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Merced joins 'Tour of California' cycling race

One of the country’s biggest cycling races will make a stop in Merced next year, possibly bringing with it thousands of spectators and professional cyclists from all over the globe.

“That’s huge for us,” said Mayor Ellie Wooten at a Wednesday morning press conference announcing that the 2009 Amgen Tour of California will be the starting point of one of the nine legs of the race. “It puts our community on the world’s stage.”

One of the only American races listed in the international professional cycling calendar, the Amgen tour has added eight new cities to next year’s race. This will make the tour a nine-day race, starting Feb. 14 in Sacramento and ending in Escondido on Feb. 22.

Riders and spectators will visit Merced on Feb. 18, where tour riders will start the fifth stage of the race, riding south to Clovis.

“I have a feeling it’s going to be a pivotal stage," said Charlotte Hart, a Merced cyclist who races on Team TIBCO, a professional woman’s cycling team based in Palo Alto.

Hart said the race will allow many cycling fans to see some of the world’s best road racers. The 2008 tour drew 1.6 million spectators, setting the record for attendance at a California sporting event. Wooten said the tour’s stop in Merced “is a wonderful opportunity to showcase our city.”

Andrew Messick, president of race presenter AEG Sports said the decision to expand the event was made to better showcase the state. “We are so fortunate to be able to include Merced and bring this great sport event to even more people throughout California.”

But it’s no surprise to Hart that Amgen officials chose Merced as a stop on the 2009 tour. “A lot of people don’t realize just how much cycling goes on in Merced,” she said.

Now that the announcement has been made, Hart said Merced will be on the lips of cyclists all over the globe. “It’s worldwide right now,” she said. “They’re talking about it on the Tour de France today.”

Merced has been home to the Merco Merced Cycling Classic for more than a decade, which was raced on March 1 this year. The Original Merced Criterium, which was raced in January, has also taken place in the city for many years.

Other cities added to the tour include Davis, Santa Cruz, Clovis, Visalia, Paso Robles, Rancho Bernardo and Escondido. Those cities join Modesto, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Sausalito, San Jose, Solvang, Santa Clarita and Pasadena as host cities on the tour.

Modesto has moved from a starting point city in this year’s tour to an ending point in the 2009 race. This is a change city officials hope will boost the area’s economy. Modesto City Councilwoman Kristin Olsen said a finish stage boosts a city's economic fortune more than a starting stage, because riders, spectators and others spend more money on restaurants, lodging and shopping.

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