ST. PETERSBURG - Tim Hudson couldn't get over the number of people wearing bike helmets. There must have been 300 in the parking lot at the St. Petersburg Library on 9th Ave N, he thought. Maybe more. All of them ready to ride.
They got up early Sunday. A few groups rode down McMullen-Booth Road in Safety Harbor to get here. Some came from as far away as Orlando.
With the smell of fresh rain and the glimmer of dawn, they would take back the roads for Hudson and his friends, some of whom still were in the hospital after last weekend's accident that left 14 cyclists injured.
For cyclists everywhere who brave the precarious pavement alongside motorists, the ride was a statement of solidarity.
"It's great to see this many cyclists," said Hudson, 44, who enjoyed support all week. Messages came by e-mail and over the telephone. He found friends he never knew. "I've seen people all week honk their horns and give me the thumbs up."
Hudson wanted more than anything to hear the clicking sound of his wheels and join the group on the ride. But this Sunday he could only watch with his broken hand bandaged, his collarbone healing and the painful memory of the car tossing him in the air.
It had been exactly one week since he felt the steel of the Lincoln Continental. He was the second of 20 cyclists hit by driver Joe Pastore, one of the worst collisions between cyclists and motorists in recent memory. Five of his friends were still in the hospital.
They were among the 30 or 40 members of the St. Petersburg Bike Club and the St. Pete Mad Dog Triathlon Club who left that morning as they had done every Sunday morning.
On this Sunday, the healthy members returned to show they would not be intimidated off the road, and they were joined by hundreds more. Their mission: ride 26 miles through the streets of Pinellas County. Hudson had done this every weekend, and they would do it to show he would be back.
People like Pam Brown, a member of the South West Association of Mountainbike Pedalers. Brown came from Pinellas Park with her two sons.
Her husband, Howard Brown, was there, too. He may fix cars during the day as an auto mechanic, but he rides the 6 miles to the shop each day on his mountain bicycle.
"We belong on the road, too," Pam Brown said.
That bold statement was echoed by many in the crowd. Some expressed anger that Pastore has not been charged with a crime. Others used it as an opportunity to demand more bicycle lanes.
Sunday's ride comes after a week of intense debate about the relationship between motorized drivers and those who pedal.
In the days that followed the collision, many people expressed wishes of sympathy for the cyclists. But others wrote angry letters to local newspapers, accusing cyclists of failing to obey the rules of the road.
James Ryder, a member of the Mad Dog Triathlon Club, was not hurt in the accident. As a cyclist, he understands he shares a responsibility with drivers. But like many of his colleagues, he said many drivers are just too impatient to share the road.
"There are people that don't like people who drive (cars) slow, too," he said.
Ryder, who cycles with his wife, insists his group rides safely. They stop at red lights. The leaders must signal. They holler for bumps, potholes and glass in the road.
"There was no communication in the world that could have helped us (last week)," he said. "It was just unfortunate."
Many in the crowd cheered Hudson and Robin Perkins, 40, who also came out to watch the ride with her broken left arm, broken left hand and finger that no longer has a tip. Mad Dog members read messages from other injured riders not well enough to attend.
Perkins felt her throat swell upon arriving at 30 Avenue N. It was there that she was hit. But on Sunday she found neighbors out with signs welcoming the riders and wishing her friends a speedy recovery.
She struggled for words, then said she mostly felt grateful for being able to watch.
"I just love to see the people here," she said. "I think it is healthy for everyone to deal with this. It's had a huge impact on our lives - anyone who is athletic. We are out here in the streets, doing what we love to do."
Like Hudson, Perkins has a few weeks before she will get back on her bicycle. But she will, as will Hudson.
"I'm sure the first day will be tough," Hudson said. "I'll be extremely cautious. But I will be back on. It's in my blood. It's a big part of my life."