Natalie Laser can’t contain the emotion. She’s visibly excited, wearing a wide smile across her face and her eyes as bright as the afternoon sun. Her first real jersey just came in.
It’s April 2, 23 days away from race day – the very first race day in Ski Club Cycling history. And it’s the day those very first jerseys have just come in. Of course, that meant the team had to change immediately, despite it being the middle of practice.
“Look at our new jerseys!” she said. “Aren’t they awesome?!”
For Ski, a first-year team with four rookie riders that did not come together until January, everything about the track, the bikes, the race is reason for excitement.
Just earlier in the day, back before the team had its actual jerseys, the team had been pondering a question about the bike. All four riders – Laser, Alex Benigni, Megan Huibregtse and Ashley King – are about the same height. Does this mean they should use just one bike on race day? Could they do that? Is that a good idea?
They’re not sure right now. But they giggle at the realization. It’s another exciting thought. It’s another new thought.
But the most exciting moment came on March 29, just four days before. It was Quals. It was a moment of triumph. It was a blur. It was exciting.
“I replay it in my head it was so exciting,” Laser said.
Last year, Laser experienced what she calls “the best day of my life.”
It was at Little 500, of course.
She wasn’t riding. At that point, she didn’t even know what coaster brakes, the brakes Little 500 bikes use, were. A Ski Club cycling team wasn’t even in the plans yet.
No, on April 20, 2013, Laser was in the Beta Theta Pi fan section of Bill Armstrong Stadium cheering on her brother, Tom.
She watched as Beta beat Delts across the finish line to win the race for the first time in 49 years. She ran down to the track in her gray Beta Cycling t-shirt and danced around the track during the victory lap.
Her brother had reached the pinnacle of Little 500 glory. And she was part of it.
Now, after graduating, he’s part of her Little 500 journey.
Tom returned to the track on March 29 for Quals. Before Ski took the track, he gave them a pep talk of encouragement.
During their run he stood in Turn 4 telling the riders when to slow down for the exchange.
“Tom has been a huge help,” Natalie said. “He’s such an inspiration.”
And when the final time went up, he was excited, too.
Natalie knew she wanted to get involved with the race after watching Tom win it all. And she had the group to do it. She spent most of her free time hanging out with fellow members of the Ski and Snowboard Club at IU. She just had to actually organize one of the largest student organizations on campus to get a team together.
It started with an email.
She, along with Benigni – one of her best friends – emailed the club in September about trying to put a team together. By October, Laser, along with King, was competing in the fall cycling series.
“I didn’t do so hot,” Natalie said. “It was kinda rough.”
But, she said, at least she didn’t fall off her bike.
Laser’s next email was to Bloomington Velo News, a website that publishes Little 500 information. She wanted to see if they could put something out about finding a coach.
They did, and she quickly got an email back from Tom Saccone, a name familiar for all Little 500 riders.
Saccone uses a training method called motorpacing in which he rides his motorcycle at a certain speed to control how fast the bikes behind him must go to keep pace with him. This way he can work the riders up to the exact lap times he thinks they need to do.
Saccone has used this training method with several former Little 500 champions from recent years, including Eric Young from Cutters, R.J. Stuart from Delta Tau Delta and Will Kragie from Beta Theta Pi. Those account for the winners from the past three years on the men’s side.
After seeing the posting on the Bloomington Velo site, Saccone was immediately interested. He liked that he was inheriting athletes. And after training multiple riders, he was ready to commit to being a coach.
It was an exciting opportunity for him, too.
But he had his work cut out for him.
At the first meeting he organized for the team, only three of the four riders even had bikes. His first objective was to get the team real race bikes.
“It was pretty funny, to be quite honest,” he said.
After that, he dropped off trainers and rollers at their houses so they could practice during the winter months. He gave them DVDs of European races and some Little 500 footage, too.
When he’d break down tape for them, he’d point to moves made in last year’s race by Emma Caughlin and Ashton DeHahn of Teter, and Kayce Doogs, who sprinted to the finish for Delta Gamma.
He allowed them to go to Telluride, Colo., for the Ski Club winter break ski trip, but when they came back, they devoted their lives to cycling. By the time spring break rolled around, they decided to stay in Bloomington to work on training instead of going on their namesake’s ski trip.
