Monday August 10th, 2009

1. The Palio di Siena

When it comes to watching livestock race through the streets of an ancient European city, this turf writer remains partial to the 90-second spectacle of the Palio di Siena. Twice a year, every July and August, the cobblestones of this Tuscan hill town's Piazza del Campo are covered with a thick layer of dirt, and its stone walls are layered with mattresses, so that 10 mixed-breed horses and their saddleless riders can compete for the honor of their respective Contrade (districts). Known to the locals as simply Il Palio, the race was first run in 1656 to celebrate an apparition of the Virgin Mary. I'm not going to pretend that I totally get the whole extravaganza. A good many of the thousands who crowd the Piazza seem just a teensy bit overwrought about a race run merely for district bragging rights. And the event itself isn't without a moderate amount of equine-on-human mayhem. But the Palio's peculiarities make me think that the only way to truly understand it is to experience one for myself.

2. The Tour de France

I can imagine few better ways to spend three weeks in the summer than traveling the gorgeous French countryside, sampling the food and the wine and, of course, watching those guys on their bikes as they ride past in some race. I know that, as an enterprising reporter, I'm supposed to want to dive deeply into all the controversy that has surrounded Le Tour in recent years. But the self-indulgent layabout in me can see only the peaks of the Pyrenees, the Cypress trees of Provence and the memory of a meal of steak frites I once enjoyed at an eccentric little Parisian dive called La Bourse Ou La Vie. C'est La Vie, no?

3. The Eddie

This exclusive surfing competition is formally known as The Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau, but I'm sticking with the title used by the locals all along Oahu's fabled North Shore. Named for the legendary big-wave rider and lifeguard who was lost at sea after a boating accident in 1978, it's only held when the offshore break at Waimea Bay measures at least 20 feet in height (which translates roughly to a wave face of 30 feet). Even in Hawaii, waves rarely get that big, and consequently there have been just seven Eddies since 1985. Nevertheless, every December event sponsor Quiksilver welcomes a select group of surfers to the North Shore to ride out the three-month waiting period -- which is quite a tribute all on its own when you think about it.

4. The Arctic Challenge

It's unique. It's remote. And best of all, in order to see it there's a good chance you're going to have to cross a fjord. This invitation-only snowboarding jam was the brainchild of legendary Norwegian rider Terje Haakonsen, who created it in 1999 as an event "by riders, for riders," and an alternative to what he saw as the commercialism of the Olympic Games. The location has shifted a few times over the years, but one of the competition's fixtures is the world's biggest quarterpipe, a 25-foot concavity that is basically one wall of a halfpipe. Set up like a jump -- with a steep hill as a run-in -- it enables some riders to soar more than 20 feet above the pipe's coping, as much as twice the average height reached on the halfpipe.

5. Massillon (Ohio) Washington vs. Canton (Ohio) McKinley

The fiercest rivalry in all of high school football was first played in 1894. Perhaps the Muck Bowl -- the annual Sunshine-State showcase that pits Pahokee against Glades Central -- can boast of more alumni currently in the NFL, and maybe the famed Texas rivalry of Permian vs. Lee has inspired a book, a movie and a television series, but neither seems quite as essential to their communities as Massillon-Canton. There are parades. There are mayoral bets. There are Kiwanis and Rotary functions. On occasion, there are even special editions of the local newspaper. And believe it or not, the football game is rarely an anti-climactic event.

My Favorite: 2004 Kentucky Derby

I love covering the Derby for many reasons, but the 130th Run for the Roses stands out because that's where I met my wife -- in the paddock before the race. It took more nerve for me to introduce myself to her that day than it did to bet against Smarty Jones. But I did both. It may have cost me money in the end, but it was still the best day at the track I've ever had. I'll never get that lucky again.

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