MERCED -- If you build it, they will come.
That's essentially the message conveyed to Merco Cycling Classic race founder Doug Fluetsch after he dropped the race's opening leg for the pro women in 2012.
Fluetsch expanded the unofficial kickoff to the U.S. cycling season to a four-day stage race in 2011.
The move was met with rave reviews by the cycling community, but Fluetsch said the women's field wasn't big enough that they could afford to keep putting it on.
So Fluetsch cut the women's Merced Irrigation District Road Race and turned their event into a three-day, point-based ominum.
The move wasn't a popular one with the female riders. Several voiced complaints, including 2012 Merco champion and U.S. cycling gold medalist Kristin Armstrong.
"That actually caught me by surprise," Fluetsch said. "I thought the MID Road Race was so hilly and just hard on the body that they didn't like it.
"I guess it was kind of a rookie move on my part. They kept calling it gender inequality in the sport, but I just didn't think there was enough interest to put it on," he said.
"A guy named Michael Hernandez was really instrumental in voicing the female riders' complaints and rallying support for bringing it back," Fluetsch said.
Hernandez is co-founder of the website NorCal Cycling News.com and a race announcer for many NorCal events.
He said he used his website and a social media campaign to drum up interest in the racing community. The movement was more than successful, with 60 women signed up to participate as of last week. Fluetsch thought it could be as many as 75 when the 20th running of the Merco Cycling Classic gets under way Thursday morning.
"There was a lot of people interested in making this happen," Hernandez said. "We mainly just did it through Facebook, but a lot of credit has to go to Doug. There isn't a lot of equity between men's and women's cycling here in the U.S., but there's this wave of change that's starting.
"Merco is kind of on the forefront of that movement. It shows with the best female riders in the world coming out for the race," Hernandez said.
The four-day Merco Cycling Classic starts Thursday with the MID Road Race. The race is a 12.5-mile grueling loop through the foothills near Lake McClure. Racing gets under way for the pro men at 10 a.m. The masters men and the pro women will start in five-minute increments after them.
The racing resumes Friday morning with the Merced Boosters Time Trial. Riders will switch from endurance to speed as they try to turn in the fastest time on a 12-mile flat stretch of North G St. Racing begins at 11 a.m.
The most spectator-friendly day of racing takes place Saturday with the McDonald's Downtown Grand Prix. The race is an eighth-of-a-mile loop around Courthouse Park and extending up to Main Street.
In addition to the excitement of the sprints and hair-pin turns on the streets of downtown Merced, Fluetsch is bringing back the Community Fun Fair, Pee Wee Classic and beer gardens with live music. The Downtown Grand Prix will add the Cycling for Community tricycle race this year.
Racing begins at 7:30 a.m. Fluetsch said he altered some of the racing starts this year to have the pros going at the height of the Fun Fair attendance. The pro men will race at 11:30 a.m., with the pro women getting under way at 1:10 p.m. The Pee Wee Classic will be sandwiched in between the two pro races.
Things conclude Sunday with the Hilltop Ranch Road Race. The distance race along the back roads of Snelling starts at 8 a.m.