Sierra promises a test for Amgen racers

The racers competing in Amgen's Tour of California will weave through downtown Merced to Bear Creek Drive before beginning the uphill climb into Mariposa County's foothills, the event sponsors announced Thursday.

The nine-day race has an alpine leg Feb. 18 from Merced to Clovis that's expected to draw as many as 10,000 spectators to the area.

Then there's the Lance Armstrong factor.

The seven-time Tour de France champion is scheduled to race in the event, which may draw fans who'd otherwise pass on watching whirling spokes.

"I don't think Merced will realize what (the race) means until it happens," said Doug Fluetsch, who's been helping the city's planning committee with the technical parts.

The race begins at 11 a.m., though downtown will be bustling with spectators hours beforehand. The racers will sign in and go through "autograph alley," where they'll be available to sign fans' shirts, magazines and other memorabilia.

The elevation ranges from a couple hundred feet above sea level in Merced to almost 4,000 feet at Crane Valley Road, near Oakhurst. There's a good chance they'll hit snow during the 115-mile ride, estimated to last between five and six hours.

This is the first time Merced has been included in the international event that's one of the four big races leading up to the Tour de France.

"I like the analogy that this is like bringing the Super Bowl to Merced," planning committee member Deneen Proctor said.

Proctor, also the city's director of support services, said she has two Oregon friends who are flying down to watch the race and bike along parts of it.

Local organizers designed Merced's route so the racers and television viewers see almond orchards in full-bloom, dairies and Bear Creek.

"We'll be showcased," Fluetsch said. "It is a rolling, live postcard."

Besides international exposure, the event will be a boon to the local economy through hotel reservations, restaurants and a street fair after the tour that includes bounce houses and health booths.

The city will block off the downtown corridor so traffic can't interfere with the race. The California Highway Patrol will create a rolling roadblock once the racers leave the city limits.

The leg from Merced to Clovis, with its steep decline that will put the racers at 50 mph or faster, will prove pivotal in the race, Fluetsch explained.

"From (the foothills) to Clovis is where the race is won," he said. "If you're timid at all, you can lose the race."

Either way, Merced wins.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

Help out at race

The city is still looking for volunteers to put on the event. So far about 200 people have signed up. The city, expecting some no-shows, is looking to find 300 who'll help out. Go to www.cityofmerced.org and click on Amgen Tour of California for more information.