A Story of Friendship, Love, and Winning the First Women's Little 500 Race

In the triumphal spirit of Breaking Away comes the unforgettable true story of the first women’s Little 500 race at Indiana University.

In 1987 four young women from different walks of life enrolled at Indiana University. No one knew that these four freshmen would defy the odds and go down in history as the underdog team to win the first ever women’s Little 500 bicycle race the following spring. Willkie Sprint is the inspiring true story of that year of wonder and challenge, of the unbreakable bond they forged, and of the race they were determined to win.

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In the triumphal spirit of Breaking Away comes the unforgettable true story of the first women’s Little 500 race at Indiana University.

In 1987 four young women from different walks of life enrolled at Indiana University. No one knew that these four freshmen would defy the odds and go down in history as the underdog team to win the first ever women’s Little 500 bicycle race the following spring. Willkie Sprint is the inspiring true story of that year of wonder and challenge, of the unbreakable bond they forged, and of the race they were determined to win.

Kerry Hellmuth, a member of the legendary team Willkie Sprint, tells of that remarkable year of finding friendship and competitive purpose with her teammates, discovering the many beauties of Bloomington and the surrounding countryside from her bicycle, and embracing a larger world of insight and women’s rights through the guidance of remarkable professors. Hellmuth soon realized that her team did not ride alone: they rode to victory on the shoulders of so many bold and visionary women who came before, including the team of upperclassmen whose belief and perseverance had helped found the women’s Little 500 race and who were the heavy favorites to win in its inaugural year.

Willkie Sprint relives the thrilling race across 100 grueling laps, not only making it a story for the history books but also serving as an inspiring testament to all women riders on that landmark day.

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  • Indiana University Press
  • Paperback
  • April 2024
  • 214 Pages
  • 9780253069863

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About Kerry Hellmuth

Kerry Hellmuth spends many of her waking hours either riding a bike or figuring out how she can fit a ride into her schedule. She is a recovering attorney and also refuses to use the PhD in Behavioral Economics that she worked so hard to obtain late in life at the University of Trento in Italy. She lives in Trento with her two beloved teenage sons, who remind her on a daily basis that she is old and does not know anything.


“For many years women students on IU’s Bloomington campus participated in the events of Little 500 week by racing against one another on tricycles. In 1988 these entertainments were eclipsed by the inauguration of a 100 lap women’s bicycle race run on the same track as the men’s race. In her smart and engaging book Kerry Hellmuth, who competed in the inaugural race, recounts how the race was established, the arduous routines of training for it, and then in exciting chapters the running of the race itself. She also describes the making new friends, learning from outstanding teachers, studying in the hallways of the music school so that she could listen to students practicing, sleeping out all night in Brown County to look at the stars, and other pleasures and discoveries of her remarkably full first year as a university student.”Donald Gray, editor, The Well House Reader

“Woven through this gripping story of a bicycle race are threads of a larger and longer story about women’s struggle to gain the rights and opportunities enjoyed by men. Kerry Hellmuth and her cycling teammates, along with all the other competitors in that historic race, helped move our nation forward on the difficult, generations-long path toward gender equity. This lively memoir invites us along for the ride.”Scott Russell Sanders, author of Small Marvels

“Anytime a barrier is broken it is cause for celebration. Such is the case in Kerry Hellmuth’s real life tale of a team of young women making their way into a famed American competition too long denied to their kind. It takes a lot of perseverance to compete in Indiana’s famed Little 500 bike race. But it takes even more to make history. Somewhere The Cutters are smiling.”John Roach, author of Way Out Here in the Middle

With heart and humor, Kerry Hellmuth shares her cycling team’s journey to victory in the inaugural Women’s Little 500 — from their kick-off meeting to their final lap. This coming-of-age memoir documents an important first for women’s sports through the experiences of an underdog team. It’s a powerful story about perseverance, unbreakable friendships, falling in love, and learning who you are.” ~Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Meta, and Founder of LeanIn.org and OptionB.org 

“Willkie Sprint is a powerful coming-of-age memoir. Author Kerry Hellmuth shares her journey as she embarks on her first year at university, discovers her passion for cycling, forges friendships, and seizes an opportunity that generations of women before her never had: to compete in the inaugural women’s Little 500. Kerry details how she worked with her coach and teammates to plan, prepare, compete, and persevere through challenges to win, and falls in love in the process.” ~Dede Demet Barry, former professional cyclist and Olympic silver medalist 

Discussion Questions

1. Did you find Kerry Hellmuth’s story compelling? Why or why not?

2. What did you think of the author’s voice and style? How easy was it to “enter” the story and the author’s life? Did the quality of the writing help the story along or get in the way? Did you find the book easy to read, or a slog to get through?

