Talking to a number of cyclists over the years, I've gotten the impression that the MERCO Cycling Classic has always been a rider favorite.
While the race hasn't regularly been an official part of the National Racing Calendar during its 17-year run, for many riders and teams, MERCO has been dubbed the unofficial start to the racing season.
And for good reason.
Race founder Doug Fluetsch has routinely produced a fun, professional event whose participants habitually return every spring.
Fluetsch acknowledges that could change in the 18th running of the MERCO Cycling Classic, which begins today with the new Lake McClure Road Race. Riding begins at 10 a.m. on Lake McClure Road.
"The race has always been easy and fun, set up for sprinters to win," Fluetsch said. "Now, with the addition of the Lake McClure Road Race and the move to a four-day stage race, the guys battling for the title are going to have to be well-rounded riders."
While it doesn't seem like the addition of a single racing day should have that dramatic an affect on the overall product, it's the change in format that will give MERCO a very different feel this time around.
No longer will there be a clean slate each day from race to race. Riders now are battling for the lowest accumulated time over the four days, with each race presenting very different challenges and requiring varied skill sets.
Fluetsch's latest alteration has elevated his always popular event from rider cult darling into the national spotlight. Even with approval for the expansion coming fairly late in the game, the results have been undeniable.
Adding to the prestige of this year's race is former U.S. gold medalist Alexi Grewal. The 50-year-old is attempting a comeback after years battling homelessness and drug addiction.
"Alexi is definitely one of the more compelling stories among the racing community," Fluetsch said. "Many will be watching to see if he can be successful.
"We've also got teams coming in from the East Coast that have never been here before, or teams like Jelly Belly that have maybe only been here once. The interest for this new format is there and I think the riders are going to be pleasantly surprised by the challenge we're going to present to them."
The question that remains is whether the changes will be well received?
A family friend, who won the Downtown Grand Prix a few yeas ago, considered venturing up this week, even though his team wasn't going to participate. When he discovered all that was entailed in the new race format, he abandoned the idea.
"One thing is certain," Fluetsch said. "Teams that want to win won't be sending just a couple riders anymore. Their rosters are going to have to be full, diverse and there's going to be a lot of strategy involved.
"We're starting out with a very difficult mountain climb that's going to leave a lot of good riders tired. Then we'll have a time trial and Saturday's sprint race in between. And finally we'll finish up with a pretty long distance race on Sunday.
"Guys used to have trouble finishing up Sunday with only two days of racing. Now, they're in for a very tough four."
All of this should benefit the city of Merced.
Whether you're a diehard race fan or just a casual observer out for a good time, the four days of racing promises to be fierce, with riders unable to give away ground from day to day.
In addition to the entertainment factor, the city boon to restaurants and hotels will now extend to at least five days.
Perhaps best of all, an area of the state and country that has had seemingly no end of negative national news and hardship the last three years, will shine brightly in the global spotlight for at least one week.
"With the economic downturn and housing market crash, there's no doubt that Merced has had its share of negativity," Fluetsch said. "The race doesn't change that, but at least for a little bit of time Merced is seen by the world for something positive."
All indications point toward the MERCO Cycling Classic providing that on an increasingly growing scale for years to come.
Sean Lynch is a sports writer for the Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.