Merced is oh-so close to bringing back the Amgen Tour of California — America’s biggest bike race, and the third largest bike race in the entire world.
Negotiations on the first race stages and their host cities have been going on for the past three months, and Merced has been a frontrunner from the start, according to Doug Fluetsch, a local cycling promoter and course designer.
Fluetsch appeared before the City Council last week and revealed that Stage 2 of the tour is Merced’s for the taking. He urged leaders to sign off on the event to be held in May, and touted that the race is being planned to start and end in Merced on the same day — an unprecedented opportunity for a mid-size city.
“This is, by far, the largest international event that has ever come to Merced,” Fluetsch told the Times. “It was big the last time, but starting and finishing in Merced is massive. There will be so many images of our city broadcast all over the world. There is not any better publicity than that.”
Merced played host to the tour only one time before — for the start of Stage 4 in 2009. That was when Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and the rest of the world’s top cyclists made two loops through the streets of downtown Merced, riding past the Civic Center, which bore a giant banner that read “Bike City USA.” Then they headed off to the Sierra foothills and raced back down to Clovis.
This year, Amgen Tour officials contacted Fluetsch for his expertise in course design. Fluetsch directed the MERCO Cycling Classic in Merced for 20 years. He also served as a technical director for the Tour of California when it came to town the last time. Fluetsch was asked to draw up a course for Merced, and he ended up turning in about nine options. He later learned Merced was in position for a major stage of the tour.
From that point, Fluetsch said he has been working with the tour’s Executive Director Kristin Klein, and also the owners of the big three major redevelopment projects going on in downtown Merced: the El Capitan, the Tioga and the Mainzer Theater. The latter group, according to Fluetsch, are strong supporters of cycling and are committed to “helping Merced become a better town.”
The Tour of California is seen in about 200 countries, and covered by more than 30 major media outlets.
“If you could envision the day of the race,” Fluetsch implores. “It would start at 10 a.m. at the old courthouse. They would leave Merced, go up to Mariposa and through the Midpines area, back through Bear Valley, Hornitos, Snelling and then return to Merced through the UC Merced campus, and finish at the old courthouse. …
“The start of the race is covered worldwide, and the last two hours of the race is covered by TV crews in helicopters, a plane and a team of motorcycles. … Merced will be connected to global icons like Yosemite National Park … and ideally, the race would actually go through the UC Merced campus. …
Fluetsch said he would like to see a “sprint line” — a stretch of the course where prize money can be earned for the first to cross a designated point — on the UC Merced campus. “That would guarantee we would have ground and air TV crews sending out images of the university around the world.”
On the financial end, it would take up to $450,000 of local support to put on Stage 2 in Merced, Fluetsch said. A significant part of that goes to hotel room costs for riders and crews. The city would be required to cover anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 in costs for services such as road work, road closures, and police and other staff pay.
Fluetsch said the financing is in reach, and he is confident the community will step up to make the Tour of California happen in Merced.
He also added that Amgen officials take care of everything else — all the organizing of the race itself, the equipment, the scheduling and essentials for the riders and their crews.
“This would be a big win for us,” said Mayor Murphy during the City Council meeting on Oct. 7.
Murphy and his colleagues directed city staff to look at the feasibility of having Stage 2 and report back.
Later, Fluetsch told the Times candidly that the window of opportunity will not stay open for very long. He said the tour would probably need an answer in a matter of days. The next City Council meeting is set for Oct. 21.
There were no major problems when Merced hosted Stage 4 back in 2009. One hiccup included spending money on hotel rooms outside of Merced that could have been booked earlier in Merced. Fluetsch said they had underestimated the influx from the tour, but it was a learning experience. This time around, he said, Merced hotels would be heavily targeted early on, including the new El Capitan downtown providing if it can be up and running by the start of May.
Stage 1 of the Tour of California is expected to start in San Jose, but it’s unknown where it will end up. The start of Stage 4 is tentatively scheduled for Monday, May 11.
“We are really close on all the financing and we have the expertise to do it,” Fluetsch said. “And now we have the UC Merced buildout to show off. There is so much to show there. We would be nuts not to take advantage of it.”