The greatest races to watch live

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With the London Olympics on in 2012, we were inspired to take a tour of the world through the eyes of sporting endeavour. Here's where to catch some of the world's most exciting races - or perhaps you even want to join in!

1. Tour de France finish, Champs-Élysées, Paris

So much for time trials and mountain stages, for sheer pageantry, nothing in the world of cycling beats the grand finale of its greatest race when, having ridden 3500km across the length and breadth of France, riders put the pedal to the metal down Paris’ most prestigious street. Strangely enough, the overall winner of race has usually been decided well before the riders reach Paris (often on the notoriously steep Alpe d’Huez stage) so the Paris stage simply formalises the result. However, there are still points available for the sprinters, so a fast finish is guaranteed. With ample opportunity to see your favourite cyclists up close, the atmosphere – bustling cafes, jostling fans and frantic French commentary – is unforgettable.

Several tour operators offer the chance for non-professionals to ride parts of the tour: try Custom Getaways.

2. Camel racing, Dubai

Sand-storming up in the popularity stakes across the Emirates is this age-old sport, enjoying a renaissance thanks to the bizarre intervention of robots (no, you didn’t misread that). As if the ancient sight of camels stampeding across sand against a starkly modern urban skyline wasn’t juxtaposition enough, now, US$25,000 tailor-made robotic jockeys ride the animals round the racetrack in place of the young children (which had the sport swamped in controversy), while owners remotely control them from 4WDs speeding alongside. Fans say camel racing has never been so exciting, as the machines weigh the camels down less than children. But robots can malfunction and camels are temperamental beasts…

Dubai’s new Al Lisaili camel racetrack is on the Al Ain road at Exit 37, past the Rugby Sevens Stadium. Race times are usually 6am Thursday to Sunday, November to March.

3. Goat and crab racing festival, Buccoo, Tobago

It all started back in 1925 as the regular Tobagans’ reaction to the wealthy colonialists’ sport of racing thoroughbred horses in neighbouring Trinidad. Today, Easter Tuesday’s goat race at Buccoo, a fishing village in Tobago’s secluded southwest, has achieved cult status. The comical race, in which competitors run behind their bleating steeds, is the focal point to a brilliant collage of events, including a goat parade with commentary and a major sideshow in the equally competitive sport of crab racing (don’t ask). It’s all set on the cusp of vibrant Buccoo Reef, home to some 40 coral species.

Recover from the revelry at Arnos Vale Hotel, a former sugar plantation set in 450 acres of tantalising tropical grounds.

4. Coast to Coast, New Zealand

Combining running, cycling and kayaking, this gruelling 243km traverse from the east to west coasts of New Zealand’s South Island – crossing the Southern Alpine mountains in the process – is touted as the planet’s toughest adventure race. For spectators it offers stunning scenery, with the 66km kayak down the wild Waimarkariri River, rapids and all, regarded as the race highlight, especially where the water funnels into an imposing gorge, with ice-capped peaks looming above. The route is riddled with oddly familiar scenery, too: many of the iconic shots in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed hereabouts.

Find out more about the Coast to Coast here.

5.  Snail racing, Norfolk, UK

Ready, steady, slow: so goes the catchphrase at the leading competitive snail-racing venue, a cricket pitch in the sedate Norfolk village of Congham. It doesn’t provide many adrenaline highs (unless you’re a participating gastropod), but compensates for that in sheer surreality as crowds gather to glimpse the snails (marked for identification purposes) race from the centre of a table to its periphery under the watchful eye of the ‘snailmaster’. Why Congham? It has lots of ponds around, apparently. Snails like ponds.

The best nearby digs are at Congham Hall, a luxurious Georgian manor, estate and herb garden with log fires and a spa.

6. Great Amazon Raft Race, Peru

Ever wondered how you could rock up at a city of 500,000 people when there are no access roads? This annual jungle raft race to Iquitos may not quite be what you envisaged, but hundreds of crews in weird and wonderful vessels have taken to the world’s greatest river to give the event a go. This stretch of the Amazon is transformed into a cornucopia of colourful crafts (built by competing teams from scratch before launch) contending with caimans, piranhas, currents and each other in order to complete the 180km course.

Take your own trip on the Amazon in a hand-built riverboat with Dawn On The Amazon who also provide raft race information.

7. The Great Reno Balloon Race, USA

Every September for the last 35 years or so, the skies above Reno have become a blaze of ballooning glory. With three days of races, displays and challenges, this technicolour event – the largest free ballooning meet in the USA – wows some 140,000 spectators, as pilots compete for a US$20,000 first prize. But the high-altitude fun doesn’t end with a simple race; also on offer is ‘Balloon Blackjack’, and Reno’s famous ‘Hare and Hounds’ event, an airborne simulation of a traditional British hunt, during which 100 balloons chase down two hot-air ‘hares’, provided by the Wells Fargo Bank. Bank managers spouting hot air will never seem the same again.

The festival takes to the skies for three days each September; visit www.renoballoon.com for more details.

8. Mongol Derby, Mongolia

If you really want to feel like a latterday Marco Polo, experiencing this 1000km unsignposted romp through the Mongolian steppe is the way to do it. Far and away the world’s most arduous horse race, the derby sees entrants saddling up in much the same manner as the famed explorer did eight centuries ago, carrying all their gear and refuelling at homes of local families en route. It will just be you, your steed, your GPS (in case you get lost, which is incredibly easy) and kilometre after kilometre of remote, rolling plains.

Zavkhan is a New Zealand-Mongolian outfit specialising in exploring remote regions of Mongolia by horse.

9.  Dakar Rally, Chile and Argentina

A rally based around a Frenchman getting lost while on a rally…hmm. Despite having switched from the original France-Senegal route to South American Patagonia, this legendary race is most definitely still on the radar of serious offroad race enthusiasts, with trucks, bikes, quad bikes and cars converging to career across thousands of kilometres of the most rugged terrain around. Adventure hot spot Patagonia has thrown tracts of the Andes and swaths of the driest desert on Earth into the path of participants, alongside an enviable palette – from the lush greens of the pampas to the fiery reds of the Atacama at sunset – beckoning over the course of this 13-day odyssey.

Get the low-down on rallies past and future at www.dakar.com.

10. Badwater Ultramarathon, California, USA

Taking its superfit participants from 85m below sea level to 2530m above in a mere 217km, the Badwater course is every bit as ‘bad’ as its name suggests. The world’s toughest road-running race gives entrants just 48 hours to make it from the depths of Death Valley, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, up to the slopes of Mt Whitney, one of the USA’s highest points. It’s an arresting part of the planet; salt flats, dunes, canyons and monumental mountain ranges are all part of the package.

Explore the wilderness of Death Valley (www.nps.gov/deva) in which the race unfolds; guided hikes taking in the geology and wildlife are available.