MERCO Cycling Classic: Downtown Grand Prix halted by scary pileup

March 8, 2010 

After 37 laps, the entire pack of the women's elite pro race remained clumped together.

The MERCO Cycling Classic's Downtown Grand Prix had already provided a number of exciting finishes by Saturday afternoon and with three laps to go, the pro women appeared to be raising the bar a couple notches higher.

No one could have guessed just how dramatic the finish would prove to be.

As the peloton crossed the finish line for the start of the 48th lap, a pair of riders got a little too close and a horrific pileup ensued on one of the most benign portions of the 0.8-mile loop.

A group of about 15 riders crashed like dominos in a mass of limbs and bicycles. Most of the cyclists involved were able to get up and continue with the race, suffering minor bumps and road rash. A pair of cyclists weren't so lucky, however.

Right at its climax, the women's pro race was brought to a halt as the two riders were attended to by the race's medical staff and eventually taken to the hospital by ambulance.

After the 20-minute delay, race officials elected to restart with five laps to go, giving the riders a little bit of time to build up again to the final sprint.

Despite the delay, the finish did not disappoint.

As the leaders flew around the final turn, defending champion Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Peanut Butter & Co. Pro Cycling Team's Shelly Evans surged to the front.

The duo remained neck and neck for the final 100 yards with Teutenberg edging Evans by a mere tenth of a second.

"Crashes unfortunately are part of the sport and sometimes it forces them to stop the race," Evans said. "Most of us had ridden in the Tour of New Zealand and were used to riding for like three hours in a day, so the delay wasn't a big deal.

"I kind of knew (Teutenberg) had me on the final sprint, but that's why we come to Merced. This race doesn't just attract the best riders in the country, we've got some of the best in the world. So it was a nice honor to go head-to-head with one of the world's best."

Teutenberg's win just added to a dominating MERCO Cycling Classic showing by her team HTC-Columbia, which also captured the crown in Friday's inaugural Team Time Trial.

The men's elite pro race didn't have the same kind of dramatic finish, but Bahati Foundation rider Matty Rice did manage to win in style.

With 15 laps to go, Rice and a group of four other riders made an attack and opened up as much as a 41-second lead on the rest of the field.

The peloton hung back, slowly cutting into the gap and figuring the breakout group would burn out eventually.

As the riders embarked on their final lap, the breakout group's lead was down to 10 seconds, but that was all the space Rice would need.

While the rest of the group was absorbed back into the pack, Rice kicked in another gear and cruised to the MERCO title. He was joined on the podium by two more Bahati Foundation riders in a banner day for the first-year team.

"As the laps went on, I could feel the rest of my group starting to fade a bit, but I was still going strong," Rice said. "I had a feeling the rest of the pack waited just a little too long to make its move and I was able to take advantage."

Rice's win was the conclusion to what turned out to be a banner day for the MERCO Cycling Classic. With the weather offering its full cooperation, thousands of people descended on Courthouse Park and the downtown Merced area over the course of the day.

"It turned into almost a perfect day and the people really responded with their turnout," race founder Doug Fluetsch said. "There was a high quality of racing today and you could really feel the energy from the crowds at the finish line.

"We were hoping to capture some of that energy from the Tour of California coming through last year and I believe we accomplished that."

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