Castle criterium deemed success; layout a hit with riders

July 6, 2010 

ATWATER -- After the teams had gone home and the last orange cone was picked up off the course, Jeff Stopper wheeled his bike onto Castle Commerce Center's old parade loop.

The first-ever Big Creek Lumber Criterium had been over for hours, but there was still one ride left.

This one belonged to Stopper, Big Creek Lumber's branch manager, and his team of wannabe Lance Armstrongs and Levi Leipheimers -- "mostly construction industry guys that I do business with at the lumberyard," Stopper said as warmed up on the 0.8-mile loop.

"Since we got to time them earlier in the day," he added, "now we can see what we're like on this."

He wasn't just keeping a watchful eye on pace and time during Monday evening's practice ride.

It was his victory lap, providing him an intimate moment to reflect on his first business foray into competitive cycling.

Merced County's first July cycling race since 1993 was deemed a relative success, despite its late addition to the Northern California Race Calendar and poor fan turnout.

The criterium, originally canceled because of wet weather in March, was a last-minute replacement for the Oakland Grand Prix.

Riders and teams were transferred to the Big Creek Lumber Criterium, but the short notice left Stopper and sanctioning body Velo Promo little time to publicize the event locally.

The small number of fans on Monday was offset by 67 competitors and the spectacle of competitive, summertime racing.

Nine races went off without a hitch and the course -- with its two 90-degree turns and water-tower views -- proved to be a worthy adversary.

"I'm pleased with the result, and Velo Promo seemed pleased for their first time out here," Stopper said. "Most important, I talked to as many racers as I could and they all loved the circuit. That was the main thing.

"The big, sweeping turn was everything I expected. No accidents, no injuries, no problems."

Blake Anton of Team Clif Bar celebrated the afternoon's biggest victory, winning the Category 1-2 men's pro race.

Anton had company in the winner's circle. Teammate JD Bergmann finished third, just behind Safeway/Bicycle Plus/PureRed's Jonathan Eropkin.

Other winners included:

Hanan, Alves-Hyde held off local gal Charlotte Hart in a one-on-one duel in the Category 1-3 women's race.

James Stout of Team Type 1 crossed the line first in the Category 3 men's race, which featured a 10-man field and an amazing show of sportmanship.

David Doll of Stanislaus/Merlock Velo finished second, a fraction of a second ahead of Team Mason Thomas' Bryan Pro.

The two crossed the line together, arm in arm, with their fingers raised to the sky.

Sky Baucom-Pro of Team Mason Thomas was the default winner in the Category 4 women's race. The other two competitors failed to start.

Cameron Barnes won the Category 4-5 men's race, emerging from the afternoon's biggest field (16 riders).

SJBC's Oscar Gonzalez beat MacKenzie Kelly and DJs Produce's Jonathan Christensen in the Junior 15-18 race.

Eropkin added to his trophy haul, conquering the Masters Category 1-3 race. He held off a strong push from Zenn Racing, which swept the second, third and fourth positions.

Carl Canaparo won the Masters Category 4 men's race, while Stone Racing's Rann Valdez lapped the field in the Masters Category 5 race.

Valdez, a converted downhill mountain bike racer, hopes his success at the criterium will allow him to move up a level.

He was clearly dominant on Monday, pulling away for a ho-hum victory.

"I felt pretty good," Valdez said, short of breath. "I was kind of surprised (but) I knew I had it in my legs."

That race spun away from two Merced County residents, Ray Craig and Dennis McCabe, both of Kevin's Bike Shop.

Craig finished third, just ahead of McCabe. Teammates for the first time, Craig and McCabe acknowledged that their lack of on-course chemistry may have slowed them a bit.

"It was an overall good race," Craig said. "It wasn't a huge field. The gentleman that took first got a gap on us. It came down a fight for second place and working with each other, which we had some conflict with.

"Overall, I'm satisfied with my third position."

Stopper hopes to bring the criterium back to Castle next summer.

"We're talking to Velo Promo about getting onto next year's schedule," he said. "This was an overall success and we'd like to try it again next year. We need more support, which is something I'm going to have to work on, but the riders loved the course."

James Burns is managing editor/sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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