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Mercury Tour Underway
1999 Mercury Tour, Steamboat Springs, Co

[Wednesday Prologue] [Final Results]

The third running of the Mercury Tour is now underway, some three hours northwest of Denver, in the scenic mountain valley of Steamboat Springs. After a long NORBA season and preceding one last world cup cross country event next weekend in Belgium, this tour is attracting some top talent to its big television coverage and rich purse. Five days and five stages in the hot Rockies are going to take some riders' fitness to a new level, and leave others hopelessly wrecked. In fact, the first victim is already claimed.

Race darling Lance Armstrong pulled out of the event after two stages on Thursday's 26.5-mile Rabbit Ears cross country event, citing exhaustion – demonstrated by a couple of nasty crashes. And after flying all the way out here...

"Well, perish the thought, because this will be no Tour de Lance part II – he’s taken his bike and gone home...."

Don’t get us wrong – we Zoners are anything but interlopers. As the only website ambitious enough to send reporters to every single world cup and NORBA race on the planet, we consider ourselves pretty core, pretty "in-there" when it comes to mountain bike race coverage. Oh yeah, we were planning on covering the Mercury Tour wire to wire, even before Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong announced that he too was joining the party.

It’s just that, well, Lance brought so much more fun to the NORBA finals in Mount Snow last week, we were kinda looking forward to his presence, to getting daily quotes from if it was the Tour all over again. Well, perish the thought, because this will be no Tour de Lance part II – he’s taken his bike and gone home.

Well, not exactly — our good buddy and Trek Volkswagen team manager, Chad, says Lance's still in the house, deciding Thursday night whether to stay for another stage, or make it "so long Armstrong."

But enough about Lance, there’s a five-stage mountain bike race going on this weekend, and is in full effect, with daily dispatches from the front. We arrived a bit late, but in time to get the dirt on this year’s made-for-TV event and settle in to the palatial Best Western Inn.

sea otter mountain biking mountain biking mountain biking sea otter classic "...the purse is huge — $100,000 — making this the richest mountain bike race out there."
You can see these races on TV, but without the pithy insight that we provide in print. From Wednesday through Sunday this week, some of the world’s best mountain bikers will go for stage wins and the overall fastest time overall.

And the purse is huge — $100,000 — making this the richest mountain bike race out there. While short on spectators and printed press, the TV package ensures plenty of eyeballs for the tour’s big sponsors, such as Mercury.

The field is as powerful as ever in this third year of racing. Along with last year’s runner-up, Alison Dunlap, there’s her GT teammate (and last year’s champion) Jerome Chiotti of France. Other GT team members present include Mount Snow winner Roland Green and current World Champion, Laurence Leboucher.

Trek Volkswagen’s team is here, but without the services of Lance. That leaves national champion Ruthie Matthes, and current NORBA champion Travis Brown. RLX Polo Sport is also here, with Jimena Florit-Juarez, Lesley Tomlinson, Andreas Hestler and David Wiens representing Ralph. Other standout competitors include SoBe/Headshok rider Kashi Leuchs, Rene Marshman (USA, Moots) and Jimi Killen (USA, Diamondback).

The weather is a bit sketchy, as it always is in the Rockies, with lightning strikes rolling in each afternoon. Otherwise it’s warm and dry – just the conditions to really wear out the field over the course of five days.

The stages and courses will surely wreak havoc on the riders, with survival the name of the game. Here’s how the stages shape up:

Wednesday: Prologue (Time Trial)
1.1 mile counterclockwise loop with a couple hundred feet of climbing.

Thursday: Stage One (Rabbit Ears XC)
26-mile point-to-point event, mostly flat with 4,000 foot finishing descent.

Friday: Stage Two (Mt. Werner Hill Climb)
13-mile hill-climb, finishing at a thin 10,556 foot summit. Toughest stage.

Saturday: Stage Three (Thunderhead Circuit)
24 miles for the men, 15.2 for the women. Rolling elevation, figure-8 laps.

Sunday: Stage Four (Gondola Criterium)
.8-mile circuit at base area, features many fast crit-style laps.

Ari Cheren, up up and away in his beautiful balloon – for

Overall Leaders; Dunlap, Sheppard

Things kicked off Wednesday afternoon with the time trial, a good way of shaking out the field and getting an idea of who's in form from the get-go. After only three day's break from the NORBA finals in Vermont, some of the field was feeling the effects of so much racing, especially at this 6,900-foot altitude.

Fastest in the prologue, and obviously feeling no effects from the finals, last year's runner-up Alison Dunlap took the stage win by a narrow one second over Argentinian Jimena Florit-Juarez (Polo Sport). Juarez was followed by teammate Lesley Tomlinson (CAN, Polo Sport), as fellow Canadian and last year's champ Alison Sydor (CAN, Volvo-Cannondale) is sitting out this year's race.

In men's action, Chris Sheppard (CAN, Catera/Klein) beat Andreas Hestler (CAN, Polo Sport) by two seconds after flying over a double jump on a BMX section of the course. Both these two did well in this past weekend's XC finals, but it's a long five stages.

Last year's winner Jerome Chiotti (FRA, GT) finished 6th in the prologue, while Lance Armstrong finished a disappointing 19th – 22 seconds off the mark. Racing begins in earnest on Thursday with stage one of the race, the Rabbit Ears XC.

Ari Cheren, hangin' with the big-time press – for

Wednesday's Results:

1. Alison Dunlap (USA, GT) in 4:55
2. Jimena Florit-Juarez (ARG, Polo Sport) at :01 sec.
3. Lesley Tomlinson (CAN, Polo Sport) at :09
4. Michele Keane  (USA, Wild Oats/Aegis) at :21
5. Ruthie Matthes (USA, Trek Volkswagen) at :24

1. Chris Sheppard (CAN, Catera/Klein) in 4:06
2. Andreas Hestler (CAN, Polo Sport) at :02
3. Jimi Killen (USA, Diamondback) at :05
4. Frank Mapel (Schwinn) at :11
5. Roland Green (CAN, GT) at :11
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