Central Valley

Longtime race organizer says Tour of California was refreshing preview for MERCO Cycling Classic

Doug Fluetsch needed a new challenge.

After 15 years of organizing and running the MERCO Cycling Classic, Fluetsch's event had become a well-oiled machine.

A little too well-oiled.

That's when the AMGEN Tour of California came calling.

Merced had been asked to host the start of Stage 4 and no one know more about putting on a bike race in this town than Fluetsch.

"For me it was nice, because it was different," Fluetsch said. "Being involved in MERCO for 16 years, it's become a machine.AMGEN was a new challenge. For one thing, the Tour literally has a $1,000,000 budget per day. It was fun to have some more freedom to create.”

Fluetsch served as a technical adviser for the race, helping AMGEN map out an alpine course from Merced to Clovis.In return, Fluetsch got to ride in one of the lead cars for the entire stage, getting a front-row seat to U.S. cycling's Super Bowl.

"The best part of that was having the chance to see all the work I put into it unfold," Fluetsch said. "Seeing all the different climbs in the race was pretty cool, too.

"It was just what I needed."

The response from the Merced community was equally exciting.

"I think as far as cycling in Merced goes, the Tour of California did big things for our community," Fluetsch said. "The city projected 15,000 in attendance -- and I don't know about downtown -- but out along Bear Creek, the course was filled with people cheering."

Fluetsch expects that enthusiasm to carry over to this weekend’s MERCO Cycling Classic.

The Downtown Grand Prix will begin today with the junior division getting underway at 7:30 a.m.

The Foothills Road Race will begin at 9 a.m. on Sunday.

"We're pretty much sticking with the formula," Fluetsch said. "Like everything else, we're trying produce the same quality that people have come to expect with less.

"Hopefully, the Tour of California got everyone excited for cycling and now they can experience it up close and personal with the Downtown Grand Prix.

"One of the benefits of MERCO is you get to feel much more a part of the action."

As has been the case the last few years, MERCO will continue to strive to be an all-day family event.

"We've tried to put more emphasis on the community aspect of it,” race media relations director Jennifer West said. “We have more vendors coming out, more non-profits, there’s more food options and, of course, activities for the kids.

"It’s still a sporting event, but it also has a little something for everyone."

In addition to the always popular PeeWee Classic (today at 2:35 p.m.), West said there will be a corporate relay race this year."It's the first time we're doing it," West said. "Four people share one bike and do a lap of the downtown course.

“We’d love to have the city council and some of the sponsors out there.

"It's all for fun and it would be really great to have city leaders come out and show their support." MERCO Cycling Classic

DOWNTOWN GRAND PRIX:

Today: Juniors, 7:30 a.m.; Women’s Elite 3/4, 8:30 a.m.; Men’s Elite 4, 9:30 a.m.; Men’s Elite 3, 10:20 a.m.; Women’s Elite 1/2, 11:30 a.m.; Masters, 12:50 p.m.; Corporate Relay, 1:50 p.m.; Sun-Star PeeWee Classic, 2:35 p.m.; Men’s Elite 1/2, 2:55 p.m.

FOOTHILLS ROAD RACE:

Sunday: Men’s Elite 1/2, 9 a.m.; Masters 35+ 1/2/3, 9:03 a.m.; Men’s Elite 3, 9:06 a.m.; Women’s Elite 1/2, 9:10 a.m.; Juniors, 9:15 a.m.; Men’s Elite 4, 9:20 a.m.; Masters 35+ 4, 9:23 a.m.; Masters 45+ 1/2/3/4, 11:45 a.m.; Women’s Elite 3/4, 11:48 a.m.

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