If you live in Manayunk or Roxborough, make sure you park your car by Friday: Once the 27th annual Philadelphia International Cycling Championship sets up shop for the race that kicks off Sunday morning, there is no getting in or out except by foot or train. And increasingly, while people from Center City and the suburbs want in, residents say they want out.
Nationally, the scenic 156-mile classic is revered as the longest running and most important single-day road race in the country, with cyclists competing on an intense course that famously includes what’s known as the Manayunk Wall: a cruel, thigh-shredding half-mile uphill incline that begins with a right turn off Main Street up Levering Street, a right onto Cresson Street and then a left up Lyceum Avenue.
As cyclists pump their legs, the crowds pump kegs, a theme immortalized last year on T-shirts hawked in the street that read: “They Ride, We Drink.”
The divide between the actual bike race and the alcohol-soaked partying that has come to “traditionally” accompany the race is a hot topic in the hood these days. In broad terms, the debate goes something like this: Older residents who are sick of the college-age-ish renters and their friends who flood the neighborhood with their noise, piss and puke versus partygoers who don’t necessarily watch the race but begin drinking at breakfast and get so out-of-control wasted that the party has actually spilled onto the track.
Then there’s the middle ground.
“I live a couple of blocks off [the route],” says Brian Flanagan, 39. “I see both sides of the story. To be honest, you can’t get in and out of Manayunk easily that day. However, it’s like a Manayunk holiday. Everybody that I know looks forward to it and dreads it at the same time.”
“I hate it but I would be disappointed if it stopped happening,” echoes Elizabeth Long, who until recently operated a maternity clothes shop on Main Street. “I grew up in Manayunk so it was a huge part of my childhood and teen years … I hated it as a business owner on Main St. But I think it’s a cool thing the city does and I like that it’s a positive thing. It’s the drunk assholes in Manayunk that make me hate it.”
Kevin Smith, 53, is the president of Manayunk Neighborhood Council, one of a patchwork of civic organizations and residents calling themselves the Bike Race Neighborhood Committee. The group has been working with bike race officials and the city to steer the event back toward its roots.
Smith views the bike race partying as the “public face” of problems residents deal with every weekend when Main Street transforms into a white-washed version of Saturday summer night in Old City with a dash of Jersey Shore, teeming with drunk frat-boys in Ed Hardy shirts and the girls who love them.
“I don’t want to overuse the phrase, but [the bike race used to be] a family event,” says Smith. “People would ... watch the race, sit there with coolers and cokes and sandwiches.”
To anyone who’s been to Manayunk in the last 10 years, Smith’s vision sounds downright Victorian—but it really wasn’t so long ago. (The neighborhood is still touted as “the ultimate urban experience with small town historic charm!” on manayunk.com.)
To wit, an event called the Manayunk Stroll used to take place the evening before the bike race in the 1980s and ’90s. Unthinkably quaint, residents and visitors donned Victorian dress and strolled down a Main Street kitted out with horses, carriages and trolleys.
“It became a big family reunion,” recalls Kay Sykora, project director at Manayunk Development Corporation. “It was very well-attended and well-loved. Then a couple of the bigger more aggressive bars began to promote it into a drinking event.”
Civic groups issued a warning to attendees: either shape up or they’ll end the event, which is what eventually happened around 1997. “It was sad,” says Sykora. “The night ended with a street full of out-of-control people.”
Now, the same fate could befall the race itself.
Since last fall, members of the Bike Race Neighborhood Committee have met with representatives from the city, City Council, the Liquor Control Board and the Police Department seeking better crowd control. So far, a deal has been struck for increased police presence and “bike court,” a penalty box for troublemakers modeled on Eagles Court set up for football games.
“Working with the city, we’ve been able to increase enforcement for the weekend,” says a spokesman for Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. The city also promises more barricades to prevent the drunken masses from wandering onto the course in front of bikers at the top of the Wall.
It sounds like a good start, but there’s a lot on the line. Smith says if it fails, he is finished negotiating.
“We basically have come to a point where something has to be done to change the nature of the race, or we will try to stop the race from coming through Manayunk,” says Smith. “We drew the line this year to city officials: what are you going to do to turn this race around in Manayunk and if you can’t or won’t do anything, our next step will be to try to stop the race.”