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Coach Steve Lewis (right) goes over the course with Taco Mamacita riders (from left) Sue Berghel, Melanie Singer, and Krystal Burnham. The Taco Mamacita racing team, with other athletes trained on Raccoon Mountain for the time trial portion of the River George Omnium which will be held this weekend.

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River Gorge Omnium brings cyclists from across country

Road closures 

- From 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. during the Village Volkswagen River Gorge Omnium these roads will be closed.

- Eastbound M.L. King Boulevard will be closed between Broad and Market streets. Northbound Broad Street will be closed from 12th Street to M.L. King. 10th, 11th and 12th streets will be closed between Market and Broad streets. Southbound Market Street will be closed from M.L. King to 12th Street. Northbound Market Street from Georgia Avenue to M.L. King will be closed.

If you go

- What: Village Volkswagen River Gorge Omnium, a series of three bicycle races.

- When: Time Trial - Saturday at 8 a.m. (start) | Criterium - Saturday 12:30-9:30 p.m. | Road Race - 10 a.m. (start)

- Where: Time Trial - Raccoon Mountain (parking at Laurel Point) | Criterium - downtown (1201 Market St.) | Road Race - Finishes on Raccoon Mountain

Melanie Singer has been watching the Village Volkswagen River Gorge Omnium for years, always enjoying the action but never envisioning herself as a rider in this staple race on the Southeast's amateur road cycling calendar.

"Even last year, I didn't imagine myself competing this year," Singer, 42, said. "For me, it's a big deal."

After a rookie season in competitive road cycling that took her throughout the region, Singer will finally be a competitor — not a spectator — this weekend when more than 600 cyclists from over 20 states descend on the Scenic City for the annual three-race competition.

Many of those riders are scheduled to complete the all-inclusive omnium, which will crown winners across 13 classifications for their cumulative excellence in the time trial, criterium and road race events.

Singer and 12 other women will represent the locally based Taco Mamacita racing team and have the chance to end a breakthrough season with a strong showing in their hometown.

"It's kind of like our Olympics," Singer said. "It's really what we've been working toward."

The Taco Mamacita riders are not the most high-profile competitors in the River Gorge Omnium, but they are a local success story of notable proportion.

After making a championship podium just once last season, Taco Mamacita racers have won 12 events this year and climbed the podium 45 times this season, the team's first-year coach Steve Lewis said.

The team, comprised of working women from their 20s to their 50s, set out to promote women's cycling, learn to race as a team and get results this year with Lewis as their coach.

They've done each, and positioned themselves for success in the Category 4 division this weekend, which is the lower of the two women's classes in the River Gorge Omnium.

"All year long they've been getting better, and the race plans I put together are getting more complex," Lewis said. "They definitely have the personnel to win the stages and win the overalls."

The most spectator-friendly event of the weekend is the criterium race downtown on Saturday in which riders will race laps around a short course in the city center. A public address announcer, food and other festivities create an atmosphere that racers call one of the best in the South.

Juniors ages 9-14 start the criterium at 12:30 p.m., and different categories of racers will follow throughout the day, with the men's professional, cat 1 and cat 2 riders capping things off with an action-packed finale at 8:30 p.m.

The Magnum Mile foot race at 8 p.m. will feature some of the area's elite runners and help drum up excitement for the final race of the night.

"There's stuff going on all day," Singer said. "Come down, grab a coffee or a beer. It's something fun to do for 30 minutes, or as long as you want."

As a seasoned spectator, she recommended snagging a spot on one of the course's corners.

"When the racers are coming in, they kind of swing wide and they're cutting it close and you're just feet away and can feel the wind," Singer said. "It's really exciting. Bring a cowbell if you have one."

Omnium competitors will turn around and complete a 69.6-mile road race Sunday morning to decide the overall winners. Krystal Burnham, 28, said she's had the road race circled on her calendar since last year, when she took on the area's mountainous terrain in her first-ever road race.

"It's so hard," she said. "There's so much involved, not just physically but also mentally."

Riders climb Sand Mountain and Raccoon Mountain during the road race.

"Sunday is probably the most brutal road race in the whole Southeast," added Tom Golden, 48-year-old racer for Village Volkswagen, who hopes to compete for the omnium title in his division. "I do 20 or more road races per year, and this is by far the most grueling. Unfortunately, it's the one in our hometown, so I'm stuck doing it every year. It's everything but flat and it's a bike race, so you're going fast from the get-go."

Lewis said the Taco Mamacita team features two of the best climbers in the South in Burnham and Susan Berghel. The awards ceremony at the race's conclusion may also serve as a graduation of sorts for a few of the Taco Mamacita riders.

Some of the riders will be bumping up a classification to cat 3 next season, Lewis said.

"I don't think they realize how good they are, but they're good because they work together really, really well," he said. "The entire team has skills that complement each other, and they are so excited and supportive of each other that they don't really care who wins the race, as long as it's someone wearing the Taco Mamacita jersey."

As she completes her jump from spectator to road racer, Singer agreed, calling the camaraderie on the team "incredible."

"I'm totally hooked," she said. "I can't wait for racing season next year. I can't wait to see what happens with our team. We've had such an incredible year this year."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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