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99 Series kicks off

From manure and tacks being dropped on the course to buckshot being fired at the race's participants, Doug Fluetsch has learned to think on his feet.

For the past 15 years, the Merced resident has been the architect of the Merco Credit Union Cycling Classic presented by McLane Pacific.

And in that time, Fluetsch has just about seen it all.

So the race founder and former cyclist barely batted an eye when the National Racing Calendar -- the cycling series on which Fluetsch has run the MCUCC for over a decade -- threw him a proverbial curve.

"The NRC changed a bunch of the criteria," Fluetsch said. "They wanted to limit the number of the participants and up the prize money.

"We found out in September and decided not to apply by September 15.

"With how things are in Merced right now, I didn't feel comfortable going to my sponsors and asking for more money.

"And we didn't want to limit riders. Part of the point of the race is creating business for the city."

Knowing he had to move forward -- but uncertain how exactly to proceed -- Fluetsch was contacted by a pair of fellow coordinators faced with the same exact problem.

Fresno's Central Valley Classic and Visalia's Sequoia Cycling Classic couldn't meet the NRC's new criteria, either.

"We have relationships that go back from the events," Sequoias Cycling Classic director Sheri Clark said. "We started talking by e-mail.

"At first there was a lot of throwing our hands in the air and saying 'What do we do?'

"After talking it out, we collectively came up with the idea for the 99 Series."

The idea was simple enough.

In order to try and maintain their draw of international racers, Fluetsch, Clark and Jonathan Eropkin combined their three events to form a mini-series.

Each event will maintain it's own individual flair, but points and a leader's jersey will be handed out over the course of the three Criterium races.

"We wanted a name that would be an identification for the riders," Fluetsch said. "We don't have an international airport around here, so all riders need to take (Highway) 99 to get here."

Clark said the collaboration should prove a boon to the area.

"The main reason we were trying to do the 99 Series was to keep the racers in the Central Valley after the Tour of California -- and before the big Southern California races start."

The first leg of the three-race 99 Series kicks off today with the MCUCC's Downtown Grand Prix.

More than just a race, Fluetsch has turned the Grand Prix into an all-out event with food, music, and all sorts of activities for the spectators.

Fluetsch follows that up on Sunday with the Foothills road race -- a 48 to 120-mile jaunt around Merced County's farm land.

With the incredible success both races have enjoyed, this weekend's Merco Cycling Classic is the key to the 99 Series.

Fluetsch's quality race has built a rapport with the professional riders, giving the new series a solid foundation.

"We were never concerned about (the MCUCC) not being on the National Racing Calendar," Colvita Sutter Home rider Kyle Wamsley said.

"It's an early season race. And it's hard to find a really good early season race.

"I think it's a bit of a sleeper, because it is so early in the season.

"But the guys I know who have ridden in it like the course and want to win it when they come back."

Fluetsch is optimistic about the 99 Series' potential.

Sticking with a community-first attitude, Fluetsch said he could see the 99 Series continuing for some time -- even if the MCUCC rejoined the NRC.

The other Valley race promoters appeared to be thinking along the same lines.

"I think the 99 Series has a lot of potential to build on itself," Clark said. "Everything starts out small.

"We don't have great deal of anticipation for this year's success, but hopes for the future are high."

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

Merco Credit Union Cycling Classic

Downtown Grand Prix

Today

LOCATION: M Street near the old courthouse

DESCRIPTION: One hundred plus riders will race in eight divisions around an eighth of a mile loop for 15 to 40 miles, depending on the rider's abilities.

SCHEDULE: Juniors, 7:30 a.m.; Women's Elite 3 and 4, 8:15 a.m., Men's Elite 4, 9 a.m.; Men's Elite 3, 9:50; Masters, 11 a.m.; Women's Elite 1 and 2, 12:10 p.m., Men's Elite 2, 1:30 p.m.; PeeWee Cycling Classic, 2:40 p.m., Men's Elite 1, 2:55 p.m.

EXTRAS: Arts and Crafts activities, Breakaway Zone (bounce houses), Food, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Radio Broadcast, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.; Live Band (Johnny Rockets and the Thrust), 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Foothills Road Race

Sunday

LOCATION: Keyes & Olsen Roads in Snelling

DESCRIPTION: A 24-mile loop arounf Northern Merced County. Racers will ride two to five laps, depending on skill level.

SCHEDULE: Men's Elite 2, 9 a.m.; Men's Elit 1, 9:03 a.m.; Masters 35 and up 1, 2 and 3, 9:06 a.m.; Men's Elite 3, 9:10 a.m.; Women's Elite 1 and 2, 9:15 a.m.; Men's Elite 4, 9:20 a.m.; Masters 35 and up 4, 9:23 a.m.; Masters 45 and up 1, 2,3 and 4, 11:45 a.m.; Women's Elite 3 and 4, 11:48 a.m.

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