“They dug in pretty deep,” Saccone said.
Since then, he’s spent most of his time motorpacing the team. He keeps all of their training to short bursts and focuses exclusively on speed training. The team has never gone on a road ride longer than 25 miles with Saccone. He has them do everything short and fast because, he says, the race itself is short and fast. He’s training them to be track riders, not road riders.
And he knows if he can get their speed up, their exchanges will be fine. Despite not learning how to do full exchanges until mid-late February during rookie week, he said watching them exchange bikes “was like ballet” because of their natural athletic abilities. Laser said the team was never afraid of making the jump to the bike. They just did it. Now, Laser says exchanging bikes is fun.
Two weeks before Qualifications, he had them up to 48-second lap times. If all four riders did that, it would have resulted in the team qualifying 30th. Only 33 teams make the race. And this year, two women’s teams wouldn’t even qualify, with 35 attempting a qualifications run.
“I was thinking,” Saccone said, “‘Well, they’re probably going to qualify, but it’s going to be right at the end and I’m going to have to stay here all night long and watch all the teams go.’”
The morning of qualifications couldn’t have gone less according to plan.
Just shortly before the first run was scheduled to go, it was announced that due to the rain, Quals were going to be delayed five hours.
The team’s nerves had been up and down going into that Saturday. Huibregtse said at times she felt confident and trusted the team’s training. But the night before Quals, she woke up at 3 a.m. and crawled into the fetal position because of her nerves. She lost focus on school.
When she had first arrived in Bloomington, all she knew about Little 500 was that there were concerts during that week. She didn’t even know there was a race until someone showed her “Breaking Away.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what Little 5 is,” she said. In January, she joined as the team’s fourth member.
King, who had done the fall series with Laser, said now she has gotten so accustomed to the coaster brakes of the race bike that she almost hits people on her way to class because she tries to coaster brake on her road bike and nothing happens.
The team had someone at the track whenever it was open.
All of that work, and it hinged on how the team did on this late-March afternoon.
“I was so nervous,” King said, “I could hardly eat.”
Huibregtse tried to do homework during the delay. That didn’t work.
So King went to Hobby Lobby and bought coloring books. The team got together and colored while belting “Let it Go.”
And then it was time. Their first real test. Had the training actually worked? Could this four-member rookie team pieced together at the beginning of October and finalized in January qualify for the race that makes up the World’s Greatest College Weekend?
The team picked its own qualifying order, one of Saccone’s ideas.
They chose to have Benigni do the fly lap, followed by King, Laser and, finally, the freshman Huibregtse, the only freshman on the team.
Benigni took the bike, and during the warm-up lap, Saccone said he saw her reach her top speed when coming out of Turn 3. She never slowed down.
And she did a 39-second lap. Nine seconds faster than the team had done just a week and a half ago.
The exchange to King went flawlessly. Three riders and two exchanges away from making the race.
King completed another quick lap. And the girl who fears getting off the bike more than getting on had no trouble jumping off and handing the bike to Laser.
From there, Laser doesn’t remember anything. All she remembers is screaming when she handed the bike off to Huibregtse.
She looked up at the clock, just one more rider had to successfully circle around the track. And their time was better than they had ever seen.
“Oh my gosh,” she thought. “We have a chance at this.”
“Don’t screw this up,” Huibregtse thought. “You can do this. You got this.
“It’s gotten all the way to you. You can do this.”
The rest is a blur. Until the finish line.
Laser looked up at the clock, showing the final time. 2:51.29. About 21 seconds better than their practice times.
“I was in shock,” Laser said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
And in the ultimate display of a rookie team, Huibregtse biggest question after crossing the finish line was what to do with the bike. And now her biggest fear was falling after completing the lap.
“That’d be really embarrassing,” she said.
The time stood up throughout the day. The team qualified seventh overall, faster than Caughlin and DeHahn at Teter and faster than Doogs’ former team Delta Gamma. Better than the riders Saccone had showed them as some of the best riders in the field.
“These girls have what it takes to stay in the front,” Saccone said, “they just don’t know it yet.”
And Laser said Saccone looked – just as the team did – beyond excited.
“There’s nothing that they can’t do,” the rookie coach said. “This is a real success story. They’ve proven something to themselves that they didn’t think they could do.
“This is exactly what the Little 500 should be all about.”