After 20 years of sporting and financial success, the Merco Credit Union Cycling Classic presented by Dignity Health Mercy Medical Center has ended what grew to become a community tradition in the City of Merced. The event, which started in 1993 with initial support from McLane Pacific, had grown over the years from a single day race in downtown Merced to a four day stage race featuring venues that stemmed from Merced County over pouring into Stanislaus County with the Hilltop Ranch Road Race and Mariposa County with the recent addition of the MID Lake McClure Road Race.
Initially the event drew regional attention but quickly began to envelope both national and international recognition as a respected proving ground for current and future champion athletes. With globally recognized victories by riders such as Baden Cooke, Chris Horner, Jay Sweet, Gord Fraser, Mike Sayers, Ben Jacques-Maynes, J.J. Haedo, Ina Teutenberg, Emilia Fahlin and Evelyn Stevens, many athletes either had previously or gone onto compete at the sports absolute highest levels. For the City of Merced, the Merco-Mercy was a revenue generator with estimates of well over $450,000 generated annually for the City’s coffers. “The Merco has brought a positive focus to the City of Merced on the national and international stage for 20 years. Merced hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and other Merced businesses and citizens have all stepped up and supported this event giving Merced the nickname ‘Hospitality USA and ‘Bike City USA’” commented Karen Baker, City of Merced Visitor Services. With an operating budget in 2013 of over $100,000, generated by athlete entry fee and sponsorship incomes, the event was a bargain both in terms of race operation and civic return.
The ceasing of operation originates from two points, one being committee atrophy and another being risk of continued success. Historically the event peaked in terms of participation in 2004 with 1,777 athletes, the number has dwindled since then. The organizing committee feels this and the problems currently facing the sport of cycling with its potential effects on registration income creates a risk of a financial burden that it has never experienced in the past. “I am proud of the organization we have had over our 20 year run. There is nothing I would ever hide behind regarding this event. We have always paid our bills, treated athletes with respect and carried the torch proudly for our sponsors. We have provided the community of Merced with an event and venue they could always be proud of and enjoy, all the while offering the athletes a broad stage to perform on. There is not more I could ask for, which makes me very proud that our last year in 2013 was our best edition ever”, commented race founder and event director Doug Fluetsch. Since the event’s inception, the event has served as a fundraiser for the United Way of Merced County, with over $180,000 donated back to the charity over the event’s tenure. $10,000 was donated in 2013 alone.
The core organizing committee has been intact for nearly the length of the events life, with Doug Fluetsch for the full 20 years, Becky Cipriano and Don Bergman for 17 and Steve Hale for 15. “I often joked with Doug that we raised a child, from a baby to a grown adult. It has been a true pleasure to have been a part of such a fantastic event” commented Becky Cipriano. Four pillar committee members resigned at the end of the 20th anniversary creating a hole in historical knowledge and logistical ability that Fluetsch feels would be difficult to replace. With up to 250 volunteers a day and over 500 volunteers over the course of the event, it takes a small army to produce the Merco-Mercy. “When we have title sponsors and supporting sponsors who consistently provide the funds to help propel a top quality event for the community, we feel it is a massive responsibility to deliver at that level. With the current core structure of the committee, we fear that may be difficult to guarantee” commented Fluetsch.
The Merco-Mercy also served as inspiration to many aspiring athletes. Committee member Steve Hale’s son, Justin, first noticed cycling from the curb at a McLane Pacific edition in the mid 1990s. Justin soon became involved in the registration services for the athletes and began racing. He eventually raced for the Health Net Professional Cycling Team and competed in the very event that inspired him years earlier. “I am sure our event inspired many young kids to pursue bike racing and I am sure that many have achieved wonderful things because of our race” suggested Steve Hale.
The committee is intending to close their books with a $9,000 donation to the Merced Rescue Mission, a local Merced charity. The Merced Rescue Mission is a group of men who performed much of the physical labor required to stage the event for the past 10 years. It has been said that without their help, the event would have ended a number of years ago. The organizing committee voted and agreed that a donation to the Rescue Mission was the right thing to do.
“The Merco-Mercy has been a spring thing for me over the past 20 years. It will be odd without it. This is a group of people that I often laughed with and faced some downright odd challenges with. I have learned so much from the event and the people that helped to put it on. I am so very thankful for their friendship and lessons. It has been a wonderful experience” concluded Fluetsch.
Photo By Frank Sarate / SoCalCycling.com