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Thousands expected for weekend of bicycle racing

It's part festival, kids' carnival, concert and race all rolled into one, a time when Merced attracts more than 1,000 top-notch bicyclists and thousands of spectators.

Officially titled the MERCO Credit Union Cycling Classic Presented by McLane Pacific, this weekend's events continue a tradition established 15 years ago. About 3,000 people attend the cycling events, and cyclists come from all over the world, including current and former Tour de France competitors as well as leisure riders from Merced.

Flip Hassett, executive director of United Way of Merced County and event chairman, said the Cycling Classic is a time to show off the community and take pride in the city.

"People need to go downtown at least once to see this," Hassett said.

As cyclists from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Russia, Argentina and Venezuela whir around town at speeds approaching 45 mph, youngsters may be enjoying a nearby bounce house and other amusements. For adults, there will be arts and crafts activities, a live band and various food vendors.

Saturday's events revolve around a street race course that's eight-tenths of a mile long and Sunday's action features a 24-mile road race between Merced and Snelling-Hickman areas.

Hassett said the United Way may receive $8,000 or more this year from the event. The countywide charity clearinghouse has received $100,000 from the annual bike races since the event started.

"There is a very high caliber of competition. These guys are amazing," Hassett said.

Event spokeswoman Jennifer West said the Cycling Classic has a sizable economic impact on the area. Along with the cyclists themselves, team managers, technical crews, referees, announcers, and spectators come to Merced, stay in hotels and motels, eat in restaurants and patronize local businesses.

The cycling events serve as a major marketing tool for the city of Merced and Merced County, Hassett and West said.

This year's main event Saturday, starting about 3 p.m., is the Downtown Grand Prix. Cyclists race on a wide, fast 0.8 mile course in front of the historic Merced County Courthouse in full view of the crowds. The race course is bordered by M, P, 18th and 20th streets, which will be closed off to traffic during the day.

The Cycling Classic is sanctioned by USA Cycling, the official organization recognized by the United States Olympic Committee responsible for identifying, training and selecting cyclists to represent the U.S. in international and Olympic competition. Races continue Sunday with the Travis Credit Union Foothills Road Race, a 24-mile loop of rolling hills that riders complete between two and four times depending on their category.

"This is my second year working on this outstanding show of athletic talent and community pride," Hassett said. "I have always been inspired by the community's support of this event. From sponsorships to spectators, the Merced community really shines for this annual event."

Hassett said the racing is thrilling to watch, with races starting at 7:30 a.m. with the Greg Opinski Construction Junior's Race with competitors 15 to 18 years of age. The next race is the Merced School Employees Federal Credit Union women's race at 8:15 a.m., with races of all levels continuing every hour throughout the day.

Teams that are registered include Toyota United, which fielded last year's men's pro race winner; and Kelly Benefit Strategies/Medifast; Colavita Sutter Home presented by Cooking Light; Bissell Pro Cycling Team; California Giant Berry Farms; TEAM TIBCO (women); Team Rock (women); and Team High Road (women).

"During the race, a festival atmosphere permeates downtown," West said. "There will be bounce houses and other inflatable fun for children at the Educational Employees Credit Union Breakaway Zone. Other free activities include a live band, Johnny Rocket and the Thrust, arts and crafts activities provided by the Merced County Arts Council, and the Merced Sun-Star Pee Wee Classic. Courthouse Park will be the site of free fun, thrills and entertainment."

The Merced Sun-Star Pee Wee Classic from 2:20 to 3 p.m. Saturday offers youngsters up to 10 years of age a chance to race their bikes. While children must wear a helmet, entry is free and comes with a free T-shirt.

More than 150 volunteers and staff work the weekend events. The race is also supported by more than 100 community owned and operated businesses. The main sponsor, MERCO, has been in existence since 1954, West said.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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