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Little more than a year ago, Eric Young was leading his team of "Cutters" to its fifth-straight win at the iconic Indiana University Little 500, a race immortalized in the 1979 Academy Award-winning movie Breaking Away.
Since then he's signed a contract with Bissell Pro Cycling, piled up a handful of wins and went on to claim the 2011 USA Cycling Pro National Criterium Championship. Most recently he won the hilly, technical stage 4 criterium of the National Race Calendar Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas.
The 23-year-old from outside of Chicago is getting used to winning, but don't try and pin him down as to which is better: winning a national championship jersey or crossing the line first at the "Little Five" on the Cutters team made famous by the movie.
"They're both awesome," Young said as he prepared for this week's Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. "But they're hard to compare. Little Five doesn't have the national-level competition. It's just the students at Indiana University. But at the same time, I was competing with all of my best friends from college and in front of all the rest of my friends, plus 30,000 screaming college fans. It's a pretty cool experience. Obviously, (pro) races are definitely harder – and they're harder to win – for sure. But in its own way the Little Five is just as rewarding as anything else I've done."
The student-run race in Bloomington also initially provided Young with the motivation to get into competitive cycling. He bought a bike during his senior year of high school and began riding recreationally before moving to Indiana for school. But it was the Little 500 and the circle of friends he made preparing for the race that drew him into racing.
"I had kind of been a runner and soccer player in high school, and I wanted to do something different," Young said. "I had already decided to go to [Indiana University] IU, and then I found out about the Little Five and how interesting and unique of a race it is. So I just started riding a little bit more during the summer before I went down to school. I met a few of the Cutters guys and started riding with them, and they taught me a lot, and I learned even more from racing. It was an upward trend from there."
Unlike the movie, in which the Cutters team is made up of local blue-collar kids who didn't attend the school, the Cutters team that has been in the race since 1984 is made up of IU "independent" students who don't belong to a fraternity like most other team riders. Young trained with the Cutters all four years at IU but didn't make the race team his freshman year. He raced with the team for the last three years of its five-year win streak, using his sprint to take the win in 2011. (Delta Tau Delta won the Little 500 this year).
Despite his commitment to the race, Young soon out-paced his college friends and quickly moved to the elite amateur level of cycling, riding for the Nuvo/Cultural Trial team in 2010 and winning the Cat. 1-2 overall at the Tour of Elk Grove. He also won collegiate national championships on the track that summer in the omnium, match sprints and points race. His rising talent drew the attention of Bissell's team management, which is headquartered in nearby Michigan, and he accepted an invitation to attend the Bissell training camp in February 2011. But Young held off joining the team until after his last Little 500 in May of that year.
Once he signed with Bissell, it didn't take long before the sprinter with track experience grabbed his first NRC win at the Glencoe Grand Prix in June. He followed that with a stage win at the Tour de 'Toona in July and then made his jersey-winning ride during August's weather-shortened USA Cycling Professional Criterium Championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan, just barely taking Jelly Belly's Brad Huff at the line. It was a result that almost took even Young by surprise.
"It was crazy," he said. "It was ridiculous. I knew I was a sprinter, and I knew I'd have a shot if I was lucky. It was cool because the team really did have faith in me at that race. They knew I could win. So it was cool to have everyone working for me."
Now Young is getting used to having the entire team work for him at the end of races. And he's been rewarding his teammates' efforts with results so far this year. Besides the final stage at Joe Martin, Young got second in the stage 2 sprint. He also grabbed second at the Merco Classic and won a stage in San Dimas.
This week the sprint specialist will have to tackle the Gila Monster at altitude in New Mexico and then hope to make Bissell's eight-man squad for the upcoming Tour of California May 13-20. Either way, he should have plenty of opportunities to learn the lessons that will help him toward his goal of discovering how far he can take his cycling career.
"I've only been doing it for a few years – really just two years at this level," he said. "So definitely, every day, every race, I'm learning something new and getting better."