Merced County Times Newspaper
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Gran Fondo Hincapie coming to Merced for first time

SATURDAY, MARCH 16

The acclaimed Gran Fondo Hincapie cycling series — along with legions of riders and enthusiasts — arrives in downtown Merced this Saturday, March 16.

It will be the first West Coast version of the “big ride” challenge that’s been experienced across America thanks to world-renowned racing cyclist George Hincapie. The former pro will be on hand to lead riders on a so-called gravel run that starts in the heart of Merced, heads out through open fields and ranch land, and then up and down the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The all-day event marks the return of high-level cycling to Merced, according to Doug Fluetsch, the former director of the MERCO Cycling Classic in town.

“Cycling has changed a lot since the days when the MERCO Cycling Classic was an annual event in Merced, or the time when the Tour of California had a stage start here,” Fluetsch told the Times. “Cycling has moved away from road racing and more into what is called gravel. So this event, which hopes to become an annual occurrence, brings top level athletes from all over the country, including former Tour de France stage winners, back to the streets of Merced and on a route into the foothills around Hornitos before returning to Merced.”

Fluetsch adds, “Merced is in need of good P.R., and I think this event helps build that back again on a national stage.”

More than 500 cyclists are expected to participate in three different course levels starting at N and 18th streets in downtown Merced on Saturday morning at 8 a.m. There should be lots of balloons released, the singing of the National Anthem, and maybe an appearance by Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto, along with other dignitaries.

The “Gran” 84-mile course is built for endurance and adventure, so the riders will face challenging climbs, fast descents, and a whole lot of gravel — about 45 miles of it. They will be returning to Merced over several hours of time on Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, there will be a fun ride downtown for people of all ages, along with a family festival, from about 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., featuring cycling expos and food and drink vendors. Look for N Street to be closed off between The Mainzer theater and The Tioga apartments.

“Folks from Merced and neighboring communities are encouraged to come downtown to watch the start of the event, or come down in the afternoon to watch the riders, while some struggle home and some sprint home,” Fluetsch said.

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