Story By Chris Harland-Dunaway,photos and contributions by Tim Westmore.
The first stage of the Merco Cycling Classic, the Merced Irrigation District road race, was one of the fastest weekday races in recent NorCal memory. The opening lap wound along the Merced River, passing veins of exposed red rock before reaching the defining climb of the 6 lap course. The road bottlenecked and strung the NRC caliber peloton into a quarter mile long line of suffering riders as they sped upwards over the rough road. Multiple groups of riders crested the hill spread apart like peasants fleeing a Mongol horde, and as the group came together on the descent, an 11-man breakaway belted off of the front. The move consisted of Julian Kyer, Carter Jones, Jason McCartney, and Andrew Dalheim of Bissell Pro Cycling, Chad Haga of Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, Nate English of 5 Hour Energy p/b Kenda, Michael Weicht of Cashcall Mortgage, Geoffrey Curran of Get Crackin, Kirk Carlsen from Team Fast Freddie, and young Tim Aiken of the Bear Development outfit.
The gap between the breakaway and the peloton grew to 2:45 before the Cashcall Mortgage DS pushed his team car into the peloton, horn blaring, to tell the riders to get on the front and bring the breakaway back, presumably to keep their sprint-heavy team in contention for the win. With Cashcall on the front, the breakaway’s advantage was quickly cut to 2 minutes.
The 3rd lap delivered a respite to the peloton as Cashcall road tempo up the climb and focused on drilling the flatter section of the course as a team.
With the peloton under increasing pressure to reel back the power laden breakaway, the field charged up the main climb and clawed back the leaders to within 50 seconds. Partway through the climb, the peloton could seen the back half of the break on the bending road as they slowly dragged the leaders into submission
5 riders could be seen still fighting for a lead at the crest of the hill when Ben Jacques-Maynes and a group of riders began attacking. The only successful emigres to break out of the peloton were BJM and Phil Gaimon of 5 Hour Energy p/b Kenda who both made it across to the leaders.
The pace remained fast throughout the 5th lap, but the breakaway would not come back easily. The lead group appeared to gradually splintering with single riders floating back to the peloton one by one. When it looked like the race might come together, Phil Gaimon left the leaders in a dramatic solo attack and flew up the main climb.
Meanwhile in the peloton, Cashcall continued to set pace on the front and began to set up the sprint once Michael Weicht exited the break. Nate English appeared to suffer a bad cramp and was passed on the side as the peloton approached the end of the race. After the 3k mark nerves got the better of the twitchy field and a crash developed at the front of the peloton causing a delay in the final run to the finish. The field was eventually given the same finishing time.
Back in the breakaway, Phil Gaimon held on to win the Merced Irrigation District road race by a minute over his break mates. Kirk Carlsen, Ben Jacques-Maynes, Geoffery Curran, and Chad Haga finished ahead of the peloton, in their respective order. ”That last lap I was cramping up. Coming into the last 5km, the cramps went away. I think everyone in the break was hurting so I was able to come around the last 200m,” said NorCal regular Kirk Carlsen after winning the sprint for second. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to sprint but others were hurting just as bad. It was probably the worst looking sprint I’ve ever seen. Today I wanted to go super easy so I could time trial well tomorrow. But, it worked out where the break-away had the strongest riders in the race so I had to go for it.”
The day was all about Phil Gaimon, whose impressive solo victory has bought him a solid amount of time over his rivals heading into Friday’s Time Trial which is sure to give the general classification a good shaking.
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