3. What gaps do you wish the author had filled in? Were there points where you thought she shared too much?

4. How did the book compare to other memoirs you’ve read? In this memoir, we are presented a story that takes place essentially in the nine months of Hellmuth’s freshman year of college. Have you read any other memoirs that focus on a defined or distinct period of one’s life?

5. Memoirs often make us reflect on our own lives. Throughout Willkie Sprint, Kerry Hellmuth is reflecting on a pivotal moment in her own coming of age. Like many who attend college, she spends her first months away from home examining who she is, where she comes from, what has shaped her, and who she wants to be. Did you relate to the character’s questions? Did the memoir make you reflect on your own life?

6. Hellmuth says at one point that the fight for gender equality “was not something [she] knew much about.” How does her awakening to the history of past injustice make her feel? Why do you think she included this angle?

7. A second layer is contributed by the fact that Hellmuth is viewing her freshman year of college from 35 years later, hindsight 20/20. The author alternates between her own voice in 1987/88 at 18 years old during the events of that year, and her voice in 2023 as she writes the story at 53 years old. Did this work for you as a reader? Which voice did you relate to more?

8. What did you learn from hearing Hellmuth’s story? Did you Google anything as you read the book?

9. Are there any areas you wished the author had elaborated upon further? What question would you like to ask Hellmuth?

10. Think about the other people in the book besides the author. Do you have a favorite character? Why?

11. Are there any people in the book whose perspective you wanted? Hellmuth has written dialogue to express the characters of her roommate Karen, her coach Kevin, her five teammates, and her boyfriend Rob. She admits to recreating the conversations according to what she knows or knew of each. Are you curious about what they might in turn provide about her?

12. Hellmuth often educates her reader–about feminist figures, her university and its traditions, cycling, training, or other areas to help unveil her story. Of all the information presented in the book, which mini-lesson did you appreciate most? What has stayed with you the most?

13. What aspects of the author’s story could you most relate to? What is the story’s most important take-away lesson?

14. Hellmuth seeks to keep her readers engaged with humor. Did any scene recounted in the book get you laughing?

15. Our parents are the first influence on our world view and philosophy of living. Hellmuth circles back to her relationship with her parents throughout the book. At one point, she says that while parents present what they “[believe] as truth”, teenagers (Hellmuth being 18 during that year) “[challenge] a lot of what [their] parents say.” In other passages, however, it is clear that her parents have been very important in the development of her world view. Did you relate to the parental relationship expressed in the book? How effective is Hellmuth in expressing the duality in honoring one’s parents while separating from them?

16. Hellmuth falls in love for the first time during the freshman year she describes. How does she convey the joy of first love? How important is her relationship with Rob in the story’s arc?

17.How does Hellmuth use her college professors and moments in class to assist the story’s flow? We all have favorite subjects and teachers from our years as a student. Some earn that distinction because they force students to confront new or controversial material. Of her Women in Literature course, she says, “I had to decide where I stood. We all did.” How was Hellmuth’s experience in that course with Professor Susan Gubar different from her
experience in Professor Scott Sanders’ classroom?

18. Often authors are guided by a comparative work, and sometimes this work is even mentioned by name. In Willkie Sprint, Hellmuth draws parallels between herself and her team and the characters in the film Breaking Away. What significance does the film Breaking Away hold for Hellmuth, and how does she use it effectively in the book?

19. Hellmuth states that the reason there was so much press and media attention at the inaugural women’s Little 500 race was due to changing times: “All the specifics of Title IX were news to me, although I had benefited enormously from the changing winds, and attitudes, toward equality of opportunity for women, brought by the law.” What is the significance for Title IX to this story? Have you ever considered how Title IX or another law has been important in your own life?

