The Wall, Manayunk: America’s Most Iconic Climb

Philadelphia's legendary incline has a greater history than any other in the United States, says Ben Gibbons

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reviewed by Rory McAllister

In the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, nestled along the Schuylkill River, there lies a stretch of road that has found itself a special place in cycling folklore – the infamous ascent known simply as “The Wall” in Manayunk.

From the inception of the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship to the legendary battles fought by cyclists like Greg Henderson and Lance Armstrong, this steep, winding climb has etched its place in the history of American cycling, weaving tales of triumph, agony, and sheer determination.

The iconic incline with a 17 percent grade is the signature climb of the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic.

Let’s embark on a journey to uncover the history, legend, and famous races that make The Wall a beacon for cyclists seeking the challenge.

Let’s dive into it!

The Wall Manayunk during the Manayunk Bike Race 2009.
The Wall during the Manayunk Bike Race 2009.
Credit: Justin KnabbCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Birth of “The Wall”

The Wall’s roots trace back to 1985 when the Philadelphia International Championship, a prestigious professional cycling race, was born.

Of course, The Manayunk Wall existed before that, but the race really brought it to life!

The tale began when Dave Chauner and his compatriot, Jerry Casale, set out to chart a course for a race through Philly that would make its mark on the international stage.

Europe had a plethora of famous races, ranging from the prestigious Grand Tours, such as the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and La Vuelta, right on down to the Monuments, the set of five classic cycle races that are generally considered to be the oldest, hardest, and longest one-day events in men’s road cycling.

The United States was lacking any serious contender.

The organizers’ quest for international stature propelled them to seek a challenge that would test even the most seasoned cyclists.

Chauner explained, “We needed a climb.” Originally contemplating Belmont Hills, they faced logistical challenges, realizing the difficulty of crossing the bridge and opting to stay within the city limits.

As Chauner reminisced about the birth of “The Wall,” he drew inspiration from a photograph in a cycling magazine showcasing Le Mur de Grammont, a renowned wall at the Tour de Flandres in Belgium.

Manayunk, always lingering on the periphery of their vision, became the focal point of their quest. Chauner, with the memories of his teenage years riding through Manayunk, knew they were on the right path.

Their journey through the hilly streets of Manayunk led them to Levering Street and Lyceum Avenue, an incline that would become the epicenter of cycling lore.

The moment they laid eyes on Lyceum Avenue, they knew they had found the perfect challenge. “When we saw that, we immediately called it Manayunk The Wall. Now, it’s known throughout pro cycling,” Chauner declared proudly.

The race route meandered through various neighborhoods in the city, but it was the punishing ascent through Manayunk that emerged as the defining feature.

The Wall Manayunk earned its moniker due to the unforgiving gradient that left cyclists feeling as if they were scaling an insurmountable fortress.

With grades exceeding 17%, the ascent demanded every ounce of strength and endurance from the riders, turning it into a spectacle that would draw crowds year after year.

Although the race has existed since 1985, its name has changed a number of times due to the frequent changing of corporate sponsors supporting the event.

Philadelphia International Championship

Between roughly 1985 and 2016, two competitive events graced the cycling calendar, featuring both men’s and women’s races: the Philadelphia International Championship and the officially named Liberty Classic.

The men’s competition, spanning seven laps, commenced with a challenging three-lap, 1.6 km (0.99 miles) opening circuit. This was followed by seven intense 23.2 km (14.4 miles) laps of the primary circuit, culminating in a thrilling five-lap, 4.8 km closing circuit.

The entirety of the men’s race covered an impressive total distance of 251 km (156 miles).

Simultaneously, the women’s race unfolded on the same dynamic course, albeit starting later and with a shorter route. The women’s competition featured four laps of the primary circuit, totaling 92.7 km (57.6 miles).

Both races attracted top-tier cyclists, pushing their limits on these demanding courses that tested both endurance and skill.

It’s hard to say whether The Wall in Manayunk was a product of the Philadelphia International Championship or vice versa. I like to think of it as a match made in heaven.

So, how tall is the wall?

The climb begins on Main Street and Levering Street, turning right briefly onto the cobbles of Cresson Street under the elevated railway, then left back onto Levering Street.

Levering Street then becomes Lyceum Avenue after the road kinks left, which is where the steepest section lies. Most races then turn off at Pechin Street, often nicknamed “The Fall from The Wall”.

The Manayunk Wall: Key Stats

Legends and locals

Europe has long had the iconic Alpe d’Huez, drawing crowds and partygoers that might make you think you’re in a nightclub, and America, for a time at least, had Manayunk. A climb every bike racer and local Philadelphian knew about.

