All Jennifer Cvar was looking for was a way to get some exercise.
About 15 years ago, she joined a spin class at an Indianapolis YMCA, thinking it was a 30-minute long class. It lasted an hour.
“I thought I was gonna die,” she said.
Despite the pain and exhaustion, Cvar enjoyed herself, so she went back to class and soon became a regular. As she got to know the others who often showed up, she learned many of them rode bikes outside as well. So she took that up, too.
It was the beginning of a long career in cycling for Cvar, one that led her to racing competitively and eventually creating the Indy Crit, an annual bike race in downtown Indianapolis that has gone from just a race to a weekend-long festival. The 2022 edition of the Crit will begin Aug. 27.
Cvar’s transition into competitive cycling was as organic as her venture into biking in the first place. She started by riding with friends from the spin class and other road cyclists.
“And that grew into, ‘Hey, you’re pretty fast. You should try racing,'” Cvar said.
Cvar joined Team Nebo Ridge, sponsored by the Indianapolis bike shop of the same name. Within two years she was on the board of directors.
As far as bike clubs go, Nebo Ridge was fairly laid back. It didn’t specialize in any particular type of rider or demographic, as more competitive groups often do. The focus was more on exercise and friendship, and Cvar attacked both aspects with vigor.
“She had some real business skills that she brought to the table, but mostly she was enthusiastic,” Nebo Ridge founder Tim Casady said. “None of us were great bicycle racers, but we all loved bicycle racing, and there was nothing better than to get together riding bikes, racing bikes, and she loved that. That was the main requisite, and she had that in spades. Just a love of cycling and community.”
While competing, Cvar noticed the quality of races in other cities. It wasn’t just the courses or caliber of other racers, but that the race managed to be an event that went beyond the competition itself. There was no reason, she thought, Indianapolis shouldn’t be able to pull off something similar.
That became her next project. She had a background in event planning, but hadn’t done anything similar to organizing a race of the magnitude she envisioned.
“(There’s) a lot of not knowing,” she said. “I say that and laugh because you just don’t know what you’re getting yourself into sometimes, but it’s that ignorance is bliss kind of thing that leads you along, helps you grow.”
She quickly learned that the small things were what caused the most difficulty: finding sponsors, cultivating relationships and retaining those sponsors for future years, not to mention promoting the event and making a community aware of the niche sport of bike racing.
Meetings with promoters weren’t particularly warm or inviting. Cycling is a predominantly male sport, making Cvar stand out while planning a race. The particular men she worked with were something of a stereotype of those in the cycling community: headstrong “alpha male” types, as Cvar called them.
But Cvar had gained some grit herself since she started racing. She had spent years pedaling at 20 to 30 miles per hour, in danger of wiping out on the pavement with one wrong move. She had become bold. Fearless. She could express her opinion and stand up for herself.
“It’s just when setbacks arise, you deal with it and keep going,” she said. “You just have to be tough.”
The Indy Crit started in 2010 as a simple bike race through downtown. The festival and spectacle of it all came gradually in later years. Cvar stopped biking competitively in 2012 and started a family in 2013, but still plans the event.
This year’s edition of the weekend will include two races: the Mass Ave Crit on Saturday and the Indy Crit on Sunday. The former’s course is 0.64 miles and will be a compact right triangle with Massachusetts Ave. forming the hypotenuse between Vermont St. and East St. The latter is longer, 0.71 miles, and will start on New York Street.
“I think a lot of times when people actually do come out and watch it, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is really unique. I didn’t know that I could watch pro bike racers on the city streets and get right up there on the barricades and watch them go by and just be really up front and close to the action,'” Cvar said. “I think it’s just that community awareness piece and getting the message out because I think once people experience it they’re like, ‘That was really fun. I want to go back and do that.'”