STOCKTON — The Amgen Tour of California rode through town for the first time in 11 years, and Stockton responded with a warm welcome.

Several hundred fans gathered at Stockton Arena for the opening ceremonies and start of the fifth stage of the cycling tour on Thursday. Many more lined the roadways of the 110-mile course, which wound its way out of Stockton, through Gold Rush country and finally to Elk Grove.

Among those in the loud, enthusiastic and thunder stick-clapping crowd at the arena was 62-year-old Stocktonian Dan Hibbard, who isn’t a huge cycling fan but believes citizens should support the events that come to town.

“It’s part of Stockton, it’s a great event here and I wanted to come out and see it,” Hibbard said. “These are some of the top bicyclists in the world. It reminds me a little of when we had the 49ers training in town. It’s like a festival.”

That’s exactly the response the organizers were hoping for. Visit Stockton Chief Executive Officer Wes Rhea said the starting ceremony for the race cost about $25,000, but the return on the investment couldn’t be counted in dollars.

“Our measure of success was whether the community came out and supported it, and we feel really good about it,” Rhea said. “Our whole team was energized by taking a look at the amount of people who came out. And the media exposure has been fantastic.”

The opening festival featured about 25 booths and exhibits, food trucks and a chance to meet some of the riders. Fans came from around California and other states.

Dorenda Walters of Des Moines, Iowa, came out to follow the tour, starting with Stage 3 in the Monterey area.

“We just love this tour and have come out many times,” Walters said. “And this was a great place to have it. They did a very nice job.”

When the time came to get down to the competition, fans lined up along the fences at the starting point and cheered on the riders. They started at a low speed through downtown, but topped 40 mph as they made their way down Waterloo Road.

There were many places along the route to watch the race, including schoolyards.

Armed with blue thunder sticks and taking the opportunity to use their outside voices, dozens of children and teachers at August Elementary School cheered on racers as they whizzed by.

Pressing their faces along the chain link fence, students from pre-K to seventh grade had a front-row view as cyclists pedaled down Waterloo Road toward the foothills at 11:30 a.m.

Eight-year-old Marilyn Ramos could barely contain her excitement. She bounced around the playground and took turns making noise with thunder sticks, provided by Visit Stockton and Assemblywoman Susan Eggman’s office.

Although the second-grader doesn’t own a bike herself, Ramos was asked if she could keep up with the riders toward the stage finish in Elk Grove.

“Yes,” she said without hesitation.

Classmate Leonidas Junco admitted while he most likely couldn’t ride the route, he has a need for speed.

“I like to go really fast,” the 7-year-old said.

Principal Lori Risso said before this week, students had no idea what the Amgen Tour is, but faculty members agreed to let the kids take a few minutes to cheer on the racers.

“This may never happen again, they might take some other route,” Risso said. “We needed to get the kids involved in this, and the kids are going to be amazed how fast they’re going.”

The riders zipped out of town and finished up more than four hours later, with Fernando Gaviria of Colombia winning the stage. Tejay Van Garderen of Tacoma, Washington, is the overall leader.

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs greeted fans at the arena and spoke briefly to the crowd before the start.

“This is incredible. It shows there is so much community support for things like this,” Tubbs said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Contact reporter Scott Linesburgh at (209) 546-8282 or Follow him on Twitter@ScottLinesburgh.