Teams are gathering in the Central Valley, more precisely Merced California for the MERCO Credit Union Cycling Classic. This year, the race expanded into a 4-day stage race for the Men’s Pro 1/2 and Women’s Pro 1/2/3 fields and the battle should be fun to watch, a preview of the NRC season with four men’s pro teams fielding squads of 5 riders or more along other pros and local powerhouse teams.
The sunny California weather has turned to cold, windy and rainy conditions. Conditions that might impact the race. If the times are still close, winds on the final stage can bring havoc, as it has in the past and fans get treated to echelons. Sweet that. Also in the past, the stages are favored strong sprinters but the time trial could change that.
podium insight will be on site covering the race. Follow @podium_live for live race updates (#merco hashtag).
The men’s pro teams fielding big squads include nine riders from BISSELL including last year’s overall winner Ben Jacques-Maynes, seven from Jelly Belly p/b Kenda, six from Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth and five from Wonderful Pistachios. Other pro teams showing up with one or two riders include Kenda 5 Hour Energy p/b GearGrinder and Team Type 1 – sanofi-aventis. On the local amateur side, CalGiant is fielding all their nine U23 riders, all racing together for the first time, Yahoo! Cycling Team has seven riders and Team Specialized Racing Masters and Juniors squads is showing up with nine riders total including Fast Freddie Rodriguez. Also present will be Alexi Grewal, Rahsaan Bahati (Bahati Foundation) and Eric Wohlberg (Form Fitness) who is rumored to be flying right now and will be throwing it down as only he can.
The women’s field should also provide aggressive racing. Will powerhouse HTC-High Road dominate once again? Their three riders, which include Ina-Yoko Teutenberg who has won many times (6? 7?) at MERCO will face a strong field. Peanut Butter & Co.TWENTY12 is showing up with nine riders, TIBCO/To The Top with four, Vanderkitten-FOCUS with five and Primal-Mapmyride Pro Cycling with two. One rider to watch is Swiss Pascale Maria Schnider who outwitted the field at last week’s Merced Criterium. (See list of registered riders)
Along with the GC leader’s jersey, there will be also be a combined (Sprint/KOM) competition and an U25 competition for the men and U26 for women with a leaders jersey awarded following each stage.
The stages. Race starts with the Merced Irrigation District Road Race on Thurday March 3. The course is a 12.5 Mile loop with 3 mile rolling to uphill finish off of main loop. The men do 6.5 laps for 82 miles total and the women do 4.5 laps for 58 miles. Both fields will be on course at the same time, with the women starting 5 minutes after the men. . View GPS course at strava.com and the finishing climb. View video of course at youtube.com.
Friday afternoon is the on a Merced Boosters Time Trial on a 12 mile (6 out 6 back) flat and rolling course. The women start at 1pm at 30-second interval with the top 10 going at 1-second intervals, followed by the pro men. View GPS Course at strava.com.
The traditional Downtown Grand Prix is on Saturday afternoon. Due to street repairs, the course had to be changed for 2011 and will now include 5 turns plus one 180 degree hairpin turn approximately 400 meters from the finish line. Course distance is .63 miles. The 180 u-turn is going to be nuts especially at the beginning with the complete field trying to take it.
The race ends with the Almond Blossom Road Race, a beautiful 24 miles rolling hills loop surrounded by blooming trees and bees. We’ve seen solo flyers and sprints out of a dwindling in the past. The men do 5 laps for 120 miles and the women race 3 laps for 72 miles. It’s a long hard one with some sketchy pavement. View GPS course at strava.com.