Staci Santa wasn't a cycling fan last year. But with eight professional cyclists staying at her house, it was easy to get on the bandwagon.
By the fourth day of the 2011 Merco Cycling Classic, it could have been easy to mistake her for the ninth member of Team Pistachio. She even was invited to ride along in the pace car that follows the team through the race.
"I woke up Sunday all geeked out for the races," she said.
Santa was one of dozens of Mercedians who last year opened their homes to the professional cyclists participating in the annual Merco Cycling Classic.
And she's doing it again this year.
"I'm pretty easily star-struck, but I never had an emotional investment in the races until I met these guys," she said. "It made it that much more exciting."
The four-day event starts March 1, winding through the foothills near Lake McClure, making its way to downtown Merced, and eventually ending in the hills between Snelling and Turlock.
There are about 80 professional cyclists signed up for this year's races, and nearly all of them have been placed in homes. Organizers are looking for space for about 10 riders, said Melissa Kelly-Ortega, who is also serving as a host this year.
"All they need is a bed or an air mattress, a place to shower and maybe some refrigerator space," Kelly- Ortega said.
Ditto on the fridge space, Santa said.
"They eat a lot. I've never seen someone eat so much. They have to eat an insane amount of calories for every race," she said.
The main event is scheduled for March 3 in a technically challenging course through downtown Merced. There also will be a number of community-focused sideshows, including a bike rodeo, street fair, farmers market and pee wee races. Downtown Merced's first race starts at 7:30 a.m.
To find out more about becoming a host, send a text message to Kelly-Ortega at (209) 756-3090.
Online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.