MANAYUNK, Pennsylvania (VN) — It’s 1985 on the Manayunk Wall. Never mind the fact no one knows about it yet; they will. This road, its confluence of steepness, heat and the teeming mass at its edges, will soon become one of the most revered places in American cycling.
Europe had the Alpe d’Huez, and everything else. America, for a time at least, had Manayunk. A climb every bike racer knew about.
It was so in step with American cycling at the time, so blue collar. This scrappy Philly bike race, this downtrodden neighborhood. Bike racing on American soil was nothing to speak of, and neither was Manayunk.
The race organizers needed a hill for a bike race, a race they’d conceived over sangria and cigars in Barcelona during the world championships.
They found one in Manayunk, a neighborhood in the northwest section of Philadelphia. It was a manufacturing hub for 100 years, but by the time the 1980s rolled around, Manayunk had been bleeding jobs for years. Empty storefronts lined Main Street.
But then this bike race rolled around. Things changed. The single day of business was a boulder falling into a puddle. Maybe it’s not fair to say the race made Manayunk, but its resurgence certainly runs parallel with the Philly race, everyone says that much.
The Wall consists of Levering Street and Lyceum Avenue. The Manayunk Wall has become hallowed ground in American cycling. A hill in Pennsylvania, a famous climb in cycling. It’s an unlikely flashpoint.
It was usually hot in June, when the Philadelphia race is held. In the beginning, there weren’t hundreds of volunteers, course marshals, any of that. It was guys smashing the Wall, neighbors cheering them on. Out came the hose.
There was this guy, O’Brien. He had a house on the Wall, one in a row of thin houses, built along a road that hits 17 percent over its 800-meter ascent. As the story goes, during the early editions of the bike race, he stood out front with a hose, cooling the riders off. It was known as O’Brien’s Watering Hole.
On Sunday, there was a sprinkler going, spraying a fine mist on the left side of the climb, if one were heading up it. Young men live there now. They bought the house from O’Brien in 2007.
“He stood out there on a ladder and sprayed the racers down with a garden hose,” said Gary Brett, who bought the house in 2007 with a friend “for the party.”
“Then, he morphed it into what he has here. And we just tweaked it a couple years back with the misters.”
They have now-worn T-shirts celebrating 25 years of O’Brien’s. “When we bought the house, it’s not that the neighbors said you have to do it, but you have to do it,” Brett said.
It’s improbable, that these guys would plan the day around a bike race. And yet. What makes cycling — sports, even — great are traditions that take root and make themselves trees. Bigger than people and racers, they are the fabric of the sport itself.
On Sunday, the crowd on the Wall was a bit thinner than usual, but there were still a few thousand people lining its length, bells clanging. Hundreds of guys — not men, not boys — drank beers, hollering to the ladies below. Cops leaned, arms folded in that police way, against stone walls. And a woman, maybe 80 years old, sold pretzels for a dollar.
It was a teeming mass of people that, on most days, probably don’t care much for cycling one way or the other.
But Sunday is different. It’s the biggest day in Manayunk and the day that began the resurgence of a neighborhood.
Across the street from O’Brien’s, a family sat on the steps of a house their grandfather had bought in 1905, the grandmother among them.
This is race day in Philly — people unlikely to mix are here, sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder, and a bike race stitches them together.
But hey, at least there’s a sprinkler to wash off.