JARDINE: Long view of fast race puts Modesto, families higher up the ladder

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, as scores of crew members and volunteers put the finishing touches on Amgen's Tour of California set in downtown Modesto, Bruce Burns and Tim Root had some work to do, too.

The Modesto natives and longtime friends toted five-foot aluminum ladders along I Street. They chained and padlocked them to a streetlight post in front of Oak Valley Bank, only about 15 yards from the finish.

Wearing an Amgen jersey, black cycling shorts and a helmet with horns bearing the Amgen logo, Burns then went for a bike ride to Oakdale. He joined friends from Fun Sport Bikes and an Italian rider from the Liquigas team who didn't compete in the race.

Root, meanwhile, killed time by watching the Lifestyle Festival unfold and partaking in it.

About 3:30, as the Amgen cyclists neared the city, Burns and Root returned to their cache. Root reached into his pocket and fished out a key. He unlocked the ladders that pretty much had gone unnoticed as the crowd built and people jockeyed for position near the barricades.

Then Burns, an out-of-work carpenter, and Root, waiting to return to work in the almond orchards, climbed up to enjoy a view of the race that was as good as any.

"I'm really into cycling," said Burns, who towered above the crowd as Italy's Francesco Chicchi sped past to win the stage. "This is so cool."

Cool, indeed. In a region plagued by high unemployment, foreclosures and so many other daily downers, Wednesday's Amgen race offered the perfect, albeit brief, escape.

"A recession buster," Burns said.

What better way to spend an afternoon but to await the arrival of the world's best cyclists without having to buy a ticket, not to mention getting freebies from the scores of agencies and vendors who lined I Street?

Thousands of fans obviously felt the same way during what some folks speculated was the largest crowd ever assembled for a family event in downtown Modesto. While the summer X-Fest concerts might draw as many or perhaps even more people, they have to pay about $20 to get in and it has alcohol. You can't take your kids unless they're 21 or older.

Amgen, however, is for everyone from families to cycling fans to people who just like being part of a crowd.

Politicians, Modesto Chamber of Commerce officials and others entrusted with promoting Modesto too often fixate about how the city is perceived elsewhere.

Wednesday's Amgen race is a reminder that a great event can make residents here feel better about themselves and their city.

They all went home with something, whether it was the thrill of witnessing a fantastic finish or a bag full of goodies.

"I got a 'Breakaway from Cancer' bag," said Modesto's Kenny Baldwin, who stuffed into it a jersey he won at the Rabobank tent. "My fiancée, Marci Miller, is a cancer survivor. It's a great event in what it does for Modesto and the economy. I've watched businesses downtown open and close. This helps business in the community."

Karen Porteous of Modesto brought daughter Kalena, 8, and son Daniel, 12, to enjoy the festivities. After stocking up on "munchies" from the Save Mart tent and others, she and her kids watched the big screen showing the race in progress.

"This is the best thing you could expect for Modesto," she said. "And yogurt and munchies keep them occupied until (the racers) get here."

Vendors sold food, clothing, shoes, bicycle parts and just about anything else you'd need or want for the day. And the downtown restaurants enjoyed brisk businesses.

Mostly, it was about being there to watch the best cyclists in the world buzz by even if you didn't recognize any name other than Lance Armstrong.

For my new-found friends Burns and Root, who brought their ladders, the view was just fine.

So was the price.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at or 578-2383.