MERCO pedaling along; Fluetsch expands race to three days

March 5, 2010 

For Doug Fluetsch, expansion of the MERCO Cycling Classic was always a matter of when, not if.

But like with most of life, timing is everything.

The signs the race founder had been looking for finally surfaced when the Amgen Tour of California rolled through the streets of Merced last February.

"I got to ride in one of the lead cars for the Tour of California and it was just such an awesome experience to see how many people turned out to see cycling," Fluetsch said. "When we drove out of town, every corner you turned there were people. You got down to Bear Creek and there were five- to six-people deep.

"Lots of people who'd never experienced cycling before, got a taste of it."

Like a good salesman, Fluetsch is trying to make sure the people want more.

With the Tour of California passing on Merced this year, Fluetsch decided it was time to expand.

Cashing in on the excitement the Tour brought through Merced a year ago, Fluetsch has added a Team Time Trial to the usual Downtown Grand Prix and Foothills Road Race.

The event will now span three days, with the Team Time Trial kicking things off today at 1 p.m.

In its first running, the time trial is being limited to the pro men and women.

"I've always been leery of expanding the race because I didn't want to overwork our staff," Fluetsch said. "We still have a completely volunteer staff.

"The time trial is a good choice because you don't see a lot of them in the U.S. and it's not too taxing on the staff."

Ultimately, Fluetsch would like to expand MERCO to a four-day event. He'll use today's time trial as a test to see how plausible that is.

Fluetsch said the time trial really gives the event a unique element.

Teams of four compete against each other. The team with the fastest time wins, but a time isn't recorded until the team's third rider crosses the finish line.

Atwater teacher and Third Pillar team cyclist Charlotte Hart said she's excited about the addition.

"I hope one day Merced can become like a five- or six-stage race," Hart said. "We have the potential terrain to make it a really nice one.

"This is a good addition, though. Not a lot of races in the U.S. offer time trials -- especially for the pro women -- so this is a real treat."

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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