IT WAS A breakaway similar to yesterday's, with about 20 riders sprinting for the finish line. Elbows were extended in both races, where rules that late in a ride are pretty much thrown out the window.

Yesterday, during the final 100 meters of the men's 156-mile Commerce Bank Philadelphia International Championship, Denmark's Matti Breschel, of Team CSC, avoided the elbows (and maybe even extended his boney ones a little bit) and crossed the finish line on the Ben Franklin Parkway with hands raised, claiming his first title here and riding away with the $10,000 first-place check. He narrowly edged Kirk O'Bee of Health Net and Rock Racing's Fred Rodriguez.

This breakaway turned out much better than the one Breschel experienced in Belgium a little less than 2 1/2 years ago.

During that ride, he crashed with Robbie McEwen, suffering a concussion, which cost him some of his short-term memory and broke his back in two places.

"I didn't know [back then] if I would ever get back on a bike again," said Breschel, 24, who also collected another $5,000 for winning the overall points total for the three races in Pennsylvania last week. "It was very tough mentally, for sure. I was in the hospital in Belgium for 10 days. They were long days, long weeks after the crash."

But just a few months later Breschel was back on the seat again. Considered one of the top young talents in the world, he had to overcome mental as well as physical shortcomings after the crash.

"You have to be really brave and be cool," he said of his thoughts down the stretch. "And you have to have big elbows. That's really important. You need to be fast, of course, and maybe even a little bit crazy."

Most would say all of yesterday's riders, which included close to 240 men and nearly 200 women in the 56.7-mile Liberty Classic, were crazy.

If you mention the word "obstacle" on a day when some of the world's best professional cyclists invade our town, thoughts will immediately turn to the Manayunk Wall and the climb to its 300-foot peak.

Yesterday, though, with temperatures climbing toward 100 degrees and a blanket of humidity covering the area, the weather proved to be more of a challenge.

"Oh, it's tough riding in weather like this," said O'Bee. "But I love this race, I love doing it. It's a long day, especially with this heat, but it's what we do."

So how do you beat the steaminess?

Said Breschel, who finished in 6 hours, 14 minutes, 47 seconds, the slowest time ever for this event: "On a day like this, you just have to drink the whole day."

Funny, Breschel seemed to share that sentiment with the thousands who lined the streets through Roxborough and Manayunk. Though the stifling heat would probably deter some in other cities from a day of good-natured fun, it didn't happen yesterday. Crowds were as plentiful as in past years, and just as boisterous. Numerous times, while riders painfully climbed the Wall, they would take a weary hand off their handle bars and give a thumbs-up to the partying crowd.

Although she failed to capture her third Liberty Classic in 4 years, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg had two thumbs raised for Team High Road teammate Chantal Beltman, who grabbed the title after sprinting away from the pack at Lemon Hill and coasting to an easy victory in a time of 2:28:52. Teutenberg, who won last week's races in the Lehigh Valley and Reading, took third but still captured the $5,000 Triple Crown prize.

"I figured around Lemon Hill that with Ina in the bunch, I had nothing to lose," said Beltman, who earned $10,000 for the win. "I just went for it. I was really glad I could finish it. At the end, not a lot of people had much left anymore. I like the heat, so it was good for me. I gave it one last push and I really felt well."

Which was key because her usually dominant teammate wasn't.

"I was in a position to take it, but I wasn't strong enough," said Teutenberg, who has won five of the last six races in Pennsylvania. "I would be disappointed that I didn't win if our team hadn't won. But to me, it doesn't really matter because our team won. I guess it wasn't a good weekend to win a Triple Crown, with Big Brown losing, too."

Notes

In the 24 years of the men's race, there still hasn't been a multiple winner . . . Mayor

Michael Nutter

was on the back of a motorcycle during most of the race, traveling among a horde of police officers and waving to the crowds . . . Kudos to the city for keeping the men in blue well hydrated throughout the day. "They've even told us we're allowed to keep our hats off," said one officer by the Wall. *