To win the prestigious Tour de France race an astounding seven years in a row, cyclist Lance Armstrong endured seven grueling treks lasting more than 20 days and 2,000 miles each. It was a triumph of heroic skill, athleticism, and willpower, demonstrating that man can conquer any challenge set before him. But as epic as his victories were, we found it far more entertaining watching a bicycle battle like last year's Dagger Death Race. Held on the Saturday before Halloween, the gonzo contest organized by a local crew of BMX riders featured more than 40 cyclists (many wearing costumes) racing around Tempe and Scottsdale in a quest for two-wheeled supremacy.

The over-the-top event was an "alleycat," a type of urban cycling race developed by bike messengers that involves participants maneuvering through a series of checkpoints through a city. Alleycats are big in cities like San Francisco and Portland, and have caught on across the Valley in the past few years, usually featuring a number of riders on fixed-gear bicycles (single-speed and often brakeless two-wheelers that have also gotten popular recently). Outrageous tasks are a frequent part of checkpoints at events, and the Dagger Death Race was no different with its stops. Riders had to succeed at such challenges as spinning around with their head planted on a baseball bat, digging chicken bones out of a pail of dirt, or drinking either beers or shots of hot sauce. Alleycats occasionally feature some lawless riding, like one rider who took his bike on Loop 202. A second race is in the works for this year, and promises even more mayhem. Let's just hope the cops don't spoil the fun.

It's time to face some hard facts. You're never, ever gonna be cast as a contestant on The Amazing Race. No matter how many times you mail in your cute and clever videotape, the producers of the Emmy-winning CBS reality show (which involves a global scavenger hunt and race for $1 million) aren't going to be calling you back anytime soon. After swallowing that bitter pill, soothe your uncastable ass by signing up to compete in the Great Urban Race. Similar to its televised cousin, the competition (which usually goes down each spring in Tempe) involves teams of two or four who decipher clues and complete a number of odd tasks (such as finding a particular political candidate's campaign sign) in order to maneuver through a series of citywide checkpoints and cross the finish line first for cash and prizes. Teams are encouraged to come in costume to add to the zaniness of the event (such as a pair who dressed as Super Mario Brothers this past year). The prizes aren't as big as they are on TV, and it might not be the same as jetting off to South America, but it's still pretty damn fun.

Coronado Park

Situated in the Coronado historic district is this spacious, urban park with two lighted basketball courts. One slab of concrete usually has families and kids playing around while the other one features fast-paced pickup b-ball. A men's league (complete with referees and a scorer's table) reserves one of the courts on Monday and Wednesday nights, but some teams are often short of players, so just ask to run with them and they'll most often let you join in. Park hours are from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Best Place for Pickup Basketball, East Valley

Freestone Park

Freestone Park

Nestled at the east end of this 65-acre park are four regulation-size, rim-rocking basketball courts with some of the most competitive games around town. Each court is lighted for nighttime hoopin', and the lanes are painted purple and orange (an ode to the Phoenix Suns), which kind of makes you feel like a pro. If you get tired of balling, then there are plenty of other super-fun activities, such as batting cages and a skate park as well as chill-out spots by the man-made lake. Park hours are from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Best Place for Pickup Basketball, West Valley

Sueño Park

Sueño, a Spanish word for "dream," is exactly that when it comes to pickup BB at this west-side park. Students and alumni from neighboring high school basketball powers Trevor Browne and Carl Hayden flock to the lighted courts, which makes for some serious games. The park is infamous for hosting games with the ankle-breaking skills of the Brown family — most notable is professional basketball player Gerald Brown, who suited up with the Suns for a season. Hours are from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Chandler Skate Park

To the uninitiated, Chandler's Snedigar Park looks like an abandoned water park in post-apocalyptic-drought Phoenix. There's an empty swimming pool with a ladder, giant concrete steps to nowhere, and what appear to be several kiddy pools surrounded by towering palms. But to anyone with a worn left sneaker and a full deck, this is a playground of the imagination. Those "swimming pools" are bowls where seasoned skaters try sick tricks like the 540-degree McTwist, named for modern legend Mike McGill. The park also features k-rail obstacles, a flat bar, and several ledges and rails for sliding and grinding. With 35,000 square feet of cement, this place sure beats faking it on the Xbox.

