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Fans cheer Atwater teacher; Cycling Classic a hit

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMES
Elite/ Pro women racers take a sharp turn in front of Veteran's Park during one of their 40 laps during the Merco Credit Union Classic Saturday afternoon.
February 28th, 2009
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMES Elite/ Pro women racers take a sharp turn in front of Veteran's Park during one of their 40 laps during the Merco Credit Union Classic Saturday afternoon. February 28th, 2009

For two days, Charlotte Hart was Merced's biggest celebrity.

The Atwater history teacher signed autographs at the Merced Mall on Friday night.

Fans with homemade signs lined the rails for Saturday's MERCO Credit Union Cycling Classic's Downtown Grand Prix.

And coworkers, friends and family could be heard shouting words of encouragement around the course for all 40 laps of the women's Category 1/2 pro race.

"It's been one of the coolest races I've ever been in," Hart said. "It's been great having all this support out here and I did a lot of what I wanted to do.

"The finish just didn't come together as I'd hoped."

Hart was hoping for a top-10 showing in her hometown, but a crash about halfway through the race put those plans to rest.

"There was a crash on the backside of the course and I had to bunny hop onto the grass to avoid it, but I fell behind the rest of the pack.

"It took about 10 laps to catch back up and it used a lot of energy."

Despite the fatigue, Hart, a sprint specialist, found herself back in the thick of things with five laps to go.

"I was in pretty good position, but I just didn't have it for the final push.

"I'd twisted my knee skiing and I just couldn't stand up on the last lap."

Ina Yoko Teutenberg of Team Columbia Highroad won the race in 1:13:28.20. Hart finished in 37th place, 22 seconds back of Teutenberg.

"All and all, I feel pretty good," Hart said. "This was probably one of the best collections of sprinters ever assembled here and it showed."

The crowds were a little late rolling out of bed, but by the end of the women's elite race, a few thousand lined the rails to the finish line cheering Hart and company home.

Race fans were treated to an even more compelling men's elite race with Rahsaan Bahati holding off Justin Williams by one-hundredth of a second.

As thrilling as the finish was, the highlight of the day had to be the near 400 kids who turned out to participate in the annual PeeWee Classic.

"It was almost a flawless day," race director and founder Doug Fluetsch said. "There were a few crashes, but that's racing. Those things are going to happen.

"We probably had the most kids we've ever had for the PeeWee Classic. The crowds turned out late, but when they did (arrive) they were very vocal and active.

"The crew that I work with does a phenomenal job and they put on an outstanding community event."

The two-day MERCO Cycling Classic concluded on Sunday with Ignacio Silva and Tutenberg winning the pro Foothills Road Race.

"The Tour of California was great for MERCO, I think," Fluetsch said. "People got excited about cycling and turned out to this weekend to experience a completely different version of it.

"I think it's been an excellent two weeks for the town and the sport."

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