INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - As the cool guys cuddled with their girlfriends at the drive-in theater in the 1950s, Dave Blase flitted about with a butterfly net.
The lights emanating from the big screen made it the perfect place for catching bugs.
Blase was not a cool guy. He hung out with pet ducks and pigeons at his Speedway home, not his peers. He wore long-sleeved shirts and trousers, even when it was 90 degrees out. He was scrawny and didn’t want anyone to see that.
“I always felt like I was this little skinny shrimp that got humiliated on the beach where he’d get sand kicked in his face by the big muscle man,” said Blase, now 75. “I felt much more comfortable with other animals than I did with my own kind.”
So in 1958, his freshman year at Indiana University, when a bulky, weightlifting 6-3 senior asked Blase to try out for his dorm’s cycling team, Blase did just what you’d expect.
He said OK. But when it was time to ride, he hid in a dorm bathroom stall.
“I just sat in there for about 20 minutes until I figured the coast was clear and, sure enough, when I came out they were gone,” Blase told The Indianapolis Star (https://indy.st/1yWcEEP ). “So I thought, ‘Ahhh I’ve escaped.’”
But he hadn’t escaped.
That evening in the cafeteria, the big guy asked Blase why he didn’t show. Blase told him a class had run late.
But that night in his dorm room, Blase realized he couldn’t keep making excuses. This guy was going to be persistent. Nervous and shaking, Blase went out to ride the next day.
“Here I am, this little piece of flesh that I didn’t think very much of, and, my God, they couldn’t keep up with me,” said Blase, Indianapolis. “I’m flying up hills, climbing hills.
“It was the first time in my life where I asked myself the question: ‘Gee, what could I do if I’d actually try at something?’”
In his senior year in 1962, Blase rode 139 of the 200 laps in IU’s Little 500 to immortalize himself as the race’s most famous rider.
His team won the 50-mile race, the largest collegiate bike race in the United States, and his story inspired the 1979 Academy Award-winning movie “Breaking Away.” To this day, Blase’s feat is an inspiration to cycling enthusiasts nationwide.
Had he not tried out that day, Blase isn’t sure how his life would have turned out.
Cycling gave him confidence as a young man. And a bike triggered so much success in his life.
He met his wife, Yolande, riding a bike in Germany. They’ve been married 43 years.
He rode his bike to school every day as a biology teacher at Arlington High School from 1963 to 2005. The bike was a bridge that connected him to his students, no matter race, ethnicity or social background.
“He stood out among the teachers because nobody else was riding their bikes to school,” said Tim Bass, a student of Blase’s in 1980. “I don’t think sometimes he realizes the impact he had on us as students. He’s probably the most popular teacher that has ever taught at Arlington High School, hands down, the most recognizable teacher.”
Bass recently posted a photo of himself and Blase from a chance meeting at Costco on the Arlington alumni Facebook page. Within a day, more than 2,000 former students had commented on that post.
Blase was shocked and humbled.
“The trouble with teaching is you can spend a whole lifetime doing it and when you see some of the things that go on, you think you are just wasting your time,” he said. “So it’s extremely touching and gratifying to see what kids think after they’ve had years to reflect on it. Sometimes, the kids that you had in class that were terrible students and were in trouble all the time? You run into them later and they come up and hug you like you’re family.”
He was like family to some of those kids. They wrote on Facebook how they loved Blase like a father. They wrote what a fun teacher he was. How he influenced them.
Many students mentioned the bike. Blase was cool to them because of that bike.
Blase finally felt cool back in college - because of that bike.
Within two years of that first ride when Blase left his teammates behind, he came to be known as the best cyclist on IU’s campus, even though he had never cycled or played a sport in his life.
“The thing about cycling is if you are trying to prepare for racing, you suffer like a dog,” Blase said. “The nature of the sport is suffering, so this inner anger or frustration that I had within me, I felt like it had to be purged. I felt that I deserved the suffering and having overcome it, I grew in self-respect, something that I hadn’t had much of prior.”
It wasn’t that his parents didn’t try. They were good parents. They tried to inspire Blase, to wipe away his negative self-image.
“Kids would ridicule me and I would buy that as my reality and that had more credibility with me than anybody that would try to logically explain to me that I was OK,” he said. “So I grew up all through my years really not wanting to associate much with my peers because I only experienced pain with that.”
But at IU, as a cycling phenom, there was no more ridicule. No more pain. Blase began to see himself as worthy.
His talent caught the eye of the 1958 and 1959 Little 500 champions at IU, Phi Kappa Psi, who recruited him to join their 1960 team. Blase pledged the fraternity and joined the team, but IU passed a rule that anyone who transferred from a dorm to fraternity team had to sit out the race for a year. So Blase participated in extracurricular races for more training.
Meanwhile, Phi Kappa Psi won its third straight Little 500 in 1960. Blase, the most talented cyclist on campus, was set to return for the next race, but IU passed a retroactive rule that anyone participating in outside races would have to sit out a year. Disgruntled and running low on money with one semester left to graduate, Blase left school and moved to Indianapolis.
He worked at a medical center and became interested and influenced by Italian culture. The doctors at the center were Italian, so Blase picked up on their language, style and mannerisms. The Italians’ domination in the cycling events of the 1960 Olympics inspired Blase.
When he returned to IU in 1962, Blase spoke with an Italian accent. He sang arias on campus streets for no reason. Confidence was brimming in him.
He rode in the 1962 Little 500 and dominated by racing what were then a record 139 of 200 laps. He rode his first 50 laps without taking a break.
“I had trained myself so if I had to ride the whole thing myself, I would,” he said.
Blase revolutionized the race. Before he came along, the race had been ridden in sections of four, six, maybe eight laps. As more cyclists picked up on his style of riding more laps at a time, packs of front-runners formed.
“When a pack forms, there are a lot of teams that are in contention and have a shot to win the thing at the end of the race in a sprint,” he said. “It made it a heck of a lot more of a competitive thing.”
Blase still rides his bike every day, racking up 200 miles some weeks. He rides his bike to the gym to lift weights.
“He’s something else. Never a dull moment,” said his wife, Yolande, 11 years younger than Blase. “I tell you, I have to keep in shape, go to the gym, just to keep up with him.”
If he has errands to run, he’ll hop on his bike. If he needs to work off stress, he rides his bike.
He will be at this year’s race. Blase has missed only one Little 500 since he won it 53 years ago. That was in the 1970s when the race was rained out and moved to a Monday. He rode his bike to school to teach that day.
And he likely worked a lesson into his biology class that day, a lesson he taught for decades, in hopes his students would never feel like that scrawny teen chasing bugs at the drive-in theater.
“The truth of the matter is the real competition in life is not against others, it’s against yourself,” he said. “Your own insecurities and your own self-doubts, that’s what enslaves you in this world.
“I never wanted my students to suffer through that.”
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com
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