BLOOMINGTON – 3PH Cycling came into this year’s Little 500 wanting to prove they can compete with the field’s best.
Saturday, they did just that.
The second-year team finished in fifth to build on their eighth place finish from a year ago. With 10 laps to go, they were hanging around with eventual winner Delta Tau Delta, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Black Key Bulls and Cutters before falling off pace in the closing laps to finish just over 24.108 seconds back.
“We started this team with the mentality that this is where we want to be,” sophomore Matthew Thompson said. “We started this team to be competitive, not just to be around. I think we’re only going to move up.”
3PH, a group of friends who started the team on a whim, has begun turning heads in the Little 500 community. They qualified 11th place, managed the race the way they said they wanted to and put themselves in a position to almost win the race.
“I think their secret today was not wearing a single-colored jersey,” said SAE’s Andy Krahulik, referencing 3PH’s blue and black jersey selection. “They were under a lot of peoples’ radar, which kind of let them do a lot of good breaks. I think everyone just underestimated them, which is not smart to do. They’re strong.”
3PH’s strength was combined with a bit of self-admitted luck that kept them in the main pack throughout the day as perennial favorites began to drop battling rough track conditions. But whenever there were miscues, 3PH was able to manage them.
Take for example the incident just before midway that left junior Reid Wilson riding through the grass and around the hay bales in Turn 3. What could have easily turned into a race-ending wreck became an incident worth laughing about when he held onto the bike and rejoined the track as if nothing happened.
“Reid pulled a Lance Armstrong,” said junior Mitchell Duke, comparing the incident to Armstrong riding off course in Stage 9 of the 2003 Tour de France. 3PH rebounded quickly to lead the field at the halfway point for a second consecutive year, an accomplishment they take pride in.
“Lady Luck really played into our hand,” Thompson said. “You know just as well as I do, this race is just as much luck as it is skill. Avoiding wrecks, even though we would end up in one, is huge.”
As Thompson referenced, 3PH would wind up in a Turn 1 crash on lap 102 that took out a number of lead teams. Duke was on the bike at the time and said it was a situation where he was stuck in the middle when a rider in front of him went down and blocked the track.
“We talked about that exact type of scenario before the race,” Thompson said. “If you go down, there’s no point in slamming your helmet. You get your ass back up and get on the bike.”
Duke did just that, grabbing the bike next to him and rejoining the field as quickly as he could.
Before long, 3PH had worked with other teams involved in the crash like SAE to rejoin the main pack where they rode conservatively until the end of the race.
“You’ve got to ride like you deserve to be there,” Thompson said. “This year, our game plan was to animate the race and sit on the front six or seven wheels. We’re going to sit here, take our pulls if necessary. If not, fall back into the pack. We wanted to be in a position to attack.”
In that sense, 3PH’s race went according to plan. The top-5 finish was a culmination of the work the team has put in since its formation as well as a reminder that independent teams with the right tools and athletes can compete.
3PH can turn to the likes of the Black Key Bulls, an independent team that’s now a perennial favorite to win the race. With literally the entire team coming back and more recruits still working behind the scenes, 3PH has reason to believe they’re building something that could last in Bloomington.
Perhaps the most optimistic sign was the feeling of regret immediately after the race. Even in finishing fifth, 3PH said it could have done better. Next year, they’ll have their chance.
“Finishing fifth is solid, but we still didn’t finish in the lead pack which is really fucking surprising because it was such a fucking hard pace out there. I mean really fast,” Thompson said. “To see the distance between fourth and fifth and those top-three guys, that’s definitely one of our goals is to finish int hat sprint.”