Duck and Decanter
Lauren Cusimano

Remember that time you spilled beer on the floor and Spot got totally wasted? Yeah, that isn't going to happen at Duck and Decanter's Lappy Hour. On the other hand, if you're tired of meeting new friends who turn out to be — gasp! — cat people, then this once-monthly event might be for you. Guests are invited to bring their well-behaved pooches along for a meet and greet over sandwiches and drinks. It's a great way to network with like-minded folks, but don't be surprised if the girl you bring home afterwards is a little on the hairy side. Local animal shelters usually bring unwanted pups ready for adoption to Lappy Hour, and it can be awfully hard to resist those puppy-dog eyes.

Even when it's hot, our retriever-Lab mix Rosy still needs exercise and something to relieve the boredom of the same old smells coming from the patch of grass in the backyard. But taking her for a walk in the summer is a form of animal abuse unless you adhere to certain rules.

Like the vampire dogs in I Am Legend, our pup doesn't touch sidewalk if there's sunlight on it. And we let her splash around in whatever water may be available — which is part of what makes the Tempe campus of Arizona State University so attractive for canine recreation.

Not only is the campus a beautiful place for a walk — you'll see throngs of busy young people, cool architecture, art, flowers, feral cats, and more — but it's got great water features to cool off Rosy's paws.

We love watching her romp through the stepped fountain with mini-canals near the Business School. The circular fountain near the Memorial Union is just deep enough to cool her lower body when she lies down in it.

Once soaking wet, her black fur probably feels a whole lot better when we resume the walk in 100-plus-degree evening heat.

No signs are posted saying we can't take our dog for a dip, but it seems like a good idea to limit the splashing to just a few minutes, out of courtesy to this fine institution.

And, of course, leave the dog shampoo at home.

For those who don't favor their pooches large — or, God forbid, don't even own a canine or two — there's not a lot worse than getting bumped off the trail on a meditative nature hike by someone struggling to maintain control of their over-excited old Lab or fearsome-looking pit bull. But we've found a spot where big dogs (on leashes, natch) rarely bother anyone but their handlers — and it's a wonderful walk, to boot. At two easy miles in length, the trails are wide and easy to traverse, so much so that park rangers encourage wheelchair-bound hikers to come on out. We were duly impressed by the Indian petroglyphs, etched into huge boulders around 1000 A.D. After a good rain, the pot at the end of the rainbow otherwise known as the Waterfall Canyon Trail is a 75-foot waterfall that seems incongruous in the Sonoran Desert.

But back to those pups. Not long ago, we saw a lone woman, who had to be pushing 80, walking slowly through the canyon on the return trip. Jogging hard the other way was a triathlete-looking fellow with his German shepherd in tow. The jogger yanked his pooch to the side of the trail, and the woman never blinked an eye, never had to wonder whether she'd be trampled. That's what we call a happy ending.

So you love your little rugrat of a dog, and you want to expand his (we'll make him a "he" here) world to the great outdoors. And even though you know he's spunky as hell, those little legs won't do well on, say, Camelback Mountain, and you're afraid that he'll sniff too close to a rattlesnake, scorpion, or other varmit on a less-traveled trail. We've got the answer, and it's called Piestewa Peak (formerly Squaw Peak, until the city of Phoenix renamed it after Iraqi war hero Lori), officially part of the Phoenix Mountains Park and Dreamy Draw Recreation Area. Though the hike to the top on the Summit Trail is rigorous — 1.2 miles, elevation gain of 1,200 feet — the 3.75-mile Circumference Trail is much more forgiving, for humans and pooches alike. Wonderful views of downtown Phoenix await the people, and unparalleled scents of other canine cavorters await your little fluffball. We've seen more than one little love affair (G-rated, thankfully) spring up on the trail. All you need is some water for you and your best friend — and a leash.

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