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Tour's Stage Three crosses finish line
Cycling fans greet riders as they race into town
Riders make the turn from Park Hill Drive onto Park Hill Place as they make a lap around a Gainesville neighborhood on Wednesday. - photo by Tom Reed

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Riders in the Tour de Georgia cross-state bicycle race zoomed into Gainesville on Wednesday as cycling fans and onlookers gathered to welcome the event to town.

A growing crowd of cycling fans huddled around the finish line at City Park anticipating a glimpse of their favorite world-class riders. Many picnicked on the grassy knoll and watched video footage of the race on a big screen.

Andy Rosthal, a Charlotte, N.C., businessman and 25-year cyclist, took the day off work to come to Gainesville and watch his first world-class cycling finish.

“I’ve never seen world-class cyclists up close before,” Rosthal said. “When you ride like I do, to see these riders, it’s a real treat because you know what riding entails and what the training involves.”

“These guys are going 28 mph over 100 miles. They’re really booking it. It’s incredible.”

Today’s third stage of the seven-day event began in Washington at 11 a.m. and carried the riders 109.7 miles to Gainesville, ending at City Park. Thursday, they take part in 10-mile team time trials at Road Atlanta. The event concludes Sunday in Atlanta.

Dan Henderson, also in town from Charlotte for the race, said that he is looking forward to a wild finish.

“After going 104 miles, they’ll be going around here twice as fast ast they can,” he said. “It’s really dangerous at the finish line. Their handlebars will be flying all over the place and they’ll be shoulder to shoulder.”

Amy Schmid of Dawson County brought her two kids and neighbors to the race after pulling them out of school at 11:30 a.m. She has attended every year since Gainesville has had the race.

“It’s a very fun event for the whole family,” she said. “We watch cycling and keep up with all the cyclists. ... It’s an educational event for the kids.”

Her father in law, Frederic Schmid, 75, came all the way from Waco, Texas, to attend. He is a two-time masters world champion mountain biker, his second title coming in 2003 at age 70.

“It’s fun now, but the downhill sprints are going to be scary,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting. I’m pulling for George Hincapie; he’s been my favorite for a number of years.”

A group of female students from Lanier Tech was on hand giving out free blood pressure tests along with fruit and water to spectators. They said they came out to receive school credit, but were having a good time.

Bill McKenzie of Tampa, Fla., said he drove up to see the race because he didn’t have the cable channel at home that airs it. It is his first time at a pro bike race, and was looking forward to seeing the type of bikes and equipment the racers use.

Joshua Zarrella, a massage therapist for the Bissell Pro Cycling team, was on hand when the riders passed him by.

“Wow, they are doing good!” he said.

Barbara Wilkey and her son, Davis, came to the Tour de Georgia prepared, with fold-up chairs and digital camera. This is their fourth year making the trip from Gainesville, Fla., to see the race, and it’s become an annual tradition for mother and son.

“I got into riding my bike and watching cycling, and we found out about the Tour de Georgia so we came,” she said. “(Davis) loved it and wanted to come back every year.”

Because Wilkey is in medical school, she said it’s difficult to find the time to do special things with her son. And even though this will be their last year – Wilkey is graduating and they’re moving to Colorado in June – Davis said, “We’ll make it our best trip.”

“It’s really exciting, and cheering’s fun, too,” Davis said.

Standing at the last corner before the finish line, Joel Riley said watching the cyclists was worth the drive from Nashville.

Wearing a backpack filled with Tour de Georgia promotional items, he said he rides recreationally, and enjoys the chance to watch a race of this caliber.

“This is the one we go to most often because it’s the closest professional-quality race,” he said. “I think this is my fourth time.

“It’s a pretty big draw – it’s one of the biggest races in the states.”

Some 160 cyclists from 15 teams are taking part in the 529-mile event, now in its sixth year.