Sean Lynch: Mercy gave Merco Cycling Classic a new pulse

March 7, 2012 

Thank goodness for Merced Mercy Medical Center.

Like most hospitals, Mercy gets its share of grief from the populous, but they undeniably stepped up when the Merco Cycling Classic was in trouble.

Not many realize how close this town came to losing one of its marquee events, and in my opinion, the best of the bunch.

It's not like we as a community have an overabundance of big events to look forward to. There's the fair, there's the parades and there's Merco.

Sure, we have a number of smaller-scale things like the Art Hops and the Summer Funfests, but pound-for-pound Merco provides the most entertainment for your dollar.

Especially since admittance is free.

Anyone who was out there on Saturday can attest to that.

The Downtown Grand Prix has become one of Merced's biggest parties. I say this based off of the fact that I had trouble walking 20 feet without bumping into a friendly, familiar face.

And there's a real sense of community that came with it.

I walked the entire outskirts of the course -- which smartly now extends into a portion of Main Street that further benefits the shops and eateries there -- and for basically five blocks, there was nothing but people enjoying themselves.

Everywhere you looked there were kids on bikes ready to take there crack at the course for the Pee-Wee Classic.

That small little 15-minute race alone tells how much Merco has grown and how it's endeared itself to the community.

When I started covering the Merco Cycling Classic six years ago, the Pee-Wee Classic was more of a novelty, one race with the big kids in the front and the younger ones in the back so they didn't get trampled. Now it's more like the main event.

The 2012 turnout was so good it required three different races to break up the various age groups.

Heck, my wife was harassed for two weeks by her friends in the Merced Mom's Club that were looking for a start time for the Pee-Wee Classic.

And where else can you have a pro announcer like Dave Towle do the play-by-play as you cross the finish line.

But even with the racing being secondary in the minds of most in attendance, a good portion of the crowd appreciates the quality of athlete that race founder Doug Fluetsch has brought to our town.

Merco's expansion to a four-day stage race didn't mean much in terms of spectators -- 30 to 40 curios bystanders and racing enthusiasts might turn out for the added stages -- but it means a lot to the racing community.

In just its second year of expansion, the pro men's field almost doubled the largest number the race had ever had. That's 70 extra bodies, plus their entourages, sleeping in our hotels and eating in our restaurants for three extra days.

Participation in the women's field was up as well, with a reigning gold medalist in its midst. And if Fluetsch brings back the fourth day for them next year, I believe that number could double as well.

More importantly, Fluetsch said the quality of rider jumped up exponentially. It's not every day you can see Olympic hopefuls tuning up for the summer games in your own backyard.

With Mercy signed on for at least four years expect the race to continue to prosper, and the community participants to do so right along with it.

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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