Like in London: Armstrong sets women's pace at Merco Time Trial

slynch@mercedsunstar.comMarch 3, 2012 

Doug Fluetsch said he wished it was by design. Instead, it was sheer coincidence that assembled some of the best women cyclists in the world for the MERCO Cycling Classic's Merced Boosters Time Trial on Friday morning.

The slightly rolling hills on the six-mile stretch of North G Street pavement that Fluetsch had chosen for the Time Trial is apparently very similar to what the cyclists will see this summer at the 2012 London Olympics.

With only two or three opportunities to ride such a course before summer, Fluetsch said the women's pro race field was loaded with talent.

And it showed.

Reigning Olympic Time Trial gold medalist and former World Champion Kristin Armstrong served notice she's ready to defend her medal by winning the stage.

The Exergy TWENTY12 rider -- who retired temporarily in 2009 to start a family -- returned to racing in 2011 and has quickly gotten back into top form. Armstrong blew away the competition with a time of 26 minutes, 1.14 seconds. It was over 55 seconds better than second-place Clara Hughes.

That gives her the points lead after the first leg of a three-day women's omnium.

How fast was the performance?

Almost half of the 149-deep men's field had finished before someone topped her time.

"The really impressive thing was that the wind really died down later, which helped out the men," Fluetsch said. "Kristin was coming off of a time trial stage win at the Tour of New Zealand, so she's in really good form.

"The elevation and undulation of the course is pretty similar to what the riders are going to see in London, so that's why we had so many great riders here.

"This was a great opportunity to get yourself some attention before the Olympics."

While the Olympics were the furthest thing from his mind, California Giant Cycling's Evan Huffman certainly grabbed the spotlight with his Stage 2 win.

A relative unknown riding for an amateur team, the 24-year-old from Elk Grove shocked the competition by turning in the only sub 25-minute performance of the day at 24:55.

With elites such as USA Cycling Pro Time Trial Championships silver medalist Tom Zirbel in the field, Huffman was a little taken back by the stage victory.

"I knew it was a good time based off of how I did last year, but I didn't have any reference point on how everyone else was doing when I crossed the finish line," Huffman said. "I've worked really hard on my time trialing and believe it's one of my strengths, but still can't really believe I won.

"Being a Northern California guy, it's pretty nice to represent well in my own backyard."

The win gave Huffman the overall lead with Stage 1 winner Patrick Bevin just two seconds off the pace in second. Zirbel sits in third for an Optum Pro Cycling team that now occupies four of the top 10 overall spots heading into today's McDonald's Downtown Grand Prix and Sunday's Hilltop Road Race.

"It's going to be a much more competitive final two days of racing than last year," Fluetsch said. "BISSELL had almost its entire team out front for the Grand Prix last year, but there's no way someone's going to be able to do that this year."

In addition to the racing, the Downtown Grand Prix will have a kid's breakaway zone with bounce houses, a Community Fun Fair, a Party Under the Palms complete with live music and a farmer's market.

Racing begins at 7:30 a.m. right around Courthouse Park. The pro women will get under way at 11:30 a.m., and the event will be capped off with the Pee-Wee Classic at 2:20 p.m. and the men's pro race immediately following.

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