East Falls bike race tradition keeps it PG

The annual East Falls Bike Race Block Party has a chip on its shoulder and it relates to a close relative on the other side of “The Wall.”

“We call this ‘the family friendly event,'” explained Rob Litman, the chair of the East Falls Development Corporation committee in charge of organizing Sunday’s activities at Midvale Avenue and Kelly Drive.

Sometime in the race’s 27-year history, activities at the top of the fearsome rise from basically river level to the top of Roxborough, a hard partying tradition came about at the top of the hill. But when the development corporation decided to put an official block party together at the bottom of that climb, an atmosphere fit for adults as well as kids emerged, and judging by their prevalence, dogs were also on that agenda.

Litman has been organizing events for the last four years chiefly because of boyhood fishing memories at Kelly and Midvale with his grandfather – the best place in the city for catfish, he said.

The first East Falls block party associated with the bike race was eight years ago, it was the brainchild of Gina Snyder, the executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation. She had just moved to the city and saw an opportunity for business promotion and development in the neighborhood’s scenic vantage point of the race, with the Schuylkill River rolling by in the background.

“I just couldn’t believe that our neighborhood had this great view and wasn’t doing anything,” she said.

At first, she estimates, the block party attracted about 200 people. Now it’s up to four to five thousand, she said. To Snyder the key wasn’t inspiring people to come, it was getting businesses aboard to give them something to come to.

“It really didn’t happen until the businesses said this is a great event to do,” she said.

Every year the list of sponsors gets longer and longer, she added. This year, the names of businesses on the back of the official tee shirt is 38 lines long – the best turnout yet, she said.

The scene

Kristin and Joe Felici had beers and their two young children on hand at the block party around noon. Joe Jr., 2, wore a green mask and a Super Y costume. With the children, Joe said, he and his wife have “graduated” to the East Falls event from previous years as part of the scene at the top of the hill.

Where keggers and rowdy enthusiasm might be the norm in Roxborough, ‘chilaxin’ seems to be the word of the day in East Falls. There was live music, face painting, food tents, and plenty of room to spread out a blanket on the green space next to Kelly Drive and catch the 20 trips bikers made past that spot (10 laps – one trip up The Wall, one trip back for each lap.)

The lazy crawl of the river in the background seemed a part of that lounging feel, and if the chatter of children isn’t a sure sign the intended family atmosphere has taken root, the wagging tails of East Falls’ four legged friends surely was. Dogs seemed to be ubiquitous at the block party.

And for those who need just a little more excitement with their sporting events, there was the Beer Garden, sponsored by the Philadelphia Canoe Club.

A cookout and typical tailgate scene cropped up close to the garden. There, Lorraine Shaw and Pauline Brittingham were playing a game of beer pong. Several open cups of beer sat at either end of a table. If either of the pair got the ping pong ball in one of the cups from the far end of the table, their rivals had to drink. Still, the whole thing was fully civilized, they insisted.

Meanwhile, inside the Beer Garden itself, the scene remained almost sedate throughout the course of the race.

Intended side effects

What was hopping on Sunday was the restaurant scene in the area. The Trolley Car Diner, Johnny Manana’s, the Falls Tap Room and Golden Crust Pizza all had a steady flow of customers for most of the day.

Live music played at the Tap Room as live coverage of the race streamed on a TV mounted high on the wall. At Johnny Manana’s, the outdoor tables seemed especially popular.

According to Snyder, this is half of the idea behind East Falls’ biggest organized event. Drawing people into the business district of East Falls and showing them a good time every year is a boost for the neighborhood, she said, because it encourages customers to spend money at the shops and restaurants.

The other half of the idea, is to build a sense of pride in the neighborhood by helping residents join in the fun.

Andrea Panchok-Berry moved to East Falls with her fiancee Brandon Kauffman in December of 2010 primarily so she could bike the Wissahickon trails more easily. She had known about the bike race but had never seen it up close. She felt the powerful whoosh of the cyclists for the first time Sunday morning and couldn’t believe how much it moved her.

“The first time I saw it it was almost like tear jerking because they are so incredibly talented,” she said.

After that she became fascinated keeping track of the leaders and taking note of whether they gained or lost time relative to the main pack. A wide smile spread across her face whenever they raced past.

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