By: Jordan Siden, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2017, History, Bloomington
The news was announced in the fall of 1987. After 37 years on the sidelines, women finally won the opportunity to race on bicycles in the inaugural Women’s Little 500.
Though the race would comprise just half as many laps as the men’s race, the victory had been hard fought. Since the 1970s, female riders had been agitating to race on the same stage as the men. Beginning in the mid-Eighties, the work of a passionate and organized group of women successfully convinced the IUSF that it was finally time to stage a separate race for women.
Incidentally, the Mini, which for the past decade had been consumed by tension over the dilemma of inclusion, was split in 1988 along gender lines, too.
“Men will compete against men and women will compete against women,” commanded the IUSF with Biblical severity in the 1988 Mini 500 rules and regulations handbook. There was to be a men’s division and a women’s division, and at last it seemed equality had prevailed for IU’s Little 500 Weekend.
When IDS sports writer David J. Neal covered the 1988 qualifications, his report presented apathetic, carefree riders who were more interested in having a good time than winning. “It’s difficult to take competition on a tricycle as a life-and-death thing,” Neal wrote. “After all, this is an object preschoolers pedal.”
That week, two Mini 500 organizers, both women, wrote to the IDS saying they were “appalled” by the coverage: “David J. Neal’s story makes the trike race seem silly, and he implies that the teams that participate do not take it seriously.” They reminded him that all the proceeds from the Mini, “a part of the ‘World’s Greatest College Weekend’ for 34 years,” go toward fundraising for working students.
A debate raged in the opinion pages of the IDS for weeks. “The Mini was never intended to be a forum for world peace, but a counterpart to Little 500,” an IUSF member defended. “The idea, both in conception and execution, is to raise funds for working students through entertaining activities that are planned and managed by students.”
In another letter, the IUSF chairman, a senior, asked, “If the concept of the Mini 500 is in fact idiotic, why has it continued for 34 years?” Another student wrote a more pressing question posed itself: “Why did it take 34 years for the IUSF to figure out that women can ride bicycles?”
“Now that there is finally a real women’s 500 . . . we should no longer have to pretend that tricycle racing is a serious sport, and can enjoy the Mini 500 as a fun—and silly—event,” he wrote.
In the end, the IDS published a technical and sober recap of the 1988 tricycle race. The article made little fuss about the fact the Mini had been split in two gendered divisions, other than mentioning that one male rider was happy the divisions would promote better participation—for women.
So what was to be made of the Mini in the era of the Women’s Little 500? Was it, as the IUSF insisted, simply a revenue producing attraction? Was it an embarrassing showcase of immaturity unfit for the university?
Coverage of the Mini began to change, yet again. The emphasis on competition that pervaded accounts of the Mini since the mid-Sixties began to make way for lighthearted features gleefully writing about the novelty of college students “finding fun in trikes,” as the IDS wrote as a headline for its coverage of the 1990 race. An IU News Bureau press release in 1992 innocuously called the Mini a “lighthearted activity in which both men and women participate.”
The attention the IDS, the Arbutus yearbook and local newspapers once gave to covering the Mini was almost immediately repelaced by coverage of women’s bicycle race. Gone from the papers were the qualifying speeds of the Mini published below the bicycle qualifiers — they had been substituted by the qualifying times for the Women’s Little 500, and news of the Mini got buried in the back.
The Mini had become, once again, more of a carnival than a competition. “We are upping the enthusiasm by setting up more fun activities at the event such as dressing up in Star Wars outfits and having breaks in the main trike action to show funny trike tricks,” one organizer said before the 1998 race.
By the mid-1990s, the custom of dressing up in costumes returned to the Mini for the first time since the Sixties. In 1995, a third, co-ed, division was added to the Mini, a sign that college students were less interested in a “battle of the sexes” than they were a good time.
No one knew at the 2002 Mini 500 that they were attending the last-ever running of the Little 500’s historic tricycle race. In another time, the Mini had inspired months of training and heated rivalry. But in its last running, the race was another fun event in a raucous weekend.
The Star Spangled Banner performed on an electric guitar inaugurated “Trikin’ In the USA.” “Some trikers were out just for the fun of the night but won a couple of heats and surprised themselves,” wrote the IDS. “Some competitors came just to display their costumes.”
“It was one of the best Mini 500s I’ve ever been to,” an IUSF organizer said. The event was growing in popularity, said another. “The most important thing is that everyone enjoyed themselves and had a good time.”
But despite last year’s fun, the IUSF announced in February 2003 that it would discontinue the Mini 500. Director Jonathan Purvis told the IDS that the decision was due to a decline in spectator interest as well as a lack of desire to replacing the now-aging custom-built tricycles. But it was perhaps an absence of a rationale — a gradual erosion of purpose — that finally dismantled the tricycle race.
“At its high point, the nature of the event was extremely competitive before the Women’s Little 500,” Purvis said. “But, with the advent of the women’s race, the competition level went down. First, it was a fun part of the weekend, but then [switched] to an at times unsafe and certainly not sober weekend, which is not the image IUSF wants to present.”
The Mini was to be replaced with the Little Fifty, a relay race with a men’s and women’s division. The IUSF said the new event, with fewer obstacles to participate than the bicycle race, was intended to “involve more students and increase the overall participation in Little 500 activities.”
An IDS staff editorial condemned the IUSF the following week for throwing “forty-eight years of tradition,” and a “highlight of Little 500,” to the wayside: “While the Little Fifty is a great idea, it will certainly not fill the void of the Mini 500. Simply stated, it’s hard to run on a cinder track in a chicken costume.”
