AMGEN Tour of California gives Merced a chance to shine in national spotlight

Merced has unwittingly found itself in the spotlight a little too often the past year.

The town watched as a number of stores closed their doors forever after Christmas.

Articles in the New York and Los Angeles Times painted bleak pictures of countless housing foreclosures. And with the recession continuing to tighten things all over, there doesn't appear to be a lot of bright spots on the horizon.

That's why Wednesday's reprieve is so well deserved.

The eyes of the state, the nation and the world will once again fall upon Merced. This time, though, it'll be for something positive.

Stage 4 of the Tour of California -- America's biggest cycling race -- will kick off from Merced at 11 a.m.

The world's best riders and teams will all be in attendance, but the biggest reason for the city to celebrate will be the presence of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong in his second race since returning to the sport.

"It goes without saying that this will be a boon to the town," Merced public information officer Mike Conway said. "Our hotels will be filled up.

"Our restaurants will be flooded. And hopefully, when people are downtown, they'll stop to shop at our many stores."

Conway said that Tour cities typically average an attendance of 10,000 people.

Those numbers, however, are without Armstrong.

"They call it The Lance Factor," Conway said. "Interest in an event instantly increases just because Lance is in it.

"He was down participating in the Tour of Australia race and they were getting bigger numbers than they'd ever had before."

Long story short, Merced can expect a huge influx of people on Tuesday evening and Wednesday.

To capitalize on the event, Merced will be turning the downtown area into an all-out festival.

A Cancer Awareness Fair will be held on N St., between 18th and Main.

A Lifestyle festival -- complete with bounce houses, face painting and other children's activities -- will be held on Main St., between M and N.

There will also be an Arts Alley, located in between the Merced Civic Center and the Multicultural Center.

All events will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

"We're hoping to have a little something for everyone," said Karen Baker of the California Welcome Center.

The race itself will start at 18th St. and N at 11 a.m.

The riders will make two warm-up laps around the city's downtown loop and then start the timed portion of the race at Bear Creek and McKee Road.

It's there that the riders will head off for Clovis.

The Merced Mall Fun Ride will begin at 11:30 a.m., allowing all comers to ride the downtown loop.

"We're hoping the participants will get a thrill from riding the same course as the professionals," Conway said.