Cheers rose from the crowd assembled along San Miguel and Front streets in downtown Avila Beach even before the spectators caught a glimpse of the white, red and black jersey worn by Germany’s Jens Voigt.
Some spectators were able to watch the Amgen Tour of California make its way from Santa Barbara to Avila Beach on large screens set up near the finish — and as the riders came down Avila Beach Drive, the noise and anticipation grew.
“This was an awesome finish,” Jeremy Scroggins of Pismo Beach said after some of the riders had made a hard left onto Front Street and sprinted up to the finish. He and Terren Scroggins, who just recently learned the professional cycling race was coming to town, brought their two boys to watch.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Terren Scroggins added.
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An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people traveled into downtown Avila Beach — many appearing to arrive by bicycle — to watch the fifth stage of the tour end next to the beach on a somewhat cool, hazy day.
The number of spectators was smaller than San Luis Obispo County officials who helped plan parking and shuttle logistics had anticipated. Having expected as many as 7,500 people to show up, they warned motorists of limited parking in Avila Beach, advising spectators to arrive early or ride their bikes.
It appears that many received the message.
“We’ve seen a lot of people riding,” said Dan Rivoire, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Bicycle Coalition, which offered a free bike valet service for the event. He said his valets parked about 600 bikes, and many others chose to ride their bikes into downtown.
“I think it (the Tour) will excite more people about cycling,” he added.
However, others worried that the warnings about parking and traffic might have prompted a few people to stay home.
Templeton resident Steve Garelli suggested that a big-name professional cyclist like Lance Armstrong, who rode into Paso Robles during the 2009 Tour of California, might have drawn more people who don’t regularly follow cycling.
Garelli, a cyclist who has volunteered at previous Tour of California events, doesn’t fall into that category, however. He and wife Marlene spent the night in Avila Beach and set up their lawn chairs about an hour-and-a-half before the expected finish time.
“I think it’s great,” Steve Garelli said. “This brings people out. A race like this brings international reporters, and they see the area and say, ‘That seems like a nice place to visit.’ ”
Employees at a few businesses said their day got off to a slower start, but expected business to pick up when the riders finished.
“I expected it to be a little more crowded, but I think everyone was very cautious of the parking issue and thought there wouldn’t be room for them,” said Trish Kesselring, general manager of Peloton Cellars. The winery’s four owners are all cyclists (a peloton is the main body of riders in a bicycle race).
Kesselring said the tasting room had served about 75 people by about 2:45 p.m. and hoped to see about 150 by the end of the day. She added the exposure the town has already received from hosting the Tour finish has helped her business.
“It will help put us on the map,” said Bob Stapleton, one of the key local organizers who helped attract the race to the beach town. He also owned Team High Road, a San Luis Obispo-based squad that once competed at the sport’s highest level. “I think this will be one of the prettiest, most memorable finishes in the race,” he said. “But it would have been nice also to have a sellout crowd.”
By 3:45 p.m., as the race was drawing to a dramatic close, both sides of San Miguel and Front streets were lined with spectators, who hollered as Voigt, riding for the RadioShack Leopard team, flew past.
“Even if today you don’t buy anything, or eat anything or try any wine, you’re going to come back because you’re going to see how beautiful it is here,” said Mary Foppiano, executive director of the Avila Beach Civic Association. “It’s sunny all the time — well, every day but today.”