But the notion that the Mini had run its course prevailed. By the beginning of the 21st century, the tricycle felt like an outdated relic. “The Mini does have a celebrated past but it is best suited for a time before Title IX,” wrote one student to the IDS. “Although the Mini was a coed event it was in essence replaced by the Women’s Little 500, which is a much more challenging and suitable event for today’s women.”
The decision was final, and the next year the Mini disappeared from the Little 500 weekend.
But traditions can be difficult to part with. In 2007, Kappa Alpha Theta, a sorority, organized a restaging of the Mini 500. In the “Little Trike Hundred,” IU students once again rode oversized tricycles in the days leading up to the Little 500 weekend — though this time not under the lights of Assembly Hall, but in its parking lot.
The rules stipulated that each team was to include two men and two women. “We’re really trying to involve the whole campus,” the sororities’ vice president of public relations told the IDS. The race’s motto: “If you can’t bike it, trike it.”
Just as it originated in 1955, it was a sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, who organized the tricycle race for college students. Though the event raised over $2,000 for the sororities’ national philanthropy project, the “Little Trike Hundred” wasn’t staged again.
Today, a tricycle that was once pedaled in the Mini 500 sits in the IU Visitor’s Center on Indiana Avenue. It’s one of the few reminders left of what was once the great sideshow to the Little 500 — and for most of its history one of the weekend’s few avenues of competition for women.
Otherwise, the Mini 500 has all but disappeared from the consciousness of IU’s student body. That female students were once encouraged to race on tricycles, while male students rode on bicycles, raises eyebrows among today’s students who first hear of the event.
In its beginnings as the competitive option for women in the Little 500 weekend, the Mini 500 was staged as an unserious and childlike counterpart to the men’s bicycle race. Though in the 1950s the race may have seemed like an appropriate way to include women in the rapidly expanding Little 500, by the 1970s much of the pageantry disappeared from the Mini as it adopted a more athletic presentation suited for changing ideas about women’s rights.
Though the Mini was a difficult competition that gradually developed into a showcase of women’s speed, agility and strength, donning an athletic veneer couldn’t hide the fact that for decades, every spring at IU, men raced bicycles while women raced on toys. The history of the Mini provides a fascinating window into changing gender expectations and social roles among college students in the second half of the 20th century.
Various struggles for inclusion have peppered the history of the Little 500. While women were consistently denied entry into the bicycle race, the Mini became a stage for a “battle of the sexes” that dogged the race throughout the 1980s. Men came to dominate the Mini, and took away what little athletic role women had as part of the “World’s Greatest College Weekend.”
The Mini changed as ideas of gender roles changed. The era of the Women’s Little 500, and the subsequent decline of the tricycle race, exposed the Mini as a surviving remnant of a less-equal past.
Although it disappeared in 2002, the Mini persisted for nearly a half-century of changing expectations for college women. With every passing Little 500 weekend, the Mini communicated the message that women at IU were unequal, inferior and undeserving of being taken seriously.
Examining the Mini 500 reveals one way inequality become an embedded part of student culture at IU. Its history may inspire all of us at IU to pause and see what other ways inequality manifests in ways unquestioned and unchallenged.
The above video is a preview of Jordan Siden’s research collected from IU Student Foundation promotional material of the Little 500 weekend. These films contain footage of the Mini 500 throughout the years, and Jordan assembled and edited these clips to help give viewers a more detailed sense of what the Mini 500 looked like and how it evolved. Housed in the IU Archives, a portion of the reel-to-reel films were digitized by the IU Moving Image Archive and are now housed in their online collection.
For part one and two of this blog, please visit: https://blogs.iu.edu/bicentennialblogs/2017/04/17/the-mini-500-the-gendered-history-of-a-forgotten-tradition-part-1/
 Schwarb, The Little 500, 127-8
 “1988 Mini Rules and Regulations,” Indiana University Student Foundation, 1988.
 David J. Neal “Out to Lunch takes pole,” Indiana Daily Student, April 11, 1988, 9.
 Rebecca S. Thompson and Susan V. Hill, “How could you imply that Mini 500 isn’t important?” Indiana Daily Student, April 14, 1988, 2.
 Jeffery Grant Kagen, “Once again, Thomas Olofson has missed the boat,” Indiana Daily Student, April 25, 1988.
 Paul Rodes, “Mini 500 hasn’t always been great symbol of feminism,” Indiana Daily Student, April 27, 1988.
 David J. Neal, “Hellion’s, Demons win men’s women’s Mini 5,” Indiana Daily Student, April 25, 1988, 10.
 Rob Vogt, “College students find fun in trikes,” Indiana Daily Student: 1990 Little 500 Edition, 32.
 “Little 500 Activities Planned to Include Mellencamp Concert,” Indiana University News Bureau, February 25, 1992, 2.
 John Lind, “The ‘Force’ Behind the Mini,” 1998 Little 500, Indiana University Student Foundation, 1998, 27.
 “Mini 500 opens race weekend,” Indiana Daily Student, April 19, 2002, 8.
 Gavin Lesnick, “IUSF halts Mini 500 race tradition,” Indiana Daily Student, February 5, 2003, 11.
 “Information Packet: The inaugural Little Fifty,” Indiana University Student Foundation, April 13, 2002, 2.
 Andrew LeMar, “Staff Editorial: Tradition put to the side,” Indiana Daily Student, February 11, 2003, 6.
 Tom Schwoegler, “Jordan River Forum: Mini 500 not all it was cracked up to be,” Indiana Daily Student, February 18, 2003, 7.
 “Little Trike Hundred kicks off week of Little 500,” Indiana Daily Student, April 16, 2007, http://www.idsnews.com/article/2007/04/little-trike-hundred-kicks-off-week-of-little-500.