From the second the Astana Cycling Team bus arrived, it was surrounded.
Men, women and children gathered around in a friendly scrum waiting for Lance Armstrong to make an appearance.
Kids sat on their parent’s shoulders. Others stood on lamp posts in the background of the parking lot.All were craning their necks just for a peek at the near-mythical cyclist.
When Armstrong finally made an appearance, it was to an explosion of applause.
He shook hands, signed a few autographs and hopped back onto the bus to finish preparing for the fourth stage of the Amgen Tour of California.
Similar scenes took place — although on slightly smaller scales — throughout downtown Merced area as residents and visitors became wrapped up in the buzz of America’s premier cycling event.
Included in that group were Merced College coaches Bob and Jessica Casey.
The pair excitedly bounced from spot to spot, taking pictures of anyone and everything.
“I don’t even know who any of these guys are,” Bob admitted with a chuckle. “They don’t have to have (football) helmets on for me to be interested in them.
“It’s fun to just come out and be a part of something like this.”
The Caseys weren’t the only ones who were giddy to witness the most prestigious sporting event in Merced history.
People began lining the course as early as 8 a.m. to guarantee themselves a clear view of the world’s best cyclists.
Atwater resident Michelle Byus even said she went out and rode the course at 6:30 a.m.
Atwater basketball coach John Kane invited his entire team over for breakfast and then to go watch the race.
Andrew Rogers and Jose Rivas were the only players to accept their coach’s invitation, but that didn’t dampen Kane’s spirits.
“I’m kind of a cycling enthusiast,” Kane said. “’Breaking Away’ is one of my favorite movies, and it pretty much got me hooked.” (The 1979 movie about the Indiana University Little 500 bike race was nominated for an Oscar.)As for his players?
“I wanted to come because it’s kind of a big thing locally and nothing big ever really happens here,” Rogers said.The 14,000-15,000-plus who turned out for the race — according to Merced officials — weren’t disappointed.For the first time in the entire Tour, the sun made an appearance.
City officials couldn’t have been more pleased with the clear 57-degree weather.
The riders completed their two laps around the downtown area without a hitch, and the race smoothly made its way out of Merced and towards Clovis.
“We hope it’s a great race for the riders,” Merced public information officer Mike Conway said. “We hope we get some national recognition for being warm, friendly hosts.
“The Central Valley has had some rough times recently, and it will be nice to have something positive.”City officials hope Merced’s efforts will be enough to garner an invite from the Tour in the future.Conway said the Tour averages a $100 million in revenue statewide for the cities involved.Do the math.With only nine stages in the race, that could be a huge boon for Merced’s struggling economy.“It’s our hope to strike up a relationship with Amgen,” Conway said. “They like to move the Tour around the state to keep it fresh for the riders.“But if we can host every few years, it’s an opportunity to bring a unique sporting event to our community and to bring in so much needed money.”