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Forest Cycling

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Olivia Corya | Inside

Ward, Portolese, and Clark (along with the rest of the team, not pictured) gather in a self-congratulatory huddle after the race. They were ecstatic about their better-than-expected 16th place out of 33, as Clark explained, it felt like 1st place to them.

Published on May. 2, 2012 | Print | Share | Recommend ()

Inside the huddle, Neal Ward quotes Lil’ Wayne.

The line is an inside joke, a declaration of team unity. It’s also a coping method, a defense against the anxiety tightening his chest, flipping the half-digested banana in his stomach. How else can he breathe, let alone bike the Little 500?

He clears his voice, bows his head.

“F—k bitches, get money.”

The Forest Cycling riders laugh, squeezing the circle closer in Pit 20. Absurdity, often with no context, is a core part of team language and bonding. The less literal, the better.

A voice booms over the track’s loudspeaker, shifting the mood from giddy to dead serious: “Welcome to the World’s Greatest College Weekend.”

Oh my God, Neal thinks. Oh my God.

“This is it,” he yells, cutting through the crowd roar. “This is why we’re here. There is no tomorrow. There is no other race.”

They whoop, slap each other on the backs. Behind the track’s chain-linked fence, a man with a neon green tree painted across his chest screams, “Forest!”

Neal’s cheer section is small, compared to a neighboring group of Alpha Epsilon Pi brothers openly swilling vodka from flasks. He sees his mother, clapping and clapping, his father, a man who works 60-hour weeks in Chicago and took the afternoon off. He sees a smiling brunette, the girl he wants to ask out—someday.

Adrenaline spikes. Emotion kicks in.

He tries not to puke.

“Put everything out there,” he says, as the line-ups are called. “And no wrecks! Seriously, no wrecks.”

The riders put their hands in the middle, arms stiff, faces straight.

“Forest on three,” Neal yells, closing his eyes. 

 “One, two, three—Forest!”

***

For two years, Neal’s dream kept shattering. Building a Little 500 cycling team, his idea of a true Indiana University legacy, felt like the first afternoon he spent pedaling uphill in Brown County.

He started strong—motivated, excited, eyes on the tree-lined horizon—and hell yes, he owns this road despite the sweating and chaffing and muscle burn until, without warning, one leg cramps and smack! His cheek meets the pavement.

Inevitable, the 21-year-old says, when you’re getting started.

Forest Cycling, the group he organized from scratch as a sophomore Resident Assistant, has crashed twice now.

During the 2011 race qualifications, they were the only team to fault out.

Then, one September evening, two core riders abruptly quit.

It was a quick, awkward exchange after a ride down State Road 46. One approached Neal and spoke casually, removing his helmet: “We wanted to tell you in person. We’re joining another team. They’ve got more money, more resources, history and, honestly, a better chance of winning.”

“Okay,” Neal told them.

Inside, he screamed expletives: “F---! How the f—k will we ever have a chance?”

Then, as he often does now, Neal glanced at the LIVESTRONG band on his wrist—the bracelet his hero Lance Armstrong made famous. The scuffed yellow rubber is a sort of sacred touchstone, a constant reminder.

Lance overcame testicular cancer, for God’s sake.

I can overcome a couple quitters, Neal thought.

When the internal chaos settled, he sat down and emailed the Forest Residence Hall list-serv: “Attention, residents! Forest Cycling is having a call-out meeting…”

No one responded.

He taped posters around campus, updated his Facebook status with call-out information. Every class, every lunch at Wright food court, every conversation at the bus stop was another chance to ask around.

By January, Forest Cycling had six guys—enough for a race team, plus two reserves. Three were freshmen, two displaced by a recently defunct Teter team.

It was a shallow roster. A start.

They qualified in March, after six weeks of practice. Friends decorated their dormitory building with Little 500 posters. The next month meant morning rides through Monroe County, afternoon practices at the track, a full course load of homework by evening.

“It’s an epic battle,” he says, “between you and yourself.”

***

It happens the second he looks away.

On lap 33, Neal rounds the third corner, touching his helmet to signify “bike exchange.” He watches his teammate in the pit, whose eyes are suddenly wide.

“Wreck!“

There’s no time to stop or swerve. Before he can re-grip the handlebars, Neal flies straight into the pile-up, running over an Alpha Tau Omega rider who’s facedown in the gutter.

Infield photographers rush over. The crowd groans. Disoriented, Neal stands and wipes the gravel from his hands.

My bike, he thinks, I’ve got to get to my bike.

He sees three on the track ahead, tires spinning.

Which is his? They’re all red.

He runs, grabs for one.

Different height. Wrong.

Then he spots the Schwinn marked “20.”

Bingo.

He breaks into a sprint, tries to mount it, stumbles and falls again.

Ten seconds are gone before he catches his stride—but, in a way, the scramble felt empowering.

Neal watches the race tape later and laughs.

It was brutal and raw. It reveals character: He fell, got back up, fell, got back up.

