Early yesterday before the mist had burned off, bicyclists strapped on sleek helmets around their ears, safety-pinned numbers on friends' backs and waited. Then a black SUV rolled into Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda. People ran after it and crowded around cheering, reaching over their heads to snap photos, a bright yellow band on almost every other wrist.
Lance Armstrong had arrived.
Riding a wave of popular support after his historic sixth Tour de France win this summer, Armstrong has taken his message -- to live strong -- and turned a yellow rubber band into an increasingly visible sign of strength for cancer research.
John Kerry wears one. Serena Williams wears one. And Phil Gastilo, a computer technician from Fort Washington who has lost several relatives to cancer, never takes his off.
Yesterday morning, Armstrong hopped on a bike for a fundraising ride into Washington, the final leg of a cross-country tour. "This is dramatically different from last year," Armstrong told the Maryland crowd from his bike at the front of the pack of nearly 1,000 riders, all of whom had raised at least $500. "The people along the sides of the roads . . . all times of day . . . it's been awesome."
People strained to see him, teetering on tiptoes or squeezing through the crowd with pictures for him to sign. A woman with blond curls wiped away tears. A little boy on his dad's shoulders grinned like crazy.
As techno music crackled through speakers, the cyclists were off, headed south on a 27-mile route to the Ellipse. "See all those Live Strong yellow bands?" the announcer asked the crowd as the riders rolled by, and they cheered.
Armstrong was a world-class cyclist when his cancer was diagnosed at age 25. He began treatment with the same kind of determination that he brought to races and went on not only to recover, but also to win the Tour de France. And then he did it again, and again, setting a record this summer with his sixth win.
Then there are those bracelets.
The bright yellow mirrors the color of the jersey that the leader wears at the Tour de France. Since this spring, when Nike launched the Live Strong campaign with a gift of $1 million and 5 million wristbands, the Lance Armstrong Foundation has sold 17 million. Orders take three weeks to ship because of the backlog. Some people, to the foundation's chagrin, have been reselling the band for a profit on the Internet.
The foundation has raised millions of dollars from the sale of the $1 bands, but that's not all. As people log on to the Web site to buy the bands, they often make a donation directly to the foundation.
Gail Van Tassell arrived at the Ellipse yesterday with a yellow band on each wrist. One was for a friend whose sister is very ill, and she plans to give it to her now that she has finished the fundraising ride. "This one is from a cancer survivor, a patient of mine that gave it to me," Van Tassell said. The 56-year-old nurse from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., has lost family members to cancer, loves Armstrong and loves to ride. "It feels really good," she said, walking off, bike chain clicking.
Event organizers estimated the crowd at more than 8,000, as much as five times larger than the first Tour of Hope last year.
Twenty cyclists left Los Angeles Sept. 30 and rode 3,500 miles to Washington. The riders were doctors, nurses, researchers and people such as Kristen Adelman, a teacher from Elkridge who has been in remission for two years.
Max Owens, 5, was waiting at the Ellipse for his dad, who was riding with the national team. Jim Owens has a brain tumor, and its growth has slowed under treatment during clinical trials of a new drug, said his brother, John Owens. Armstrong has strongly supported more clinical trials for cancer medications.
John Owens said he worried about his brother riding cross-country, becoming so nervous that he put on a second wristband. But waiting at the Ellipse, he said that riding through the Rocky Mountains had made his brother feel as though he had beaten cancer for good.
The crowd pressed up against mesh fences to see the cyclists arrive. People cheered as they caught glimpses of helmets flickering by and lifted their arms to take photos and videos, yellow bands on their wrists.
Someone lifted Max so he could see his dad, and Lance Armstrong.