Amgen Tour of California: Racers return to Valley ... and sun?

Blink and you could miss it -- the two-wheeled blur of yellows, oranges and blues sweeping the Golden State.

The Amgen Tour of California, America's biggest bike race, breezes through Merced today for the start of stage four.

And while cycling offers fleeting moments of suspense and action for its fans, Mercedians and out-of-towners will get a rare treat: double the viewing pleasure.

Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and the rest of the world's top cyclists will make two loops through the streets of Merced.

"Typically, with a road race like this, they start and go straight out of town," said Doug Fluetsch, technical director for the Merced-to-Clovis route.

"We had to lobby to get the extra circuit thrown in, so it's really going to be a treat for fans."

The Tour of California arrived in Merced County on Tuesday night, three stages and a prologue officially in the books.

But the buzz for today's 115.4-mile ride through the Valley and foothills has been building for months.

Staging for today's event began on Tuesday morning and continued through the night, as public works workers braved the wind and rain to hang banners along the facade of parking garages downtown.

Banners decorated the palm trees along 18th Street and a massive "Bike City USA" sign graced the front of the Civic Center.

"We all knew it was coming and we've all been excited," said Kevin McCarthy, owner of Kevin's Bikes and a former pro mechanic with the Sierra Nevada racing team.

"But I'm having people see me in the supermarket and say they're excited and can't wait.

"I know a lot of people that went to Sacramento (for the Prologue) and a few that went to Santa Cruz (for the stage two finish). I would assume people from other towns will be doing the same thing for Merced.

"I think it's going to be really, really neat."

The race begins at 11 a.m. at the corner of N and 18th streets.

The peloton -- or pack -- will make two loops on a figure-eight course through the streets of Merced, before bolting down Bear Creek Drive and out of town.

The timed portion of the race will begin as riders cross the threshold of Bear Creek Drive and McKee Road.

The race will spill out on Highway 140 in Planada, beginning its climb through the hills of Mariposa County.

There will be four King of the Mountain competitions and two sprints before the finish in Old Town Clovis.

An estimated 15,000 people are expected to flood downtown for what's forecast as the first dry day of the tour.

Mother Nature has played an integral part in the tour's initial stages, soaking the peloton as it traveled through the Bay Area over the weekend.

Today's forecast calls for partly sunny skies, with a high of 58 degrees.

"Perfect," Fluetsch said. "Absolutely perfect. I've run races in the rain, and it's not fun. It's miserable for the racers and the organizers.

"Five thousand people would be more than we've ever had in downtown Merced," he added. "But my feeling is that we'll get 15,000, if not more, because this will be the first dry day of the tour."

Lance, Levi, two loops and 15,000 screaming fans?

"This is going to be huge," Merced public information officer Mike Conway said. "The city has never planned for an event of this magnitude.

"This is something people will talk about for years and years. It's going to be big."

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at

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