Cowboy Downhill a Steamboat tradition

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— Put a couple cowboys together and a competition is bound to ensue, at least that was the thinking of Larry Mahan and Billy Kidd when they created the Cowboy Downhill in 1974.

Originally staged with just a handful of pro rodeo cowboys, the Cowboy Downhill, entering its 29th year, has become one of the Steamboat Ski Area's grandest winter events.

Anywhere from 150 to 200 rodeo cowboys are expected to make appearances this year, learning to ski in the morning of the event before entering a full-fledged race in the afternoon.

The Cowboy Downhill started in 1974 when Mahan, a world champion cowboy, invited a few of his friends competing at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver up for a day of skiing.

The year before, Mahan had come to Steamboat for a private ski lesson with Kidd, an Olympic medallist. While the two were together on the slopes, the idea for the Cowboy Downhill was born.

"Larry called me up and said 'I want to learn to ski and I heard you're the guy to teach me,'" Kidd said.

"The next year he brought up a couple friends and when you get two or three rodeo cowboys together you've got a contest. That was the beginning of the Cowboy Downhill."

Word spread and quickly a ski event in Steamboat was the talk of the Denver Stock show.

While Mahan said he never guessed the event would become such a success, there are certain personality characteristics ski racers and cowboys share, which has no doubt translated into the growing appeal of the Cowboy Downhill.

"I think the common denominator between the people that race and live on the edge in the ski world is the same with the guys in the rodeo," Mahan said. "They are thrill seekers."

That may have sparked Mahan to learn to ski. He still remembers his lesson.

"Billy takes me into powder, and I'm on these big long sleds and they were closing the mountain down and I'm with this guy I just met," Mahan said. "All these guys with red suits went by and saw someone in the trees and asked if I needed help. Then they saw Billy, and he said no, and I thought that was my last chance of survival.

"I have yet to get even, but I'm still plotting."

Though Mahan will be unable to attend this year's event, he does acknowledge the work that goes into hosting this growing festivity.

"I really appreciate the effort and energy the people have put into the Cowboy Downhill," he said.

Over the years the course has gone from a simple shot down the mountain into more of a challenge as the cowboys' skiing abilities have improved.

"When it started out the cowboys went down 12 gates through a beginner slope, lassoed a female ski instructor and then got on a horse," Kidd said.

"We've added a jump and it has gone from several inches to about four or five feet now. It's a fun and funny event."

The 29th annual Cowboy Downhill will be Jan. 21. The event begins with a dual slalom race at 1:30 p.m. on Headwall.

The grand finale is a stampede on skis.

The Stampede utilizes a mass start and the first one down Headwall wins. It's scheduled to begin around 3 p.m.

Spectators are welcomed and encouraged to watch the race from either the Gondola Square area or along the course.

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