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Chasing Cheese in Gloucestershire

From my spot, behind a teen with a spiderweb tattooed on his neck, I see them flash by and then hear cheers at the bottom. They're for Steve Brain, a 30-year-old builder.

It's more boisterous at the bottom, so I head down. As I do, cheese number two bounces toward my group. We all gasp and cringe, then heave great sighs of relief as the wheel slams into the spindly barricade. Steve Brain wins this one, too. An injured man is carried off on a stretcher; he's the first of the day, and not seriously hurt. The security people are feeling good.

Helen Thorp and Sabrina Rimmer are the lone competitors in the women's race. They have a plan—namely, flopping over on their sides and rolling in a stately fashion. "It's a new approach to cheese rolling!" exclaims Peasley over the P.A. They roll across the line, hug, and shriek "Girl power!" I'm happy to see that Helen's navel ring didn't snag any foliage.

The last race of the day is Brain's bid for a hat trick. He sweeps down the precipice at full tilt, ramrod-straight, while bodies fly all around him. From the bottom, the sight is extraordinary—they are warriors charging enemies, or victims being thrown to their doom. On the most level portion, Brain falls, only to somersault forward and bounce to his feet, up and over the finish line to victory. Paint him blue and he could be in Braveheart.

For his troubles, Brain takes away three cheeses. "I usually give 'em away," he says. So what drives Brain?"You get a buzz from going downhill."

I hope Lance Townsend gets this same buzz. A cheese chaser for 20 years, since he was 14, Lance has more second- and third-place finishes than anyone in the recorded history of the event. He has yet to win. His quest has cost him three broken ankles, a dislocated shoulder, and countless bruises. A lanky man with weary eyes (but that could be because he'd just come down Cooper's Hill), he knows what he wants: "When I win one, I'll quit."

By two, it's over. I help Mr. Peasley carry the loudspeakers back to his house. "A reporter today kept asking why we did it," he says. "I told him about the origins of the holiday, how it's been kept alive all these years, but he kept asking me why. I couldn't make him understand. It's who we are."

The cheese rolls in late May. For more information, see www.whatsgoingon.com/100things/cheeseroll; or call 44-1452/425-673.

Alfred Gingold's books include The Cool Parents Guide to all of New York, with Helen Rogan (City & Co.).


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