Wheel love

Author and athlete Kerry Hellmuth on making women’s cycling history

Immortalized in the film Breaking Away, the Little 500 track cycling competition has been a staple at Indiana University’s flagship campus in Bloomington since 1951. Courtesy: Indiana University Archives

For some American cyclists, moving to Boulder is synonymous with giving it a go as a professional rider. The city has long been a major draw thanks to its challenging, beautiful climbs and the chance to train at elevation. 

Kerry Hellmuth is one of those cyclists. Discussing her new book Willkie Sprint: A Story of Friendship, Love, and Winning the First Women’s Little 500 Race, the author and athlete reflects fondly on her time in the People’s Republic. 

'Willkie Sprint: A Story of Friendship, Love and Winning the First Women's Little 500 Race' is out now in hardback.

Willkie Sprint: A Story of Friendship, Love and Winning the First Women’s Little 500 Race’ is out now in hardback. Courtesy: Indiana University Press 

“I talk about the magic of this race in my book, and for me, Boulder has its own magic,” Hellmuth told Boulder Weekly during a recent Zoom interview from her home in Trento, Italy. “I moved to Boulder under the idea that it was going to be a great place for training, but it was a great place for everything.”

In Willkie Sprint, Hellmuth’s inspiring account of her first year at Indiana University (IU) Bloomington, she details her young team’s journey to victory in the inaugural women’s edition of the legendary Little 500 bike race in 1988. Immortalized in the heartfelt ’80s comedy Breaking Away, the track cycling competition modeled after the Indianapolis 500 — billed as “the world’s greatest college weekend” — has been an annual tradition at the idyllic midwestern campus since 1951. 

She also tells the story of falling in love with a fellow student named Rob, eventually known as “Rob Bob.” The couple ended up moving to Boulder together after college. They eventually broke up, and Hellmuth moved to Italy with a guy named Fabio, the father of her two teenage boys. She’s still in touch with Rob Bob and remembers their Boulder adventure fondly.

“I was up on Peak to Peak Highway on my bike all the time — but the sheen that Boulder has, I feel like it was really magic in that period of the late ’90s, early 2000s,” she says. “Boulder is always a magic place, but I think there was just some gold dust sprinkled in the air at that time, and probably it was just the stuff you create with your friends. I still dream about Boulder.”

‘A foot out the door’

Growing up in Wisconsin and attending college in the Hoosier State, Hellmuth says she’s never felt comfortable sitting in one place.  Her auspicious introduction to bike racing as an IU freshman was an accidental gateway to a globe-trotting destiny she’d been waiting for.

“I’ve always had a foot out the door,” says Hellmuth, who also lived for a time in New Guinea and New Zealand. “I mean, I’m from Madison and there’s an amazing university right there. It’s a destination for a lot of people, and one of my very first decisions was, ‘I gotta go away for college. I’m out of here.’”

In addition to her esteemed career as a pro cyclist in Europe and the United States, she also went to law school at the University of Wisconsin and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Trento after heading to Italy. 

She now works as a teacher and helps guide Italian bike tours led by longtime friend Andy Hampsten, a part-time Boulder resident who is the only American cyclist to ever win the fabled Giro d’Italia.

‘I was there’

The rights to a feature film about Hellmuth and her teammates’ victory at the inaugural Women’s Little 500 had been passed around for years, resulting in little more than meetings and daydreams. Hellmuth decided last year that instead of waiting on a women-centered version of Breaking Away to be made, she would put her own story out there for the world.

After making history with the first women’s team to win the Little 500 bike race, Kerry Hellmuth made the cyclist’s pilgrimage to Boulder. Willkie Sprint

After making history with the first women’s team to win the Little 500 bike race, Kerry Hellmuth made the cyclist’s pilgrimage to Boulder. Credit: Gino Zampol

“People love this story, and I said to my teammates, ‘Maybe I’ll just write it myself,’” Hellmuth explains. “Rob Bob had actually written a [different] screenplay when we were together, and he sold it to Hollywood. So I witnessed that process with him, with writing and selling and then optioning. So I sat down and after two days I was, like, ‘Well, I’m not really writing a screenplay.’”

Hellmuth, it turns out, was writing the book that would become Willkie Sprint — and it didn’t take long for things to start snapping together.

“Within three weeks I had the first chapter of the book. I sent it off to IU Press, and I felt like the book was flowing,” she says. “So, I abandoned the screenplay idea and within three months, I had the whole thing done.”

Published earlier this month, Hellmuth’s book has finally arrived in the world, and her team’s story is still in the embryonic stages of becoming a movie.

“I think for me it really wasn’t about pre-empting anyone,” Hellmuth says. “It was a little bit of frustration. People obviously think the story is interesting because we have had three different production companies contact us. But I was tired of waiting for the story to be told relying on others. I know the story better than anyone. I was there.” 

ON THE PAGE: Willkie Sprint: A Story of Friendship, Love and Winning the First Women’s Little 500 Race is out now in hardcover via Indiana University Press.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here