to drive home one simple point. Sometimes shit’s hard and scary. Sometimes you get intimidated and think that you won’t be able to do something.

Then what?! Well, as it turns out, there’s literally nothing, aside from doing a cartwheel, that I’ve ever set out to do that I have not, in the end, reasonably achieved. If you think hard enough, I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion about yourself.

I finally learned how to jump on a bike. I always had a bit of a stutter step, but who cares? Not this badass! Riding in the Little 500 was the beginning of what I hope to be a lifetime of bike fun. Since this fateful night in the field I have ridden countless miles, commuted to and from work each day, experienced the incomparable Portland cyclocross culture, dated by bike, moved all of my belongings by bike, biked in a sweet 80’s prom dress, and am currently daydreaming about my upcoming wedding by bike.

A bicycle is more than a way to get around. It is a way to activate your potential. I’m a gal on a bike and I look forward to continuing to share with you the ways moving around by bike has expanded how I think about myself and my place.

Coaching the next generation.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Little 500, check out the PEZ Cycling News article Little 500: Two Days in April.

– Kate Laudermilk

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  • Bella Bici April 20, 2016 at 9:36 am

    People around me in the lab office are wondering why I was chortling so much as I read this.

    Thank you for the levity in this! And, welcome!!!

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  • Cyclekrieg April 20, 2016 at 9:38 am

    Awesome article! I grew up just north of Bloomington, IN. (Martinsville to be specific.) The Little 500 is a great race.

    Look forward to hearing more from Kate!

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  • PNP April 20, 2016 at 10:07 am

    Great article, and amusing! The crash video made me cringe, though.

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  • soren April 20, 2016 at 10:18 am

    from small-town, car-only Indiana

    Hmmmm …I biked to school just about every day when I lived in Bloomington. And the racks at my middle school were jam-packed during warm weather. Even after decades of decline Bloomington has higher cycling mode share than Minneapolis, DC, or San Francisco (and is just a few spaces behind Portland).

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    • Bloomingtonian April 20, 2016 at 10:38 am

      Bloomingtonian here, I do believe the author is from beautiful Munster, Indiana. Don’t worry. Bloomington remains a bike-friendly town. See:

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    • R April 20, 2016 at 10:47 am

      Lighten up Francis.

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    • gutterbunnybikes April 20, 2016 at 11:37 am

      I had an extended stay awhile back in outside Fort Wayne, and can honestly say, Indiana is one of my favorite all time places to ride a bicycle.

      Went out once on a “get myself lost ride”, it was a lazy day and I was just rambling. Covered bridges, Mennonite farms and horse carts, flat geography – can’t ask for more. I remember once getting a flat with no idea of where I was and asked an old farmer if he had a patch kit I could use. He looked around for awhile and couldn’t find one and offered me a ride home. As I was loading my bicycle in the back of his truck he asked where I lived and he said without flinching “I only got one cassette tape, hope you like WIllie it’s going to be about an hour and a half drive.”

      I never have ran with computers so I was just as shocked to find out that I leisurely wandered from Auburn all the way out somewhere SW of South Bend. Had a blast talking about bicycles, farming, and singing along with Willie all the way home, to top it off he refused my offer of any gas money or dinner when we got back to Auburn.

      Though it was also funny, because my boss use to make fun of me for riding to work the brief time I spent in Auburn, and I’d make fun of him for driving since he lived in the trailer park across the street from where we worked. The whole town isn’t even 3 miles across at it’s widest, and to this day I’m surprised that bicycling is largely gaining popularity in the new urbanist movement and that it hasn’t started and blown up in the small towns across this country where by and large a car isn’t any more efficient or faster means of travel anywhere.

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  • Rebecca April 20, 2016 at 10:23 am

    “This whole ordeal happens in front of a very large and drunk audience made up of everyone who’s ever stepped foot on Indiana University’s campus. Everyone has a Nalgene bottle filled with pure moonshine and they spend their time alternately cheering and singing in between vomiting and making out with the stranger next to them.”

    I feel like I would have had way more school spirit if the University of Cincinnati had had a Little 500.

    (Loved this article!)

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  • Indiana Alum April 20, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Thank you for a great article. I did Little 5 and was on the Indiana University Cycling team in the early 90s, back when it was the “World’s Greatest College (Party) Weekend” and sometimes covered by ESPN. I think some things have changed and some have stayed the same, but it definitely has an impact on one’s life. I still have some of the track’s cinders embedded in my knees and shoulder, field questions from my son about the old trophy that sits in my office, and can identify every location in Breaking Away. Cycling remains a constant in life: after living in Bloomington, I pretty much refused to drive to work. Seeing this article, however, makes me wonder where 20 years can go.

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  • daisy April 20, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Welcome, Kate!

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  • R April 20, 2016 at 10:54 am

    Great article, Kate. Thanks for contributing and I hope to see more in the future.

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  • Alex April 20, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    So excited for this series! Great article!
    You are such a badass. This is really inspiring. It sounds like you really through yourself into the most difficult and intense type of cycling!

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  • Tom McTighe April 20, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Write on!

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  • J4son April 20, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Kate, this was a great article. To echo some of the other comments posted above . . . Indiana towns (especially of the medium sized variety), are VERY bike friendly. This usually coincides with the proximity to a large university, but the state has so many (e.g. Purdue, Indiana State, Indiana University, IUP-FW, IUPUI, DePauw, Notre Dame, Ball State) that there are quite a few towns in which you can live cheaply, AND live car free. The only real problem is the bizarrely humid summer weather that makes breathing outside difficult in summer.

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  • Eric Leifsdad April 20, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    Single-speed bikes with a coaster brake or freewheel + no brakes? (Not fixed from the pedals I saw in the clip.)

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    • Kate Laudermilk (Contributor) April 20, 2016 at 10:56 pm

      single speed with a coaster break!

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  • Pete April 20, 2016 at 9:17 pm
    • Kate Laudermilk (Contributor) April 20, 2016 at 10:55 pm

      You get me — that’s exactly what I was referencing!

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  • Middle of the Road guy April 21, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Memories! I got my Master degree at IU in environmental policy back in the 90’s…it’s hard to explain to people how big of an event this is for the university.

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  • Jason Skelton April 21, 2016 at 11:55 am

    Great article. I was in the Little 500 3 times. It cemented my love of bicycling.

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  • Jason Skelton April 21, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Kate: the male coach in the video was one of my coaches when I rode for Wright quad cycling (dorm team power!). I forget his name because I am old.

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    • Kate Laudermilk (Contributor) April 21, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      I forget his name too, but he sure is a nice guy! He was beyond helpful to me the day of the race that I coached.

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  • Elizabeth Bye April 21, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    You are my spirit animal. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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  • longgone April 21, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    Are the three questions she struggled with unique only to women in deciding to enjoy cycling? I think anyone could raise those questions for themelves. Im so glad she percivered. Cycling is for everyone. Ride your friggin’ bike.

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    • Kate Laudermilk (Contributor) April 21, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      Totally agree! Everyone ride their bike! And no, of course the questions I posed were not unique to women. I hope that men, women, and everyone within the gender spectrum can read my articles and have a good laugh and bask in our shared love for bikes.

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      • longgone April 21, 2016 at 1:48 pm

        …. 🙂

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  • jerome April 22, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    Love your humor; love your guts!

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