MERCED -- A growing number of bicycle racers in the four-day Merco Cycling Classic are staying with area residents who are willing to open their homes to the athletes.
"House hosting" a cyclist is nothing new in the racing community, but in Merced, enthusiasm for the tradition has picked up speed.
"It really does tie the community to the event," said Doug Fluetsch, lead organizer of the race. "It brings a natural connection that the event had been missing."
The 20th annual cycling event begins at 10 a.m. today with the Merced Irrigation District Road Race at Lake McClure.
In previous years, a few residents volunteered their homes here and there. But last year, organizers made the practice an official priority, finding about 30 hosts for 70 riders.
This year, so far, 119 cyclists are staying with 43 hosts, according to event officials.
Emails and phone calls continue to come in from cyclists requesting a place to sleep, shower and store their bikes, said Melisa Kelly Ortega, a Building Healthy Communities organizer who coordinated the house hosting this year and last.
"Merced is truly an amazing community with wonderful, giving people," she said. "Without the help of the hosts, some cyclists would not be able to participate."
Fluetsch said he's hosting riders this year for the first time.
"My thought is having a professional cyclist stay in our house and having (our children) listen to their stories and their work ethic is a good example for our children," he said. "It's a great learning example."
In many instances, house hosting helps younger, less established racers finance the trip. For others, it's just plain fun.
"You get to meet families and friends of theirs," said 46-year-old racer Patrick Briggs, who's staying with a house host for the second year. "If they're really behind it, they really treat you well. You can't ask for anything better than that."
It's a good way to experience a city, said Briggs, who has used house hosting throughout his career.
"Merced is pretty good," he said. "It's got a cool vibe to it, especially when the weather's nice and everybody's out at night hanging out on Main Street."
However, it's not for everyone.
"I've done it for a lot of years, and I've got to a point where I want peace and quiet," said Kevin Clein, 46, who said he's never used a house host in Merced.
Like most of the 1,500 racers and support staff coming to Merced this week, he plans to stay in a hotel. He said he wants to ensure a good night's sleep so he's ready to race.
"I've had good experiences and bad experiences," he said. "Sometimes they've got kids and you end up on an air mattress or the floor and they're going to bed at all hours of the night. It's a crap shoot."
At the same time, Atwater host Elaine Parker went out of her way to find houses for a whole team.
Parker recruited her neighbors, finding enough spots for eight racers within a block of each other.
"I just asked my neighbors if they might be willing to host," she said. "Everybody said, 'That's a great idea. We can do that.' "
The more people we bring into our area, the more people realize the hospitality Merced County has to offer, Parker added.
"Not everyone has a chance to stop and spend time here," she said. "The race is a great opportunity to have people learn about our community and area."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or email@example.com.