Winners reflect as Merco Cycling Classic wraps 20th year

slynch@mercedsunstar.comMarch 4, 2013 

— Phil Gaimon wasn't supposed to be in Merced.

The Bissell Pro Cycling rider thought he would get to spend a little time at home after the team finished its training camp.

Bissell had other ideas, choosing Gaimon as one of its nine team members for the Merco Cycling Classic.

"It's just one of those things," Gaimon said. "When the team tells you to go, you say OK."

Apparently Bissell knew what it was doing.

The 27-year-old went wire-to-wire with the yellow leader's jersey, wrapping up his first Merco title on Sunday morning with a front-of-the- pack finish in the Hilltop Ranch Road Race.

Gaimon entered the day with a comfortable 50-second lead over Ben Jacques-Maynes after finishing 16th in Saturday's McDonald's Grand Prix.

The Bissell team fought to make sure no one could break away and take a run at that lead on the 120-mile course through the Snelling almond blossoms. Gaimon secured his Merco river rock trophy when he avoided the 30-plus bike pileup in the home stretch.

Optum Pro Cycling's Ken Hanson took the Downtown Grand Prix and Dion Hill of Full Circle won today's Hilltop Ranch Road Race.

"I guess I'm glad I came," Gaimon said with a grin.

There wasn't much drama in the final leg of the women's race either.

Evelyn Stevens had been the class of the race through the first three legs.

Her specialized- lululemon teammate Ina-Yoko Teutenberg captured Saturday's Grand Prix for the second straight year, but Stevens' eighth-place showing gave her a very solid 31-second lead going into Sunday.

"I personally would have liked to had a little more than a 31-second lead, because you never can be too comfortable," Stevens said. "You just have to be aware of what's going on.

"We wanted to just control the yellow jersey and the girls raced great today, " she said. "It was a great four-day stage race that we're really grateful to get to be a part of."

Sunday's action concluded what might have been the best Merco Cycling Classic yet, now in its 20th year.

The sport of cycling is struggling in the wake of the Lance Armstrong saga. Fewer teams and sponsorships have forced the cancellation of races that had been U.S. staples.

It would have been hard to tell on Saturday as thousands flocked to downtown Merced to enjoy the racing and the Community Fun Fair.

The cycling community responded by providing possibly Merco's finest field of riders to date.

"The way the economy is going in cycling, riders really need to pick and choose the races that they ride in," Merco founder Doug Fluetsch said. "So to have the caliber of field that we had for the pro men and pro women is pretty astounding.

"It's very encouraging for the future of this race, and the community support continues to be outstanding," he said.

"The numbers on Saturday were incredible," Fluetsch said. "One of the United Way people came by and told me that the Downtown Grand Prix is Merced's best party, which I thought was a pretty cool thing."

Reporter Sean Lynch can be reached at (209) 385-2476 or slynch@mercedsunstar.com.

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