Amgen construction crews arrive in downtown Merced and begin setup for Stage 4 of the Tour of California. City officials join the crews around 5 a.m. Mike Conway, Merced public information officer, calls the Amgen outfit "magicians."
Tents begin to pop up along N and Main streets. Two stages are built along 18th Street and the starting line is dressed in the Tour's trademark yellow. The streets are covered in chalked-out messages. A popular message: "Hope rides again." Meanwhile, Amgen officials have begun their trek down Highway 99 from Modesto to Merced in a long caravan of vans and Toyota Tundras.
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Fans begin to pour into the stage's epicenter -- an eight-block radius -- carrying noisemakers and coffees. Cowbells drown out the chit-chat coming from the booths and tents near the starting gate.
Teams begin to arrive, slowly tracing their way down 18th street. Team Ouch and star rider Floyd Landis are the first to arrive. Team Type I -- and its documentary film crew -- isn't too far behind. There's no sight of Landis, but his mechanics can be seen working on the team's bikes. It's a meticulous process.
Riders begin to sign in on the main stage. Riders are given an hour to complete the sign-in process. Many of them, including Astana teammates Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer, take their time. No rush.
Merced mayor Ellie Wooten delivers a welcome speech on the main stage, announcing that "Merced is the first city to deliver a blue sky."
Waiting until the very last minute, Armstrong finally arrives on the main stage to sign-in. The seven-time Tour de France champion is met with a hearty round of applause.
The race begins .... slowly. The peloton -- or pack -- turns the corner from N to 18th street at a cruising speed. Mere feet separate the peleton from the fans lining the streets and corners.
The peloton completes the first of two parade laps and begin to pick up speed. Landis holds a slim but meaningless lead.
And they're gone, headed for the Sierra down Bear Creek Drive and eventually Highway 140 and 49.
Merced Mall Fun Ride begins. Kids on BMX-style bikes dominate the field. Fun Ride nearly turns disastrous, though, as a pack of kids -- and one Sun-Star reporter -- veer off course and into downtown traffic. A motorcycle cop stops traffic and gets the junior peloton back on track.
-- James Burns, sports editor