LAKE McCLURE — The women's Specialized-lululemon team said they wanted to put on a show.
Pleased to be able to participate in the Merco Cycling Classic stage race after a one-year hiatus and inspired by the strong field assembled, the tandem of Evelyn Stevens and Tayler Wiles did just that Thursday afternoon.
The 65-woman field quickly turned into five-rider race with a big break on the second lap.
The pack was never able to catch back up, leaving Alison Powers, Andrea Dvorak, Lauren Hall, Stevens and Wiles to duke it out for the race leader's yellow jersey.
The lululemon pair pulled away on the final lap, cruising one-two across the finish line, 15 seconds ahead of Powers. Wiles, who race announcer Dave Towles said will be in the mix for 2016 U.S. Olympic team consideration, took the stage victory.
"We're very excited that Merco brought this race back and made it into a stage race for the women," Stevens said. "It was an awesome course, and we really wanted to go out and show how exciting a women's race can be. I think we did that. Everything unfolded perfectly."
With mild temperatures, only a slight breeze and the picturesque backdrop of the foothills around Lake McClure and the Exchequer Dam, the Merced Irrigation District Road Race proved once again to be a hit among the riders.
"That climb was no joke," Stevens said. "It was my first time riding the course and it was hard. I think it showed how strong the competition was here that we were still able to turn in such an exciting race."
New face, old race
The pro men's race had a familiar ending, but with a new face.
The Bissell Pro Cycling Team has dominated Merco since race founder Doug Fluetsch expanded it into its current stage-race format three years ago.
That continued on Thursday with Bissell's Phil Gaimon turning in a convincing 59-second victory in his Merco debut.
"I knew I could outclimb pretty much everybody, but I'm not a sprinter, so I needed to try and get as much separation as I could on the hill," Gaimon said. "We always had numbers in the break throughout the day and that was huge. Carter (Jones) set me up by going all out on the last lap, and I was able to open up a lead right after the top of the hill.
"I know the team loves the race. We kind of use it as our end of minicamp for the season. I'd never done it before, but it was a cool course."
Like the women's race, the pro men wasted little time making a move to separate from the pack.
A break opened up on the very first lap, creating an almost 1-minute, 20-second gap. Gaimon said he had to push hard to catch up to it on lap number two. The group of about 15 riders was able to maintain its lead for the rest of the race.
Matthew Carinio won the men's masters race and will wear the yellow jersey going into today's Stage 2 Merced Boosters Time Trial. Riders will head out onto the flat six-mile stretch along North G Street in 30-second intervals. Each racer will ride the length of the course and back, trying to turn in the day's fastest time.
The action begins with the pro men at 11 a.m.