I can’t really describe how awesome it is to be a rookie rider in the Little 500.
Don’t get me wrong, being a veteran rider is great too, however I’m still new to this whole ‘vet’ thing: I was preparing for my first Little 500 with my team, Kappa Alpha Theta, just one year ago. The nervous stomach, the shaky arms on the bike, the legs that didn’t quite feel powerful enough-it is weird to think it was almost a year ago because every memory I have is still so vivid. I have a few memories from my rookie year that I feel are worth sharing in regards to how I learned to get comfortable on the track.
I will never forget my rookie week-by the end of the ten days I was sick of the cold and very bruised. I was the rookie who constantly struggled at jumping on the bike. Really, I couldn’t jump on it. Ten days of practice and I was still falling on the ground or tripping over the pedals. By the time spring break rolled around I was better but still not good. I had improved to a half jump half swing right leg over and get on the saddle kind of thing where I kept my left food on the ground the entire time. Yikes. Throughout this process I developed a stutter step. Spring break is where my stutter step really grew into my own. My coach tried to shake it, along with several other veteran riders. Every day of spring break ended the same way: a helpful someone would come up and claim that they had NEVER had anyone have a stutter step after they helped and then they would, after an hour, walk away disappointed. We tried everything! I have heard frog analogies, orange juice analogies, and counting games. We tried raising my saddle height to force me to jump higher, we tried lowering my saddle height, we even took my left shoe off so it would hurt really badly when I did the little skip thing. Nothing changed. By quals, my teammates knew that the stutter step was here to stay so reluctantly I embraced it. We worked on getting it as fast as possible and it worked just fine my rookie year. If you are struggling with jumping on or off the bike still, really don’t worry! Just practice over and over again-really you should put hours into it. It may not be perfect by quals or even the race but it can be good enough-if you have honestly given the best effort to make it the best it can be.
I can’t forget my first track practice with the veterans either. I remember it so vividly as one of my least favorite days riding ever, but one of the days when I learned the most. My first day with the vets I was doing a ten lap set with a teammate, Kristen, and two awesome Teter riders. Every time our paceline approached a turn I slowed down because I was afraid of sliding on the cinders, then got dropped, proceeded to chase back on and then catch the paceline again only to be dropped the next turn. Over and over and over again for ten laps. I got off the bike and was slightly upset. I had never really been ‘dropped’ before. Later that day, Eric Young of the Cutters came up to say hello to our team. Kristen explained what had just happened and he took the time to help. He taught me about rotating my torso into the turn and pedaling slightly harder with my outer foot but not leaning the bike into the turn as much. He told me to relax the grip on my handlebars and to steer with my hips, not my arms. Lastly he told me not to be afraid of sliding a little! It is FUN to go fast! I remember him saying “even if you start to slide, just stay loose and keep pedaling through the turn and you won’t fall!” Once again, I practiced over and over what he said. The next day at the track, I wasn’t perfect, but the improvement was huge! By the race, I felt 100% comfortable taking the turns fast and not slowing down. Even now as a veteran, if I am approaching a turn quickly when I am doing a fast set during practice I remember the words of wisdom: stay loose, turn with hips, rotate torso not bike, and have fun going fast.
Getting comfortable on the track takes time and practice but it does happen. My legs always felt heavy and I was the slowest person walking up the steps in Ballantine Hall but over time the cinders and 46x18 gear made the Little 500 track my favorite place to ride. I got used to going fast in the pole lane, doing exchanges outside of the white dotted line, looking over my left shoulder to check if the inside lane was clear before merging, and comfortably getting into a large pack of riders safely.
It all may seem overwhelming now, and it may be really scary to think that quals are less than 3 weeks away, but if you practice and put all your passion into this event, you will not walk away on April 15th or 16th disappointed. Last year my team finished 4th and while we would have liked to win, we still celebrated everything we accomplished that year. The challenges I overcame turned into personal victories. The people I would have never met before became my closest friends. The hours I spent with my teammates are cherished now that they have graduated and one has moved away. There is so much to celebrate with this great race…I love the Little 500 and my hopes are that you too can enjoy it just as much.
Ride fast and turn left,
P.S. I still have my stutter step :)