Some people simply call it “stone country.” They are referring to a 20-mile stretch of land deep in the heart of southern Indiana, a stretch of land laden with some of the world’s richest limestone. From these rocks, the walls of the Empire State Building were constructed. From these rocks, the Pentagon was built. And, from these rocks, one of America’s greatest cycling traditions was born, that of the Little 500 bicycle race.
Ever since the 1978 movie “Breaking Away” used these limestone quarries as a backdrop to the script, they have been associated with the event. In the movie of course, a group of “townies” from Bloomington went up against the mighty fraternities on the nearby Indiana University campus—and they went on to win bicycle racing’s equivalent of the Indy 500 against all odds. These locals took the name “Cutters,” since so many of those from around town had worked as stonecutters in the quarries.
And the limestone industry has remained linked to the Little 500 ever since, because the members of the winningest Little Five team in modern history still call themselves the Cutters. Their story is different in some ways. These modern Cutters are not locals; they’re IU students who choose to race on an independent team rather than for one of the traditional fraternities. But the Cutters of today maintain a strong connection with the quarries, as their sponsor is the Elliott Stone Company, one of stone country’s most established quarries.
“When ‘Breaking Away’ came out, I said, ‘Only a stone company should sponsor the Cutters!’” remembers Judy Elliott, owner of Elliott Stone. “We’ve been in the business for 60 years. My husband Dave had been pitching on a farm team for the Pittsburgh Pirates before being drafted into the Korean War. And when he got out he decided that he didn’t want to go back into baseball, so he started a masonry business. Then, after we got married, we decided that we would go into the stone business.”
Over the decades, the Elliotts have built what is an institution in the limestone industry, and today they boast more than 1,000 acres of quarry land, with about 500 years of stone left to quarry. In short, that’s a lot of rock!
But Judy was also a freshman at Indiana the year of the first Little 500 in 1951. As a result, her link to the event runs almost as deep as some of these family quarries. Pictures of the Little 500 adorn the walls of the front office at Elliott Stone, and the family has often hosted dinners with the Cutters team. On this day, Judy is only too happy to invite a couple of current Cutters out to test a new set of Panaracer XX tires in and around the quarries.
For the Cutter cyclists as well as the tires, these quarries soon prove to be the ultimate testing ground. After all, there is no easy place to ride in the quarries, especially as even the access roads here are made up of the rocky remains from the quarries. And then there is the underground quarry, where much of the mining is done today. Down there, the limestone dust mixes with mud to make a slippery and uneven claylike surface, made only more treacherous by the lack of lighting. Needless to say, the two Cutters are taking their bikes to a place where no bike has been before.
“It was pretty incredible riding down there,” says Zach Stevens, one of the two current-day Cutters. “It’s an experience you can’t get on the road or even on trails. The surface, the dust, learning to ride the slide in the dark, all of that makes it a totally unique experience.”
“The underground quarry has given us a big push,” says Ralph Elliott, one of the family members who oversees much of the daily grind at the quarry. “Obviously it is more sustainable and it allows us to work 12 months of the year. It’s a three-dimensional use of the space.” And on this day, the cyclists are adding a fourth dimension.
“It’s just a total labyrinth underground,” says Victor Grossling, the second Cutter, who is doing a fifth year at IU to focus on Little Five. “Negotiating all of those surfaces, it was unlike any ride experience I have ever had. It’s good bike-handling practice. And the tires were great. To tell you the truth, after riding around here, I felt like I could have taken those tires anywhere!”
“You know, up until now, I’ve only gone to old, closed quarries outside of town to jump in and take a dip,” Grossling adds. “It was just so cool to actually go to a working quarry that is still producing limestone blocks and is such a part of the Cutters history. The Elliotts are more than just sponsors, they are like our ancestors. It felt like we were exploring our roots in a strange way.”
“At one time it was a vast inland sea,” Judy says when speaking about Indiana’s stone country. “The stone was essentially made up of the compacted bones of fish, and if you look at the stone very closely it looks like sand compacted together. It has a real fine grain. As a result, you can find limestone elsewhere, but not of this quality. Quarrying started in Indiana in 1827 and limestone is just very good for building. It’s a little softer so it’s good for cutting. But it is also case-hardening, so as it is exposed to the atmosphere, it hardens.”
After their ride, our two Cutter cyclists get another special treat as Ralph gives them a tour of the mill area. Limestone dust is everywhere here, giving the specialized tools a certain patina. “Man, that was amazing to visit the mill,” Grossling says. “It was like seeing where our tradition comes from and seeing what it means to be a cutter.”