The traveling extravaganza known as the Amgen Tour of California brought thousands of people to downtown Modesto on Wednesday, and with it lots of thrills, intense anticipation and even some nervous moments.
For many, however, it provided a moment for remembering.
"In loving memory of our dear, sweet mother," wrote 19-year-old Grant Boothe on a huge, two-sided poster in front of the Gallo Center, where the Lifestyle Festival was centered. "To the woman who changed my life and helped make me what I am today. May God bless you."
He was there with his brother Garit, 23, who wrote his mother's name, Kim Boothe, on the huge poster.
There were hundreds of such messages. The race is closely tied to the fight against cancer. Sponsor Amgen makes cancer-fighting drugs, and cycling superstar Lance Armstrong is a two-time survivor who created the LiveStrong Foundation that has inspired millions. At least a dozen booths offered cancer screenings, support, or asked for donations.
Amgen gave away buttons reading, "Cancer Sucks" or "Survivor" — another reason to celebrate.
But there were many, many reasons to celebrate Modesto's big day on the international stage — even as it threatened to rain for the second year in a row.
"I'm into it. This is really exciting," said 58-year-old Rod Rawe, of Modesto. He was shielded by an umbrella that also covered his wife, son and two granddaughters. "This is my third year coming down here. In fact, I just bought a new road bike and I'm getting into it."
Others were into it for different reasons. Lauren Powell likes racer Mark Cavendish, a favorite for this year's Tour de France. Why?
"Well, I'm young and he's good looking" she said.
She was one of thousands of Modestans who rang cowbells as riders flashed by.
While most had yellow, blue or green bells bought at the festival, Sam Terpstra brought a real cowbell. "My brother (Nick) has access to those things, and he brought one home, so I took it."
Fans on the east side of Sycamore Avenue at the corner of Coldwell felt the rush of the wind as the peloton flew past.
"The wind is just unreal," said Modesto's Alan Cole, who was watching with his wife, Sheri. "It's just amazing how fast and how long they can keep going at that pace."
They were within a few feet of the cyclists as they made the harrowing turn onto Sycamore.
"You can feel the wind. They were within a foot of our faces. You could see the expressions on all their faces. They were digging deep."
What the crowd didn't feel much of was rain, which made most — but not all — happy.
Jane Iwahashi has visited four California cities in four days as she has followed the tour. The Medford, Ore., resident felt Modesto was "kinda dry." As it started to sprinkle, she allowed, "It's OK now."
She was watching the finish of Stage 4 from I Street with two friends. "This is great. It's a really wide avenue. In Sacramento it was narrow, kind of tight, and you couldn't really see it that well. This is awesome."
Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour would appreciate that reaction: "It's something the whole community can get involved with," he said. "This is what makes our city so vibrant."
Ridenour joined dozens in the VIP tents on I Street, where many found humor in announcers' miscues. One pronounced Manteca "Man-tay-ka" and another the new St. Stanislaus Catholic Church as "your big cathedral with the cross on top."
Despite the rainy skies, it was Modesto's opportunity to shine.
"I haven't spent much time in Modesto and it's cool," said Jason Snovel, who came down from Davis to ride in the Harvest Moon Criterium prior to the Tour's arrival. "This is big time."
"It's great to get a local race in on the course the pros are on, too," said Snovel's friend Nicholas Oliver of Sacramento, the Criterium winner. "There were a lot of people watching, cheering at the finish line. It was a lot more than I anticipated."
Modesto's Greg Montgomery came with his two young children and wife to take in the Lifestyle Festival. The Modesto native moved to the Bay Area in 1986, but returned in 2005 to go to school.
"(The Amgen) is one of the things that is going to help turn Modesto around, eventually," Montgomery said. "Maybe it'll even make us stay here."
He said Modesto had "always been a place we thought we'd leave. But I found a good job and things like this race and the Gallo Center are amazing. These are big city accoutrements that you wouldn't expect would be here."
Staff members Lisa Millegan Renner, Michelle Hatfield, Jeff Jardine, Brian Clark, Dan Day and Mike Dunbar contributed to this report.
A BETTER VIEW
Former Modesto City Councilman Bill Conrad got to watch only about 20 minutes of last year's race, "on ESPN2 in Afghanistan." This time, he and wife Karen got to see the race up close and personal in downtown Modesto. "It's much better in person," said Conrad, who is an Army reservist with a military career that spans 30 years.
A TROPHY ARCH
Francesco Chicchi, the fourth-stage winner, received a gorgeous hand-carved trophy depicting Modesto's arch that stands a few blocks from the finish line and victory stand. The cherrywood trophy was carved by Modestan and cancer survivor Dan Murray.
Aimee Redfern, 25, of Modesto brought her two sons, ages 6 and 3, downtown to watch the race. They joined hundreds of people sitting or standing on the curb. The boys were excited as the big day approach, asking a lot of questions. "They said, 'Are they going faster than cars?' " Redfern said she was looking forward to seeing Lance Armstrong once again.
A LITTLE WET
About 220 people lined College and Coldwell avenues by Modesto Junior College to watch the riders whoosh by for their three laps. Those spectators dressed in shorts and sandals for the recent warm weather were huddling under trees as it rained for several minutes Wednesday afternoon. Some came prepared with umbrellas, others used signs to cover their heads and many huddled under trees. On the second lap, a Radioshack rider tumbled on the outside of the Coldwell turn. He waited for a replacement tire and the crowd cheered as he re-entered the race.
First-time watchers Sheila Fox and Karen Wong brought their daughters to check out the Amgen action. The girls had a dance dress rehearsal in Modesto Junior College's Performing Arts Center, so the foursome showed up early to catch the race.
"I wanted to see Lance Armstrong," said Lily Wong, 8. She was wearing a Texas T-shirt, which is where Armstrong is from, her mom pointed out.
Wong and friend Kaliee Fox, 11, cheered when the race's cars sped by clearing the road for the bicyclists.
Both moms were happy that Modesto's been able to woo the Amgen Tour.
"It's exciting to have two years in a row," Karen Wong said. "It's given Modesto a better name than it used to have," added Sheila Fox.
Modesto's Kathryn Stewart was one of many people on Sycamore Avenue taking advantage of living on the same street that for a few minutes would be home to the world's top cyclists.
Last year, she missed the festivities because of work. On Wednesday? "It's a mental health day," she said.