By Justin Boron
Decked out in his blue and white Team Discovery Channel jersey, Lance Armstrong, who two days ago announced his plans to retire from professional cycling this summer, rolled casually through the Fayetteville town square Wednesday for the second stage of the Tour de Georgia.
Fans from around the south metro Atlanta area swarmed to him before the race, brandishing cameras, pens and cycling memorabilia in their eagerness to capitalize on what, for many of the spectators, will be their last chance to catch the six-time Tour de France winner in the flesh.
In announcing his retirement plans Monday, Armstrong indicated the Georgia race could end his competitive career in North America, but he might consider another practice event in May to stay fresh for the Tour de France.
His fans seized the moment Wednesday.
"I just wanted to see Lance Armstrong in person," said Jimmy Brown, 50, of Fayetteville. "(Cycling) is a big time sporting event, especially here in Georgia."
Steve Rasmussen, 53, and his employees closed up shop in their chiropractic office a block off the square and also hung out to steal a glimpse at Armstrong, who won the 648-mile Georgia race last year.
But much more than the spectacle surrounding Armstrong converged on the 11,000-person town about eight miles southwest of Jonesboro.
One of the nation's top cycling events had transformed the normally quiet downtown area into a flurry of vendors, promotions stands, and cyclists.
"It's definitely something special," said Justin England, 26, an Asheville, N.é.-based cyclist for Team Healthnet. "Most of the races we do aren't this big of a deal."
The race also is a chance for younger riders to show off their talent to other experienced teams from around the nation and the world, he said.
"We take it real seriously, a big race like this," England said.
Wednesday's stage started on Ga. Highway 54 at 1:30 p.m., where bikes departed en masse to the west trailed by a slew of motorcycles and cars. The group of bikers would eventually end up in Rome about five hours and 122.7 miles later.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.