Naperville native Will Wagner helps the Black Key Bulls win the 2024 Little 500

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The Little 500 cycling race is an annual phenomenon held every April on the campus of Indiana University for over 70 years. Modeled after the legendary Indianapolis 500, the Little 500 is a 200 lap bicycle race where over 30 teams made up for four riders per team ride around the track at Bill Armstrong Stadium in front of nearly 20,000 students, alumni and fans. The race gained national prominence as the subject of the acclaimed 1979 movie, “Breaking Away” starring Dennis Quaid and Dennis Christopher. That film, helped set the wheels in motion that eventually lead to Will Wagner, a Naperville native and Benet Academy alum with little cycling experience before attending IU, crossing the Little 500 finish line in first place this spring.

“So actually, growing up, I never really like doing cardio. I played hockey in lacrosse. So I played that throughout high school. And then coming to Indiana University and seeing that the little 500 was a huge event. My dad wanted me to, watch a movie called Breaking Away, and that’s pretty much outlines the story of how the race is,” Little 500 participant Will Wagner explained. “I was never really into cardio or endurance sports. But my dad used to race, bikes back in the day. And then my mom also did, marathons. So I kind of had like the genetic background in just like two parents that really did that. So that inspired me. And just coming to the campus and seeing how big it really was was something that I thought was so cool.”

The Little 500 is a great time and a great cause

Organized by the Indiana University Student Foundation with the proceeds raising money for student scholarships, the largest collegiate bike race in the country has been held since 1951 with the 100 lap women’s race introduced in 1988 . Most of the teams that compete in the race each year have been involved for decades, with coaches and sponsors to help the new group of cyclists prepare throughout the year. Wagner joined the Black Key Bulls early in his freshmen year at IU, a traditionally strong team that had won the Little 5 in 2014 and 2017.

“I think that’s what really sets us apart from other teams, is that we all, like, have this shared connection of wanting to win the race and being competitive, but also off the bike. We are like, genuine and really like to be friendly and like cool people on campus,” said Wagner.

While there are other races held throughout the week, the Little 500 is the main event with four riders from each team racing just over 50 miles around the track. There must be at least ten exchanges completed in the designated area throughout the race and every rider uses the exact same style of bike to maintain competitive balance.

The Black Key Bulls hoped for a story of redemption

The Black Key Bulls had redemption on their minds this year after failing to qualify in 2023. Heading into the 2024 Little 500, Will Wagner and his teammates wanted to focus on the smaller details and improve the team culture rather than overly relying on having the fastest team speed.

“I felt like that was on an all time low for the team. And just coming back this year, I’d say the team culture shifted a lot, and we were a lot more focused on the small details and the aspects that are actually going to win us the race. and then just coming in this year, we were really focused on those exchanges, which got us third in the qualifying, and that was an awesome experience,” said Wagner.

Will Wagner breaks the tape for the Black Key Bulls

In front of thousands of cheering fans, team BKB, which also included Wiley Close, McGuire Wolf and Jack Handlos was near the front throughout the race, which takes over two hours to complete. Wagner was the “sprinter” for the team and was chosen to be the first rider at the start and the last down the home stretch. With five laps to go, Wagner took over with his team in front by around ten seconds. The junior was able to maintain the lead and hold off a late push from The Cutters and Delta Tau Delta to win the 2024 Little 500.

“I was counting down the laps and it was just surreal. Like all the support from the fans behind us and all the people that were on the bike, it was just like an awesome experience. There were over 15,000 people in attendance, and when I got on the bike at 196 to close off with four more laps, it was like starting to set in and I was like, man, we actually have a huge shot at winning right now. And I just went out there and did what had to be done and brought it home, and it was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” said Wagner.

For Will Wagner, the thrill of a Little 500 victory hammered home the idea that people should be open to trying new things, even ones that may involve activities you never thought you would enjoy.

“I think everyone should always try to get out of their comfort zone and try both new things and new experiences. and in my case, that cycling and I’m just so grateful that I did that and was able to meet some of my best friends in my life. And like people that I’ve actually created change within my life, positive change. So I think just keeping an open mind and always trying to find new ways to connect with others and even if it’s not your thing, it’s still like something new experience to say that you tried it and you learn and grow, which I think is important for everyone to do,” Wagner explains.

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