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Cycling through: 2009 Amgen Tour of California

Stage 7 takes off from Town Center Drive in Valencia

Posted: February 21, 2009 11:54 p.m.
Updated: February 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Bugs Bunny greets the crowd as it waits on Town Center Drive for the start of Amgen Saturday.

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Guillermo Galarza propped his young daughter, Natalia, up on his shoulders as she clutched a camera Saturday, waiting to get a quick shot of Lance Armstrong the moment he stepped off his Team Astana bus.

"This is huge," said Galarza, of Valencia. "It's the biggest race in the U.S."

As a cyclist and big fan of Armstrong, Galarza was excited to be a spectator of the Stage 7 start for the 2009 Amgen Tour of California - right in his own city.

The city of Santa Clarita hosted the Tour of California for the third year in a row.

Despite some disappointment that Santa Clarita only scored a starting point in the race this year, most waiting in line said they would be thrilled for even a "glance at Lance" and the opportunity to be part of a world-renowned event.

Hundreds of cyclists, noncyclists, local residents and nonlocal residents of all ages crowded Town Center Drive in Valencia. Cow bells rang. Kids covered the ground in yellow chalk with phrases like "Ride like the wind."

Spectators passed around memorabilia and Armstrong posters and held their cameras high, as world-famous cyclists took the stage outside the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France champion, is making his first competitive appearance in the U.S. since returning to elite competitive cycling.

Armstrong battled testicular cancer in the 1990s and apparently won by 1996, making him a symbol of hope for others stricken with the disease.

Dozens of fans lined multiple levels of a Westfield Valencia Town Center parking garage anxiously awaiting Armstrong's appearance.

"We're here to see Lance," said Nicole Larkins, who was with Matt Hank, of Valencia. "They're making such a big deal this is his first race back.

We thought we'd come watch. We've never been to a bike race before so we thought it'd be fun to check it out."

Blaine and Devon Corlew were standing by the stage when Armstrong stepped up for interviews.

"It was really exciting ... he was escorted by police," Devon Corlew said. "Everybody knew he was Lance. He had that yellow distinctive jersey on."

"It's cool (the race) starts so close to where we live," said Blaine Corlew.

A group from Santa Clarita Velo, a nonprofit organization of cyclists, showed support.

"It's pretty cool to see all the pros in our town and see Lance Armstrong come back for his first year," said Velo member Daniel Neswald, 16, of Canyon Country. "We'll be right on the sidelines cheering him on. I want to be a professional bike rider."

At noon, the cyclists streamed down Town Center Drive. Green, yellow, orange, blue, white and red flashed by as they smoothly steered right onto McBean Parkway traveling to Bouquet Canyon Road, Vasquez Canyon Road, then on to Sierra Highway and Sand Canyon, making their way through Acton and eventually to Pasadena - the destination for Stage 7.

The race that began in Northern California ends today in Escondido.

Santa Clarita officials executed rolling road closures as the race progressed, stopping cars from driving through small sections of major streets like McBean Parkway for short periods of time.

"We don't anticipate traffic to be a big deal," city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz said before the cyclists took off. "We've done extensive outreach to the community in terms of where (closures) are going to be."

One driver was frustrated with the delay.

"We're going to work, and we're going to be late," said Manuel Rodarte, of Los Angeles.

But many drivers who were stopped at McBean Parkway so the cyclists could pass didn't seem too concerned.

"It's not a problem," said Beth McMillan, of Valencia, who was halted at the intersection of McBean Parkway and Town Center Drive. "It's kind of fun. We get front-row seats."

The event might not have had the climactic ending last year's finish did, but many fans went away with giddiness and satisfaction.

"It's a very big deal," said Leif Ourston, who drove out to Santa Clarita from Santa Barbara just to see Stage 7 begin.

"It gets my juices flowing just to be in the crowd, all the magnificent entourage, the energy, the cameras."

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