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Fast Times in Manayunk

Where cyclists attack the Wall, partying goes on all day.

Matti Breschel of Denmark raises his arms in victory after a dash to the finish line in the Commerce Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship. Breschel edged out American Kirk O’Bee in the race’s closest finish.
Matti Breschel of Denmark raises his arms in victory after a dash to the finish line in the Commerce Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship. Breschel edged out American Kirk O’Bee in the race’s closest finish.Read more

The neighborhood has changed plenty since she bought her little rowhouse on Levering Street in the 1960s, said Margaret Seador, nodding at a sea of young women in tiny sundresses and huge sunglasses and men in plaid shorts and flip-flops.

But for the last 23 years, the buzz and color of the bike race up the Manayunk Wall have been constant.

"I sit here all day," said Seador, 82, who said she had enjoyed the rebirth of her neighborhood. "It's wonderful and different every year. I watch the people go past. I watch the bikes."

Perched in a white plastic chair outside her house yesterday morning, Seador said she had missed only one race - in 2000, when she had brain surgery.

That was the only excuse good enough for her to forgo the event now called the Commerce Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship, won by Matti Breschel of Denmark. Chantal Beltman of the Netherlands won the women's Liberty Classic race. Every year, the race turns Manayunk into one huge block party - joyful, riotous, crowded, sweaty, drunken.

Consider the ritual of Bob Denbow and his friends. A lifelong Manayunker, Denbow, 44, began his race-day celebration around 7 a.m., two hours before the starter's pistol.

"First, we go to a barbecue off the Wall, but then by 9, we're here to watch," Denbow said. At 11 a.m., he was clutching a plastic cup of beer, wearing a sombrero and making plans to attend later parties and listen to bands that would set up on side streets.

"Nobody goes to work the next day," Denbow's friend Brook Robinson said. "We've got to recover."

Denbow said the race "is the best thing ever to happen to Manayunk."

You'll get no argument from five youths who set up shop selling lemonade and water ($1 a pop) along the Wall.

They have been at it for at least five years. Although they invested in a new, homemade sign - their last one grew too faded - the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity meant the product pretty much sold itself.

"We split up the money," said Jesse Carpenter, 10. "Last year, it was $101. And this year, it's really hot."

The heat made Gary Brett a pretty popular guy as well. Two years ago, he bought "O'Brien's Watering Hole," a Lyceum Street house locally famous for its sprinkler set up to cool off cyclists during their climb up the Wall.

"The first thing I heard from the neighbors was, 'You have big shoes to fill.' They were worried I wasn't going to do it," said Brett, 28.

No need to fret. Brett was thrilled to own one of the best-known houses along the Wall. He got right down to fitting car wash spray nozzles onto a length of pipe for the sprinkler, equally adored by riders, spectators and dogs.

Brett spent all week getting ready: cleaning, setting up three kegs, putting a couch and chairs outside for the friends, family and total strangers who milled in and out all day.

"Last year, by the end of the race, there were like 100 people I didn't know in my house," Brett said, shrugging and smiling.

Next door, Tim Johnston thumped a wooden spoon on a pot. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang-bang, he beat. "Bike race!" he shouted.

Johnston, 23, had driven down from Stamford, Conn., to hang out with his college friend Bryon Ziegler to watch the race.

To prepare, Ziegler and Johnston bought big-wheel bicycles to ride up and down the sidewalks and huge water pistols to cool the crowd in front of Ziegler's house.

"I'm 99 percent here for the party," Johnston said. "But it is kind of the best bike race I've ever been to."

Up and down the sidewalks, people crowded onto stoops and porches, set up grills, and played beanbag toss and beer pong. They rang cowbells when the peloton zoomed past. They hung over the metal barricades along the course and cheered on the riders.

Some actually were there for the race, such as Ed and Brendan Sherwood, father and son from Southampton. Ed Sherwood, 39, a cycling enthusiast, first brought Brendan, now 10, as an infant.

"For cycling fans, this is like the Stanley Cup," Ed Sherwood said. "The anticipation is great - making the turns, seeing the riders."

Along with her husband and his friends from medical school, Jodi Ferenz, 27, camped out on Cresson Street to watch. The group was well-stocked - plenty of beer and water, couch and chairs, even a brisket her husband smoked the night before.

Partying was fun, but so was the thrill of the race.

"It's a Manayunk thing, but you can pretend you're in France," Ferenz said.

At Bethany Lutheran Church at Martin and Pechin Streets along the course, the event is a big deal. The regular 10 a.m. service begins two hours early this one day a year so parishioners can start cooking hot dogs to sell to racegoers.

The Rev. Bob Hopkins, Bethany's pastor, isn't much of a race fan, he confessed, but he likes the church ladies' homemade food, and he's glad for a chance to remind the neighborhood that his parish survives.

"It's a terrific outreach," Hopkins said, "and we've got homemade sauerkraut."

Other locals weren't so enthusiastic. Joe Maloney has lived on Silverwood Street, just off the Wall, for 34 years.

His grandsons enthusiastically blew an air horn, but Maloney, 56, considered the chaos and the lack of parking and said he'd made alternative plans for next year.

"This is nuts," Maloney said. "I told my wife last night, 'Next year, we're going away for the weekend.' "