Go, Cheese Racer!

To the victor goes the wheel in southwest England.

By / July 2012

Since roundabout 1750 crowds have gathered in Gloucester, England, to chase a wheel of cheese some 700 feet down the grass-slick, vertiginous knoll of Cooper’s Hill. The event, a series of races that takes place each year on the last Monday in May, is a mess of flailing limbs and dirt-smeared haunches. The grade of the hill is such that standing upright becomes nearly impossible halfway down.

Some contenders resort to sliding. Others attempt the risky yet exponentially more efficient strategy of mimicking the wheel they pursue, throwing their heads over their knees and barreling wildly until they can take to hotfooting again.

The goal, in theory, is to field the cheese before it hits the bottom of the hill. But the eight-pound wheel, given a couple-second head start, can reach speeds in excess of 70 mph. Because of the impossible pace, victory is handed instead to the first racer across the finish line.

To the victor goes the cheese wheel, a round of Double Gloucester, a buttery sort with an orangey hue and a flinty build — flinty enough to retain its comportment even after the vigorous flight down Cooper’s Hill — that pairs nicely with olives and a carafe of Pinot Noir.

These days the cheese-roller to beat is 26-year-old Chris Anderson. In eight years, Anderson has won 13 wheels, positioning himself to surpass in the near future all-time champ Stephen Gyde, who out-flailed his rivals 21 times in a 27-year career. Anderson is fearless. But despite his reckless antics, he has yet to suffer serious injury, missing front tooth aside.

The same cannot be said for his competition. Deep scrapes, concussions, and broken bones are among the most common casualties on Cooper’s Hill. Due to safety concerns, the official event was scrapped in 2010, but the faithful hosted an unsanctioned cheese race nevertheless. More than 10,000 folks attended.

Sanctioned or unsanctioned, in sunshine or rain, cheese rolling doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. The rush, the suspense, they are just too intoxicating.

No matter the results and the injuries endured along the way, there is always that galvanizing moment before the frenzy, that moment when the brave and the idiotic, some wearing speedos, others donning superhero attire, inch their toes to the lip of the hill.

The grass is green and tall with possibility. Unspinning, the wheel is within anyone’s reach.

 

Patric Brasher, whose sport of choice is blacktop basketball, is EthnoTraveler’s summer intern.

 

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