Thursday, March 26, 2015

The legend of the Manayunk Wall

To the uninitiated, it's Levering Street and Lyceum Avenue in the northwest section of Philadelphia. But to natives and to cyclists, it's known by a much simpler, yet more foreboding title.

The legend of the Manayunk Wall

To the uninitiated, it’s Levering Street and Lyceum Avenue in the northwest section of Philadelphia.

But to natives and to cyclists, it’s known by a much simpler, yet more foreboding title.

“The Manayunk Wall,” says Sean Petty, COO of USA Cycling. “In a word, it’s iconic.”

Petty has been coming to Philadelphia for the annual race since 1985, when he was on the sponsorship side of the 7-Eleven Cycling Team. The race has undergone many changes since, but one thing has remained the same.

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“The thing that really set The Wall apart was the crowds,” says Petty. “It was great to see the evolution of the race and of Manayunk during that time. They both became world-class, so to speak.”

For a perspective on just how grueling a task The Wall is for a cyclist, we turned to Brian Walton, a former professional cyclist and Olympic Silver Medalist for Canada in the 1996 Games. He raced in Philadelphia 11 times. Not counting training rides, that’s over 100 trips up The Wall.

Today, Walton lives in the area and actually coaches a handful of the athletes competing in this year’s race.  He owns and operates the Walton Endurance Training Center, which celebrates its grand opening this weekend.

“How can I define The Wall?” he asked rhetorically. “Being in that lead breakaway, the crowds cheering you on—it doesn’t really compare to anything.”

What about a physical comparison?

“For the fastest riders, that’s a two-minute ride at maximum output,” explains Walton. “So it’s the equivalent of running an 800-meter race all out.”

The difference, of course was that during Walton’s career, they climbed The Wall ten times during the one-day race. Walton remembers one of his career highlights—challenging Lance Armstrong in a cycling duel up The Wall with a teammate.

“We were part of a breakaway, and I was the last person that he couldn’t drop,” he remembers. “Later, a teammate and I battled him—it was a little fairer that way, two-on-one. My teammate won the race that day, and I finished fourth.”

For every highlight like his own racing against Armstrong up The Wall, Walton’s seen dozens of dreams die at that point of the course.

“I don’t want to use a cliché like ‘separate the men from the boys,’” he says. “But it defines the winner of the race. Aside from the height and the pitch of that hill, the approach off of Main Street in Manayunk is very technical.”

In this year’s new Parx Philly Cycling Classic, The Wall takes on an added importance—if that were possible. The race will start and finish at the top of the storied hill. What will this mean strategically?

“I think we’ll see more riders taking chances this year—there are probably only a handful of people with a chance to win a bunched sprint that finishes at the top of that hill,” he says. “The race will be much more aggressive this year.”    


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