In Wednesday's sweltering heat, with the air as thick as pea soup, Ulana Chmara made the turn off Cresson Street in Manayunk and began her walk up Lyceum Avenue, better known as "The Wall," the iconic incline with a 17 percent grade that's the signature of the TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship.
"On my way home, my plan was to go to the gym," Chmara said. Pausing for a moment, the petite 30-year-old, who lives on Lyceum, looked at the path ahead and added a bit ruefully, "but The Wall should be enough of a workout for today."
Chmara walks The Wall just about every day on her way home from work. "And it really sucks," she said with a laugh.
On Sunday, The Wall will once again test the legs, lungs, and spirit of about 180 pro cyclists representing 20 countries in the 156-mile race. The hardiest among them will scale The Wall 10 times. They will be exhorted by throngs of partying fans lining the narrow streets, many of the fans holding a drink in one hand while ringing a cowbell in the other. They will also be cooled down by sprinklers spraying water on them from O'Brien's Watering Hole.
Jade Uffelman, 18, who lives two blocks off Lyceum on Baker Street, said just about the entire extended family shows up at her parents' house to barbecue "and get intoxicated."
"They come early in the morning," she said. "Otherwise, they'll never get through the streets. And we have lots of cowbells."
Chmara, who moved to Manayunk in January, lives at O'Brien's. She said the owner, Dan White, told her the neighbors let him know it was his duty to continue the spraying tradition when he bought the place four years ago.
"They told Dan he had to keep it up, and he has," Chmara said.
The Wall, which begins on Levering Street, is so well known that even lifelong Manayunk residents who don't give a wit about the race, such as Reggie Armstrong, know exactly where it is.
"I don't know anything about cycling, but I do know about The Wall," she said while sipping a cup of coffee. "It's great. It's kind of made Manayunk famous, and who could have imagined that because when I was a kid my parents wouldn't even let me go to Main Street. Too dangerous."
Armstrong, who lives on Shurs Lane, said the race does hold a certain fascination for her even though she really doesn't know what's going on. "I look one way from my house, and I can see them on Manayunk Avenue," she said. "I look another way, and I can see them on Main Street. It's a big party for the whole neighborhood."
When Dave Chauner and a friend, Jerry Casale, were charting the course for the race in 1984, they drove up and down just about every street in hilly Manayunk looking for an incline that would seriously challenge the cyclists. When he saw Lyceum Avenue, Chauner knew he'd found it. He said it reminded him of a photo he'd seen in a cycling magazine of Le Mur de Grammont, a well-known wall at the Tour de Flandres in Belgium.
"We knew that to achieve international stature we needed to have a challenge," said Chauner, president of Pro Cycling Tour and cofounder of the race. "We needed a climb. "Originally, Jerry and I thought about Belmont Hills, but then we realized it would be very difficult to go across the bridge. Besides, we wanted to stay within the city limits. Manayunk was always kind of on the radar. When I was a teenager living in Chestnut Hill, Jerry and I would ride through Manayunk to get to the city.
"So we drove into Manayunk and said we've got to find the right hill. When we saw that, we immediately called it the Manayunk Wall. Now, it's known throughout pro cycling. People go up there and ride and say, 'Wow, that's really incredible.' "
Brian Walton, co-owner of the Cadence Cycling Shop on Main Street, retired from pro cycling after riding in the Philly race for 11 years with second-, third- and fourth-place finishes on his resumé.
"The Wall has been known for years and years among cyclists," Walton, 45, said. "It's one of the more famous climbs in bike racing, especially in North America. It has also really given Manayunk character. It's always had this feel to it, but The Wall is the Philadelphia bike race."