The Merco Cycling Classic has gradually grown over the past 4 years from a conventional two day road race-criterium weekend to a challenging 4-day stage race that kicks of the stage race month off March. I first did the race back in 2009 when I was racing mostly in Northern California, and one thing about the race has remained unchanged: it has always had a good prize purse and race organization that attracts a very strong field.
With the strong field that includes full teams from Bissell, Optum, Exergy, CashCall, and Cal-Giant and just under 200 miles of road racing, a relatively long time trial, and 90 minute crit the Merco Stage Race is a perfect prep race for the Redlands Cycling Classic at the end of the month, the first NRC race of the season, and one of the most difficult.
Stage 1: MID Road Race
The Merced Irrigation District road race kicks off Merco with 6 laps of a hilly 12 mile loop, for a total of just under 80 miles. The main climb is near the beginning of the circuit and lasts for about 6 minutes, and would whittle the field down each time we went over it, as many riders would fall off the back and only a few would regroup.
The pace on the first lap was fast, with everyone trying to get into a break, but once we hit the climb it would come back together. It stayed together on the climb for the most part, with a few riders going off the front near the top to make a break finally stick or to get the KOM points and money that was up for grabs on every lap.
After four hard but otherwise steady laps the field crested the climb and a dangerous break finally went up the road. It was only two strong, but it was strong and dangled off the front for a whole lap. As we went up the climb for the 6th and final time a strong tempo was set on the front and everything came back together and it looked like it was going to be a bunch sprint for those who survived all the climbing.
Sure enough, Bissell kept the speed high for the final five miles and delivered Patrick Bevin to the line for the stage win and the yellow jersey.
Stage 2: Merced Booster’s Time Trial
The time trial was a mostly flat 12 mile out and back course with one gradual but big roller in the middle. Evan Huffman (Cal Giant) put in the best effort of the day and got a surprise win ahead of Patrick Bevin (Bissell) and TT power house Tom Zirbel (Optum). Huffman’s time was good enough to put him into the yellow jersey by just a few seconds.
The only TT performance that might be said to be more impressive than Huffman’s was the one by Kristin Armstrong in the women’s field who blazed over the 12.2 miles with an average speed well over 28mph, good enough to beat her nearest female competitor by close to a minute as well as most of the men’s field. Pretty impressive.
Stage 3: Downtown Grand Prix
With such little time separating the leaders everyone was interested to see how Cal Giant would try to control the 40 miles criterium and defend their GC lead over Bissell and Optum.
Nearly the whole Cal Giant team was on the front of the race from the start keeping a good tempo on the technical course to defend the yellow jersey, all of them that is except for the yellow jersey himself, who rode near the middle of the pack for most of the race.
The technical course and large field meant crashes pretty regularly. I saw at least three crashes during the whole race, but it wasn’t until the last three laps that they would really affect the race. Cal Giant and Bissell had been keeping a strong tempo on the front and any breakaway attempts did not last long.
With 3 laps to go, a major crash on one of the corners split the field which was being strung out by Bissell. I was surprised to see the yellow jersey (Evan Huffman) still at the middle of the pack when the split happened and as a consequence he missed the split. The lead group of about 25 riders, being driven by Bissell, put about 20 seconds into the rest of the field over the final 3 laps, with Logan Loader (Exergy) winning the sprint just ahead of Justin Williams (CashCall). With the big split in the field Patrack Bevin (Bissell) moved back into the yellow jersey, while Huffman dropped down into 5th place.
Stage 4: Almond Blossom Road Race
The final stage of the Merco Cycling Classic would also be the longest. With 120 miles on tap and a close GC battle it would be a long day for everyone.
From the very start Optum put in an attack to show Bissell that they would have to work for all 120 miles if they wanted to defend their lead. After a whole lap (24 miles) of attacks and counter attacks the field was still together, but as we started the 2nd lap a break finally got off the front. The break had 4 riders, two from Optum, one from Simple Green, and one from Exergy. Bissell decided to play a little poker with their challengers and let the break go. The quartet soon built up a gap of over four minutes and were the virtual leaders on the road.
However Bissell played it cool and set a steady tempo on the front for the next two laps, letting the gap max out at five minutes. With two laps to go and the gap still huge, Bissell decided to start putting in a serious chase and the speed of the field changed noticeably.
After just one lap of hard chasing the gap was down to around two minutes. With one lap to go and the break now within a minute of the field. Optum began hitting Bissell with attacks as hard as they could. The pace of the last lap was fast as it all came back together and Optum and other teams attacked Bissell. However Bissell was too strong, and despite many of their riders falling off the back after chasing all day, they still had the numbers to keep it all together, with Patrick Bevin, the yellow jersey, having to cover a lot of the moves himself for the last half lap. Despite some really hard attacks from Tom Zirbel and the rest of Optum, it was all together for the last half lap and other teams with sprinters began to fight for the front.
The last 5km were fast and hectic, but Logan Loader (Exergy) was able to navigate through the field perfectly to take his second win in a row, showing that the first one was no accident.
Patrick Bevin wrapped up the overall for Bissell and Logan Loader (Exergy) moved into 2nd in GC with his strong finishes and descent time trial, and Tom Zirbel (Optum) rounding out the GC podium.
It was a hard and fun four days of weekend, and a really good prep for Redlands. Every stage finish greeted the racers with delicious nutrition from Muscle Milk and almonds and fruit from the region. Every race should be like that, and I look forward to returning to Merco next year for another great stage race.
By Lucas Binder, SPY-Swamis