As the years passed, Manayunk The Wall became more than just a physical challenge; it transformed into a city-wide party. Cyclists, both amateur and professional, flocked to Manayunk to test their mettle against this formidable adversary.

Back in the early days, devoid of the organized army of volunteers and course marshals, it was a raw display of cyclists conquering Manayunk The Wall while neighbors rallied in support.

It was a diverse gathering of people of all ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles. Many of whom would likely not have harbored much interest in cycling the rest of the year.

Each year, BBQs sizzled, beers were drunk, and a few thousand enthusiasts lined the stretch of The Wall in Manayunk. The noise of their cowbells reverberated in the air.

In the sweltering heat of June, a tradition unfolded along the challenging ascent of the Philadelphia race’s iconic Wall.

Enter O’Brien, a resident with a house perched on the formidable climb. Legend has it that during the race’s early years, O’Brien, perched atop a ladder, doused passing riders with water from a garden hose, and thus, O’Brien’s Watering Hole was born.

Since 2007, a sprinkler has added a delicate mist to the left side of the climb, a gesture reminiscent of O’Brien’s original watering efforts.

The allure of cycling often lies in the traditions that organically embed themselves, growing into sturdy trees that stand larger than individuals and racers, becoming integral to the very fabric of the sport, and this race is the epitome of that.

5 Famous Riders Who Conquered The Wall, Manayunk

The Philadelphia International Championship, doubling as the USPRO Championships for USA riders until 2005, boasts a prestigious list of winners, many of whom have left an indelible mark on the world of professional cycling.

Here are a few standouts!

#1: Lance Armstrong (1993)

Famous or infamous. But definitely one of the two. A name synonymous with cycling, Lance Armstrong secured victory in 1993 while riding for Motorola.

This win foreshadowed Armstrong’s later achievements, including seven consecutive Tour de France victories. However, Armstrong’s career was tarnished by doping scandals, leading to the nullification of his Tour de France titles.

#2: George Hincapie (1998)

A stalwart in American cycling, George Hincapie clinched the championship in 1998 while riding for U.S. Postal Service.

Hincapie’s illustrious career includes numerous Tour de France participations and a pivotal role as a key domestique for Lance Armstrong during the latter’s Tour victories.

#3: Fred Rodriguez (2001)

Renowned for his sprinting prowess, Fred Rodriguez’s win in 2001 showcased his speed and tactical acumen.

Rodriguez, born in Colombia, had a successful career with victories in various prestigious races, earning him recognition as one of the top sprinters in the professional peloton.

#4: Chris Wherry (2005):

Riding for Health Net–Maxxis, Chris Wherry claimed victory in 2005. While his win in Philadelphia is a notable highlight, Wherry’s career also included successes in other races and a reputation as a strong all-around cyclist.

#5: Greg Henderson (2006)

The New Zealand cyclist Greg Henderson took the top spot in 2006 while riding for Health Net–Maxxis. Henderson, known for his sprinting abilities, continued his successful career, later competing in Grand Tours and becoming a reliable lead-out man for top sprinters.

However, The Wall is not just a stage for professionals. Every year, thousands of amateur cyclists would take on the challenge. These moments, though less publicized, add layers to The Wall’s narrative, making it a climb for the people.

The Evolution and Challenges

As time marched on, the landscape of professional cycling underwent transformations, and due to a lack of sponsorship, the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic saw its final edition in 2016.

The absence of the race left The Wall without its annual showcase, but cyclists from all walks of life continued to pilgrimage to Manayunk, seeking the thrill of conquering this legendary climb.

Despite the challenges posed by changing times, The Wall remains a revered destination for cyclists.

Local initiatives and events, such as group rides and charity climbs, breathe new life into The Wall, ensuring that its legacy endures beyond the boundaries of professional racing.

So, the next time you find yourself in Manayunk, take a moment to gaze upon The Wall, and feel the echoes of the countless stories that have become an integral part of America’s most iconic climb.

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As a qualified sports massage therapist and personal trainer with eight years' experience in the field, Ben plays a leading role in BikeTips' injury and recovery content. Alongside his professional experience, Ben is an avid cyclist, splitting his time between his road and mountain bike. He is a particular fan of XC ultra-endurance biking, but nothing beats bikepacking with his mates. Ben has toured extensively throughout the United Kingdom, French Alps, and the Pyrenees ticking off as many iconic cycling mountains as he can find. He currently lives in the Picos de Europa of Spain's Asturias region, a stone's throw from the legendary Altu de 'Angliru - a spot that allows him to watch the Vuelta a España roll past his doorstep each summer.

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