With the Santa Barbara sun breaking through the clouds and a slick bike beneath her, Kim Anderson is reminded why this coastal location has become her home base.
The postcard views.
And of course, its proximity to competitive racing.
"It's absolutely beautiful," the 41-year-old says, her Sunday morning training ride behind her.
Anderson is the matriarch of Team HTC-Columbia, one of the world's youngest and most formidable cycling operations. Men or women.
Anderson rides in a pack of 20-somethings -- gals nearly half her age -- including fellow American Evelyn Stevens, 26.
Together they're poised to add to a trophy case already splintering at the seams. In 2009, HTC-Columbia's fleet of women racers won 46 times worldwide, adding to the team's astonishing total of 132 races won.
Can they do it again?
The pressure is there to up the ante. The team keeps a win tracker on the home page of its Web site. It reads: 293 wins since 2008.
Think expectation levels are high?
"You always want to start off strong. We're a well-supported team, so you want to show your sponsors and show everyone ... every race you want to win," said Anderson, the 2009 Route de France overall winner. "We have such a great team this year. Every year it seems to get better and better. If we can start the season off on a positive note, it'll be great."
The time is now.
For many of the nation's top teams, the season officially begins this weekend in Merced with The Little Race that Could -- the MERCO Cycling Classic.
MERCO gets underway on Friday with the inaugural team time trial, and then continues through the weekend with the event's signature draws: the Downtown Grand Prix on Saturday and the Foothills Road Race on Sunday.
The Grand Prix will follow a 0.8-mile loop through downtown Merced and past the Old Courthouse. The men's Elite Pro will race 40 laps -- or 50 miles -- and the women 32 laps (40 miles).
The Foothills Road Race is more a test of endurance than climbing ability. Competitors in the Elite Pro and women's divisions will pedal around a 24-mile loop that spans Merced and Stanislaus counties.
"The road race is good because it's rolling. They're pretty easy climbs -- no mountain climbs -- but it wears on you because it's lap after lap after lap," said Anderson, a MERCO veteran. "There's always a really good intensity to it. That's what we use it (MERCO) for, and to get the legs going again. It's about getting the mind and body ready: 'OK, it's time to start racing again.' "
The women of HTC-Columbia will dazzle, said MERCO director Doug Fluetsch.
The headliner: Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, reigning MERCO and German national champion, and the most decorated female cyclist in the world the last two seasons.
"As far as having the best in the world, HTC-Columbia literally has the best riders in the world, whereas our men's event will have some of the best in the nation," he said.
"There are going to be a lot of great riders, but the women have the best riders in the world here.
"(HTC-Columbia) is winning races all over the world. Those women will be so dominant at MERCO it will be difficult for other riders to even compete."
That won't stop others from trying. Fluetsch expects full fields in both the men's and women's events the entire weekend.
The timing sells MERCO to riders and teams, both foreign and domestic. The Valley's roadways will act as a runway to the bigger races and stages of the 2010 season.
And a springboard for the novice and new, like Stevens, HTC-Columbia's recent addition.
"I've heard that this is a tough course, a tough race. I'm looking forward to racing against good competition. This is my first race with the team, so I'm itching to start," said Stevens, a former Wall Street broker.
"These women work hard. Kim is the veteran. Ina, she's incredible. Whenever women race hard, it's going to turn some heads."
Plus, you can't beat the California location -- or the splashes of intermittent sun.
"For the few girls from Europe, they haven't had great weather," Anderson said. "It's good to get in the sunshine."
James Burns is managing editor/sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.