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Last updated on Friday, April 20, 2012
(BLOOMINGTON) - This year’s women’s Little 500 will begin at 7 p.m. tonight and be completed “under the lights” for the first time in race history.
Mike Leonard, of the Herald-Times reports a fireworks display will celebrate the ending of the race in another first.
But a compelling story surrounding both the men's and women's Little 500 bicycle races at Indiana University this weekend is that it was just 25 years ago that the first women's team qualified for what then was a men-only affair.
The Kappa Alpha Theta team was later bumped from the field by a faster qualifier, but the point was made: Women wanted to ride, and they could compete. A year later, the inaugural women's Little 500 was launched.
"It never crossed our minds that we should not ride. We weren't doing it to make a statement," said Martha Hinkamp Gillum. "We were just athletes who loved riding bicycles, and there was just one bicycle race, the Little 500."
Teammate Kathy Cleary Kallner said the companion women's event - the Mini-500 tricycle race - simply did not appeal to her or her teammates. "It bordered, to me, on offensive and ridiculous that women would have to ride tricycles," Kallner said. "I was a high school athlete, but when I got to IU the Little 500 exposed me to bicycle racing. And I loved it."
Both women affirmed this week that it's a little surreal to process the recognition they're getting as trailblazers when the year they broke the gender barrier was 1987. But both acknowledge there were plenty of mixed messages being sent when they attempted to ride in the fabled Little 5.
"We were encouraged by a couple of things. One was our own ability. But more importantly, the men's riders we rode with were our friends. They said, 'You're good enough to ride in the Little 5. Why don't you go for it?'" Gillum recalled.
"I remember going to the riders' council, which was composed of 12 guys. Coincidentally, one of the 12 guys wound up being my husband," Kallner said. "All of them were extremely supportive. They agreed to teach us exchanges and strategy. They gave us their full support."
Not all of the men saw the women's initiative so positively. "Oh, there was animosity. I'm not going to sugar-coat it," said Gillum. "Sometimes when we went to the track (to practice), it was like going to battle. I remember being demoralized more than a few times after men's riders screamed at us and told us we didn't know what we were doing.
"When we qualified on our third attempt, some things kind of relented, and people got behind us," she continued. "We proved we belonged on the same track."
"It was odd," Kallner said, "because we really weren't trying to join their little fraternity. We were just trying to play on their playground, so to speak. We certainly didn't have a grand plan to start a women's race, but that was the natural outcome.
"Realistically, it made perfect sense," she continued. "We were in there fighting to get in the field of 33, but there was no way we were going to compete at the top and do well against 32 other men's teams. It was very apparent it was a physical and fast-paced event. If there would have been, say five women's teams and 28 men's teams, there would be safety issues. In that way (getting bumped) was kind of a blessing. The back of the field always presents safety issues."
Kallner is now a real estate agent in Scottsdale, Ariz., and married to Mike Kallner, who rode for the Sig Ep team. They have three children: Ali, 15; Luke, 14; and Grace, 12. And they all ride bicycles competitively and recreationally, something she tracks directly back to the Little 500.
Kallner participated in a triathlon last week. This weekend, she'll travel to Austin, Texas, for a mountain bike competition.
"My message to all is that this can be the beginning of a great lifetime sport that they can share with their spouses and children for the rest of their lives. I encourage all my kids to do sports. You learn a lot of lessons about teamwork, about pushing yourself and giving 100 percent. You learn it in sports, but you live it in your life."
Gillum is an attorney in Winnetka, Ill., and the mother of twin daughters, Connie and Caroline. She, too, rides regularly, often with her girls.
"I really fell in love with riding when I was young, but it was so enhanced by riding out in the countryside around Bloomington," she said. "It was so beautiful and so gratifying. It really expanded my education down there by riding, being involved with the team. The team aspect is a whole other element of it."
Gillum and teammate Lee Ann Guzek Terhune will get the honor of starting Friday's race. "Yes," she chuckled, "We'll actually get to say those immortal words, 'Ladies, mount your Schwinn bicycles.' I've probably only missed five or so races since I left. But this one is going to be special."
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