20. Would you recommend this book to others? Would you be interested in reading another book by Hellmuth?


“Starting Anew”, an excerpt from Willkie Sprint: A Story of Love, Friendship and Winning the
First Little 500 Race
Choosing the university or college where you will pass four years of life can be daunting.
Expensive schools were not really an option in our family with five kids, but I doubt that they
would have interested me much anyway. As it turned out, my friend Roxanne invited me on a
long driving trip to visit her schools of interest during the summer before our senior year of high
school. I headed off for the two-week road trip with Roxanne, her parents, and two German
teenage exchange students they were hosting for the summer, Nico and Daniela. Roxy’s parents
had set up appointments to tour the campuses at universities including Duke, University of
North Carolina, William and Mary, University of Virginia, Clemson, and Vanderbilt. The trip
was a blast—four teenagers in the back of an Econoline van playing cards and swapping
mixtapes with one another to play on our Sony Walkmans. The highlight was five nights spent at
a Hilton Head hotel right on the beach. But neither Roxy nor I came home inspired by the
universities we visited.
They were, of course, her choices—or maybe even the colleges her parents chose for her—and
not mine. I knew that the schools were out of reach for me without sizable student loans, but I
tried to give them a fair look. I am sure my parents breathed a sigh of relief when I reported that
none of the schools on our trip appealed to me.
To round out our search, my mom took Roxy and me to see a few schools in the Big Ten
Conference, large public institutions established by state land grants. Northwestern was too
urban, we decided in unison. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign boasted a pretty
campus, but I knew somehow—maybe just a feeling but one I trusted—that it was not for me.
Marching around campus on a gray day with an engineering student as our guide, we agreed
that Purdue held little appeal. At Indiana University, we both knew nearly upon exiting the car:
we had (both) found our spot. The enclosed campus boasted all the manicured beauty of the
eastern schools we had visited, but Bloomington had a far more relaxed midwestern vibe. Any
pretension we had noted elsewhere certainly did not exist in the sleepy south central Indiana
college town.
On a sunny fall day, the IU campus is hard to beat. Its stunning canopy boasts over twenty
species, including yellowwood, sugar maple, flowering dogwood, tulip, and ginkgo trees.
Well-maintained gardens and amazing flower beds cap off the natural beauty, and the
man-made structures are no less impressive. The university buildings were crafted using the
same stately Indiana limestone used to construct the Empire State Building. Quarried right
there in central Indiana, the classic limestone complemented the campus’s Gothic and art deco
architectural styles well. I felt an immediate connection to the place. In the end, Roxanne
applied to a number of schools. I applied to just one. With decent SAT scores and high school
grades, I was admitted early, and that was that.
In August 1987, just a few days after my eighteenth birthday, my dad and I packed up the family
VW Rabbit and made the journey from my own college town home of Madison, Wisconsin, down
to Bloomington. The loaded moment, the one that every parent dreads and every young high
school graduate looks forward to, had arrived: the college drop-off. At some point during our
seven-hour drive, I remember Dad recounting to me the story of the moment that he had
dropped my brother Dave off at University of Minnesota three years earlier. Apparently Dave
had opened the car door outside of his dorm upon arrival, spread his arms wide, and said loudly,
“Finally!” I made a point not to do the same.
Feeling ready and excited to start college life, I settled into my room on the top (eleventh) floor
of Willkie North, an all-female tower that was paired with the all-male Willkie South. A dining
hall between the two completed the complex; there, I ended up getting a part-time job where
several months later I served peaches to a cute boy living in Willkie South. He became my first
love, but we will get to that in time.
I felt relieved and fortunate when I met my roommate, Karen. I remem- ber the apprehension
before she arrived and during those months before I headed off to college. I wondered if we
would get along well and hoped that we would. Any fears dissipated upon meeting her. An
out-of-state student like me, hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, Karen arrived with a big smile and
lots of energy. She was fun-loving, and we became fast friends. We were a good match—both
being out-of-state and academically motivated students. A big bonus was that her father was
skilled at constructing anything we needed for our little space. He took measurements of the
