FAN PARTICIPATION: SOLID A
As expected, the Tour of California attracted an assortment of fans.
Some were loud, toting noisemakers and wearing bright jerseys and yellow T-shirts. Others were curious, slowly moving about the grounds with inquiring eyes. There was even a large representation from the four-legged community. Who knew dogs were cycling nuts, too?
Michelle Byus typified the excitement of those in attendance. The Atwater resident rode the course at 6:30 a.m. and then returned at 8 a.m. with son, Taylor, to stake out a spot near the starting line.
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Taylor, 12, growing his hair for Locks for Love, had come to see seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong because "he's sort of my idol. I want to be a rider just like him."
The only knock: The volume of fans in the downtown area. Though no one -- not city or Amgen officials -- could put an exact number on the turnout, we can say with absolute certainty that Wednesday's downtown crowd felt more like 5,000-plus. Not the 9,000-plus tabulated post-race by local officials.
It may have been a blessing in disguise, though. The thousands who did come out moved about the grounds with little traffic, giving them the freedom to chase their favorite riders.
RACE ORGANIZATION: A+
Clean and efficient. That's about the only way you can describe the execution and delivery of Wednesday's Stage 4 start.
Amgen crews and city officials worked through the night and early morning, turning downtown Merced into the center of the cycling world. For one afternoon, at least.
Tents, stages and a starting gate rose with the morning sun, and bright, yellow banners seemed to hang from every open wall space along the corner of N and 18th street.
"They know our roads as well as our Public Works do," quipped Merced public information officer Mike Conway. "(Amgen) did amazing work in an amazing amount of time. They were grousy in the morning, but because of the forecast, they were bouncing around."
Ah, the weather. Though it was mostly luck, Merced will be remembered as the first city to deliver a dry, sunny day. And that wasn't lost on the riders, many of whom openly applauded the break from the elements.
Fans were given an all-access pass to the teams before the race, engaging riders, managers and mechanics as they went through their motions. Always a plus. Can't get that in football or baseball.
TEAMS AND RIDERS: A TIRE-FLAT B
The sport of cycling climbed several notches on the "Athletes who are cool" meter. Can't remember a more classy, well-spoken and easygoing group of athletes or team managers.
Team Rabobank and Team Jelly Belly proved to be fan favorites. Jelly Belly passed out candy near its team headquarters on 20th Street, and Rabobank leader Grischa Niermann accepted every interview request. He even spoke candidly with the Sun-Star minutes before the sign-in deadline.
The grade, however, takes a dip because the race's signature draws -- Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis -- were, for the most part, off limits to the crowd of fans and journalists.
All three were protected by security and relatively hidden from the masses until the sign-in deadline. Armstrong did emerge from his trailor to greet the crowd and sign a few autographs -- but only briefly. For as much hype and buildup that was paid to his involvement with the Tour...
We expected more.
Overall Grade: A
-- James Burns, sports editor