MERCED — The city of Merced next weekend is holding the 20th annual Merco Credit Union Cycling Classic presented by Mercy Medical Center.
If the name didn't tip you off, there are a lot of people involved in this event.
The four-day cycling event has become a community tradition, pulling in a dozen major financial sponsors, scores of local vendors and roughly 700 volunteers, according to organizers.
It's one of the most economically and culturally significant events in the area, said Doug Fluetsch, the Merced native who started the races in 2003 at the request of the city.
"Originally it was my way to stay involved with the sport," said the former semipro cyclist. "Now it's really more about Merced as a community. There's a large value in what the race does for Merced."
In financial terms, the event brings in about $400,000 of economic activity, according to city officials.
"The Merco Cycling Classic is one of the largest events we have in the county, and it's one of the largest races in California," said Karen Baker, development associate for Merced City Visitors Services.
With about 1,500 racers, family and support staff coming into Merced for the event, it's a big boost for local businesses, Baker explained.
Sean Williams, general manager for the Holiday Inn Express in Merced, couldn't agree more.
"It's always a busy weekend for us," he said. We're fortunate to have one of the key teams staying with us."
Boosting cycling interest
The racers come pretty well equipped, so Kevin's Bikes doesn't sell a lot of gear over the event weekend, said owner Kevin McCarthy. However, it gets the community interested in the sport, which is good for business.
"It gets the public excited about cycling," he said. "Even a month afterwards, people come in and they mention it. I think it gets people thinking about it. People get so see some equipment that they normally wouldn't see."
The event runs from Thursday through Sunday afternoon. Racers compete for $20,000 in cash prizes. The rider at the end of the four days with the best cumulative time from all events is the winner. The top 20 racers receive prize money.
Meanwhile, the races raise the city's cultural profile, Baker said. "It's brought a lot of media attention nationally and international. It puts Merced on the map."
For many years, the event was recognized on USA Cycling's prestigious National Racing Calendar, Fluetsch said. Because of prize money requirements, the Merco Classic no longer is on the calendar, but the event's reputation has been well-established.
"A typically national-level bike race lasts five to seven years," he said. "This race is one of a handful, maybe six or seven of its kind, that have lasted this long."
The event draws riders from around the world, Fluetsch said. This year, racers are coming from France, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
On Saturday, the races are accompanied by the United Way Community Fun Fair. Held in and around Courthouse Park, the event turns into a community festival, with a variety of activities and dozens of local vender booths.
"It makes it a real hometown fair," said Mary Bigelow, director of resource development for the United Way and one of the lead organizers for the event. "It's a destination."
Activities include bounce houses, slides and a climbing wall. For the adults, there's live music and a beer garden, sponsored this year by the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
At the same time, local businesses get exposure, with more than 60 vendors expected to participate this year.
"We do well at other events, but Merco is one of the gang-buster events," said Jim North, owner of Jim's Hot Diggety Dogs. "There are a lot of people there, and it turns out they eat a lot of hot dogs. Merco is a first-rate event for us."
The success of the event is largely due to broad community involvement and the large number of people willing to volunteer their time, Fluetsch said.
"The organizers are not cyclists," he said. "They're people who care about the community. I think the mistake that many bike races make is that they are put on by bike racers, and they get tired of doing it."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
READY TO ROLL
The following is a list of the 2013 Merco Cycling Classic activities:
FEB. 28 -- The Merced Irrigation District Road Race takes place at Lake McClure at 10 a.m. The course starts at Lake McClure Road, and includes a 12.5-mile loop with one main climb.
FEB. 28 -- The Merced Irrigation District Champions Dinner will be held at the Merced County Fairgrounds Pavilion at 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The event starts at 6 p.m. and includes a special guest speaker, Olympic bronze medalist and Tour de France multiple-stage winner Davis Phinney. Tickets are $25 each, with a limited number available.
MARCH 1 -- The Merced Boosters Time Trial takes place in north Merced at 11 a.m. The race starts north of La Paloma Road on G Street in Merced, going six miles up G Street and six miles back.
MARCH 2 -- The McDonald's Downtown Grand Prix takes place in downtown Merced at 7:30 a.m. and continues into the afternoon. The race starts and ends at Courthouse Park in downtown Merced.
MARCH 2 -- The United Way Community Fun Fair takes place at Courthouse Park in downtown Merced from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Vendor space is still available. For more, call (209) 383-4242, ext. 503.
MARCH 2 -- The United Way and Merced Irrigation District Cycling for Community Tricycle Race takes place from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event takes place in the parking lot at 19th and N streets in Merced. The team entry fee is $150 with all proceeds supporting United Way of Merced County. The first 36 teams will be admitted.
MARCH 2 -- The Merced Mall Pee Wee Classic takes place in downtown Merced at 11 a.m. The race starts at 21st and N streets, and is open to riders 3 to 9 years old. Entry is free.
MARCH 3 -- The Hilltop Ranch Road Race takes place in Snelling at 8 a.m. and continues into the early afternoon. The course starts at Keyes and Olsen roads, and includes a 24-mile loop through rolling hills.