“At the time, it was the worst thing in the world,” Neal says. “But man, did I look hilarious.”

***

Now, The Forest Cycling riders hang out every day.

Zack, a junior transfer student, is the joker. After endurance rides, he calls for a “man check!” and smacks the crotch of whoever’s closest. If the victim winces in pain, he’s a man—by Zack’s definition.

“But this guy doesn’t wince,” he says, nudging Neal. “He’s a little girl.”

Jon, another junior transfer, chimes in during Zack’s teasing.

“Don’t call him a girl,” he says. “He’s a little bitch.”

“Yes, it’s true,” Neal says, grinning. “You caught me.”

Kyle, Austin, and Bo—the freshmen—stay clear of the gender jokes, but laugh. They joined Forest for a chance to race this spring, a luxury generally afforded to the upperclassmen on bigger teams. They’re outspoken in bursts, still testing relationships and boundaries.

Everyone acknowledges Neal as the team rock. And because he’s unmovable, Zack and Jon constantly try to move him.

“The insults come from a place of love,” Jon says, laughing. “He’s our favorite target.”

“Ah,” Neal replies. “Thanks, Jon.”

But when the guy who shrugs off “little bitch” gets angry, everyone listens. It’s a rare sight. It commands attention.

Three weeks before the race, in the Forest lobby, Neal’s calm exterior breaks.

“No matter what happens, we’re crushing Dodds House,” he announces, referencing the team his former riders quit to join.

“We will, Neal,” Zack says. “We absolutely will.”

“Destroy them,” Jon says.

“We know we can do it,” Neal continues. “We all know this. Now, we just need to prove it to everybody else.”

***

By conventional standards, Neal isn’t built to race.

At 5’8 and 155 pounds, he’s the first to admit it.  He’d rather create a team brand, coach, plan conditioning workouts on Excel spreadsheets and follow riders’ progress.

Build a legacy.

Tom Cream is his campus inspiration.

He didn’t play Division 1 college basketball. He wasn’t tall or fast or strong enough.

But he loved the game, studied it intensely. He rose through the coaching ranks and, after four grueling years at Indiana, rebuilt the Hoosiers.

His face, along with his team, hangs on Neal’s wall. It speaks to him: Hard work creates success. It’s all part of the American dream.

“I want to be Tom here,” Neal says. “I might not be able to win myself, but I know how to win.”

When he founded Forest, he wasn’t sure if he’d actually race.

But after two of his riders, Zack and Kyle, broke bones falling, Neal stepped up. He, Jon, Austin and Bo would have to make it to the Little 500—no matter what. If anyone got injured now, the team would dissolve.

Neal felt the pressure.

As a safety science major, his entire line of study focused on keeping a business’s employees safe from harm. It’s important, he says, especially when you’ve seen what careless management can do up-close.

His family has always used their hands. His father, a heavy machinery operator, unloads hundred-pound boxes from Canadian barges in Lake Michigan every morning.

After lifting, lifting, lifting without proper techniques, belts or breaks, he can no longer raise his arms above his head.

He pushed Neal, one of three siblings, to attend college. Take a different path.

After three years of physics courses, internships, and workplace science research, he sees how each health issue could’ve been abated—if not prevented entirely.

He thinks of prevention, constantly—in the classroom, at the dorm, on the track.

Before long rides down county roads, he scolds the riders to remove headphones. Blasting music makes it impossible to hear approaching cars, he says. And since they’re most vulnerable on hilly, twisted routes, they’ve got to pay attention.

One week before the race, lightning streaked the sky. The team prepared to ride in a spring series event, which was postponed three times before starting.

Rain pooled on the track. Neal imagined easy wipeouts, more broken bones.  

“They really need to make the call,” he said. “We should just stay in and play Euchre.”

“F--- this, I’m still riding,” Jon said.

“I mean, it looks terrible,” Neal replied. “Three feet of water flooding the track gutter.”

“Fine. I won't ride hard.”

***

On the track, Delta Tau Delta crosses the finish line first.

Neal sits on a warm-up bike in the pit, pedaling slowly, scanning the Little 500 scoreboard.

Okay, he thinks, we’re four laps behind Delts. But that team is six, and that team is eight…

Zack interrupts his mental math.

“They said we’d come in last,” he yells, thrusting the team’s clipboard in the air. “They said we wouldn’t make top 20!”

The riders cheer and hug, expectations shattered.

Jon, the last rider, glides though the final stretch.

16th place.

“Guess what we get to do now—besides throw up?” Zack yells. “Throw up tomorrow morning!”

Neal grins, imagining the guys toasting to success. It wouldn’t be that cheap shit tonight. Maybe a shot of Captain Morgan.

Outside the fence, fans wait for him.

His mother grabs his face.

“I hated watching you fall, Neal,” she says, nearly in tears. “I hated it!”

“I know, Mom,” he says, shaking his head.

The brunette he likes stands nearby. Neal straightens his posture and walks up to her. They chat, smiling the whole time.

Soon, Neal thinks. I have to ask her out soon.

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