beds and showed up a few weeks later with a perfectly measured loft for my bed that gave us way
more space.
In our outward appearances, Karen and I were opposites. While I was tall and dark, Karen was
short, blond, and freckled. But we gelled right away, chatting, laughing, blasting music, and
belting out the words to songs like the Cure’s “Close to Me” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry” as
we decorated our living space, bought our supplies at the college bookstore, and ate late-night
pizza. As we checked out campus and downtown, we joked that Karen took two steps for every
one of mine, her little legs motoring along. While she measured less than five feet tall, Karen
nonetheless matched my quick pace with ease. Together, Karen and I bemoaned the fact that, on
our long V-shaped dormitory floor, we had been unlucky enough to land the corner room
directly across from Crystal, the senior student RA whose job it was to supervise our entire floor.
At the welcome meeting for the students on our floor, Crystal told us that the dorm wanted to
enter a team in the women’s Little 500 bicycle race. My hand shot up when she asked who was
interested in riding in the race. A tom- boy who had always tried to keep up with two older
brothers, I had competed in every sport that came my way growing up. My childhood
neighborhood was filled with big families, and we kids were outside playing endlessly. Soc- cer
and football in the street. Hours spent trying to perfect riding a wheelie (I never did). Winters
full of pickup hockey games at the local park. Endless rounds of basketball and H-O-R-S-E in
Katie McCormick’s driveway court. I did even more of the same on teams. Starting at age five
with both swim team and soccer team, over the following years I also joined T-ball, softball,
tennis, volleyball, and basketball teams, followed by running cross-country and doing triathlons
in high school. Needless to say, I committed to racing in the first women’s Little 500 bicycle race
for my dormitory team in an instant upon hearing about it.
Soon enough, signs appeared all over our dorm: “Love to ride a bike? Join our Little 500 team!
Come learn more.” I planned to attend the informational meeting that would take place a few
weeks later. I tried to talk Karen into joining me. Following the lead of the organizers who
clearly understood the never-ending hunger of eighteen-year-olds, I pointed to the promise of
free pizza to all who attended. Karen was unpersuaded. In fact, she looked at me as if I were
crazy. Either crazy for suggesting she do the race or crazy for wanting to participate myself, I was
not sure which. I got the same response from my other new college dormitory friends. It seemed
that there were not too many high school athletes like myself. Those who had participated in
high school sports seemed happy to have replaced them with the oh-so-satisfying college
activities of (a) partying and (b) excessive lounging.
This revealed what I had started to perceive from my first days on campus: I was a fish out of
water. There were not many matches for my athletic sensibility and love of competing in any
sport, any time. As far as my effort to convince Karen went, I failed. However, to her credit—at
least in my opinion—she later joined our dormitory’s Mini 500 tricycling team. There she
discovered a sporting activity that perfectly favored her four-foot-eleven-inch height.
At the first meeting of the Willkie Little 500 team, I learned that my enthusiasm for the race was
matched by an ample group of guys who wanted to race on our men’s team. Either that or they
showed up for the free pizza. In any case, I was happy to see the activity was co-ed and that some
handsome fellows were involved. Unfortunately, there weren’t many females excited about
racing. Several who showed initial interest would end up disappearing after they learned more
about the commitment involved.
An earnest, spiky-haired RA from Mason Hall, Kevin Wentz, took charge of the meeting. Once
we had grabbed our slices of pizza, he started in: “OK, so welcome, everyone. I’m Kevin and
this—” with his hand, he indicated the blond, rosy-cheeked RA at his side, who flashed us a
smile, “is Kristin. So we called this meeting, and we wanted to do it early, because this year we
really want people to know about the Little 500. It’s a bike race where housing units compete
against one another. So it’s fraternities versus other fraternities and dorms and
independents—people who live off-campus. This year, they’re gonna have a women’s race. It’s
the first time. It’s a pretty big deal.” He paused as if reliving some memory of past Little 500
races. “So, anyway, we want to support it. We want to be there, as a dorm, to have a team of you
girls racing in it. We want to have both—a men’s and a women’s team.”


For more information about Willkie Sprint and the author’s journey to publication, we recommend checking out these articles:

Pez Bookshelf Feature

Cycling News Article

The Cap Times Article

Outside Article