Saturday, July 12, 2014

Still NED

We’ve all heard it before: the only constant in life is change. Our human nature, though, instinctively craves homeostasis. As such, we quickly adapt to changes so that, if only for a little while, we have restored balance. Over time, so much can change that we lose perspective of where we started, and it can be good to zoom out and look at the big picture to see how far we’ve come and thus appreciate things properly.

A few weeks ago I received a text message from my mom. Rather than the content of the message, it was my reaction to it—or lack thereof—that has caused me to slow down and take a look at the bigger picture.

Name any significant historical event that happened during a person’s lifetime and they can tell you were they were and what they were doing at the time. When the towers fell, when Bin Laden was captured, and so on.

Just over 4 years ago, I had just such an experience. My final summer in college was a trial period of life as a bike racer. In those few months, I drove across the country more than half a dozen times, trying to hit all the big races and accumulate some results in the hopes of securing a contract after graduation.

On this particular trip, I was in Chicago for the Tour of Elk Grove. Just a year later I would finish on the podium in the Pro field, but in 2010 I was racing the Cat 1-2s. I was staying in the basement of a fellow racer’s relatives when I got the call from my dad. At the conclusion of my last trip, I learned that the cause of his persistent cough was a tumor in his lung. While I was in Chicago, they confirmed that the tumor was cancerous, despite my dad’s lifetime avoidance of cigarettes.

So, yeah, I certainly remember where I was when my snowglobe life got a good shaking.

4 years later—4 years in which it seemed things were changing so quickly that there was never a chance to catch our breath, 4 years with some tremendous highs and devastating lows.

I was in my apartment in Lucca, Italy enjoying my summer break. 4 years ago I was trying to scrape by as an amateur, and now I’m living in Lucca, my last race having been one of the biggest that the sport has to offer, racing for one of the most successful teams at the highest level of the sport. I heard my phone buzz on my nightstand and walked in to check the message.

From my mom: “Still NED.”

I put the phone down and went back to my keyboard to resume practicing. Then it hit me. That message, “Still No Evidence of Disease,” has become routine, and I’ve started to take it for granted. My mom was telling me that my dad, who has twice defeated stage IV lung cancer—a disease with a devastating life expectancy beyond 5 years—was still cancer free.

For all the change that has happened over the recent years, I would have never guessed that such a message could become routine. But it has! And for that, I’m overcome with thankfulness. Since then, I’ve taken time each day to thank God for these incredible blessings in my life. Change will someday rear its head once more, but I don’t need to spend my time worrying about tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself. In the meantime, I’ll spend a little more time appreciating each mundane “Still NED” message.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Il Palio: the biggest sporting event you've never heard of

After the TTT World Championships last fall, I ended up in Siena for a couple of days. While there, I learned about Il Palio, the horse race that make this little medieval city famous. Just looking at pictures of the event, I quickly added it to my bucket list: attend Il Palio.

A couple of months ago, I realized that Il Palio would fall smack in the middle of my summer break, and I would be in Italy at the time. Siena is just a few hours on a train from Lucca....

I did a fair bit of reading up on the event beforehand to gain a semblance of understanding, but still only had a faint grasp. I got to Siena on day 3 of the 4-day Palio.

Il Palio, while still a horse race, is almost nothing like the American versions with which we're familiar. It's not an occasion for betting and money-making, and so much depends on chance.

Here's a quick rundown:

Siena is made up of 17 districts, called Contradas. Only 10 Contradas get to participate in Il Palio, which is held twice per year--once in July and once in August. The 7 Contradas that weren't in the last Palio get automatic entry, and the remaining 3 are drawn at random. So 3 lucky Contradas get two shots at it each year.

After determining which Contradas get to race, they are randomly assigned their horse and their jockey separately. The jockeys don't even know what horse they'll be on! The first 3 days of Il Palio consist of several trial races where the horses and jockeys are getting to know each other, their competition, and the course. Oh, and did I mention the race is bareback?

The course is a D-shaped loop in the Piazza del Campo, which is basically a half-bowl, so there is significant elevation change. They cover the bricks with a thick layer of clay for the race and line the course with fencing. The front of the shops around the Piazza are covered by bleachers. You can buy tickets for the bleachers, balcony seats, and apartment windows for a great view of everything, but they don't come cheap. Prices start at 200E. Or you can be a sardine and pack into the middle of the piazza.

28,000 spectators cram into the middle of the Piazza with another 33,000 in the bleachers, balconies, and windows.

After arriving hours beforehand to claim a good viewing spot in the Piazza (inside of the last turn, with a great view of the most exciting turn across the Piazza), the parade began. Lasting 2.5 hours, it's quite the spectacle. Not a hokey tourist attraction like medieval times, this is a legitimate medieval parade of all the Contradas and their horses. This event has been going on since the 17th century. There is a lot of pageantry involved.

After the parade is done, the racers enter the Piazza and chance once again comes into play. There are no starting gates, just a rope across the course. The race starts on a curve, so everyone wants the inside line. Starting positions are called out at random. So that everyone can hear, the 60000 spectators shush each other into an impressive silence. Also at play are the rivalries between the various Contradas. In the video, you can hear the excitement and conflict that arise when the first few start positions are called out. Apparently two rivals would be starting next to each other.

There is no countdown to the start. No, they're waiting for all the horses to be calm (and facing the right direction). They're all crammed against each other on the starting rope, full of excitement and tension. The jockeys and horses get into it a few times and all are ordered to go walk it off before being called back to the line in the same order, hopefully a little calmer. Over the span of 15 minutes, they did this 4 times before the race finally started.

The race is 3 laps of the Piazza and is over in a minute. My camera work isn't so great, but I wasn't looking at the camera. I was watching the race! As soon as the race was over, spectators jump the barriers in celebration. It's at this time that it's best to stay out of the way. Sometimes fights break out between Contradas. I'm telling you, this is a really serious event for Siena! The party for the winning Contrada goes on through the night.

Il Palio is an incredible event, and now I can say I've been there!