Steamboat Springs So what if Rob Bell got knocked out in a rodeo Monday night. Or if he broke his thumb ramping off jumps Tuesday morning. He gets a chance to compete in the Cowboy Downhill once a year, and he wasn't about to miss his shot this time around.
Good thing, too, because the bull rider from Water Valley, Alberta, took top honors in the dual slalom race in the 29th annual Cowboy Downhill Tuesday afternoon.
His countryman, bareback rider Kyle Bowers won the stampede, otherwise known as a sprint on skis down the slopes.
"This is one of the funnest times of the year," Bell said. "There's a lot of stress in rodeos. We come up here to have a good time. Every year the same 10 percent are competitive. The other 90 percent are here to have fun."
Such as Weatherford, Texas' own Pete Hawkins, who summed up the feelings among those 90 percent when he bellowed out a post-race: "I love this place. You get a bunch of cowboys, give them free beer and put them on skis. What else can you ask for?"
On Tuesday, not much.
Under ideal spectator conditions, hoards of tourists and locals lined the course built on Headwall or gathered in Gondola Square to watch 72 cowboys, on loan from the National Western Stock Show in Denver, spill and thrill through slalom gates and over a jump.
Some like Bell and Bowers clearly have an edge -- and know it.
"We grew up skiing," Bowers said. "It's kind of an advantage, but there are some Americans getting pretty good."
It isn't Oak Creek's Rocky Wisecup -- and he knows it.
Despite growing up just 20 miles from Steamboat, Tuesday marked the bull rider's second day ever on skis.
"Oh, about 10 years ago," he said.
If it wasn't for that darned turning and stopping, Wisecup thinks he might actually have this whole skiing thing down.
"I kind of learned to stop at the bottom of the stampede," he said. "I didn't hit anyone."
Wisecup watched the event last year, but the Oak Creek native earned his Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association card this year, entitling him to enter the PRCA's Western Stock Show -- and subsequently the Cowboy Downhill.
That's the catch. Only rodeos competing in the Denver event can participate in the Cowboy Downhill. Last year, Bell, despite being injured, entered the Western Stock Show but promptly got a doctor's release so he could forgo the rodeo and come to Steamboat to race.
He finished second because his horse ran away at the bottom.
"Skiing is the easy part," he said. "Last year my horse took off."
The dual slalom race, which Bell won, pitted every cowboy against the clock. Two-by-two, the participants navigated gates and approximately a five-foot jump in the middle of the course before reaching the bottom.
Once the cowboys passed all the gates, they had to make an honest attempt to lasso a Steamboat Ambassador before making an honest attempt to saddle a horse. Then they had to ski, ride, or more often than not, hobble across the finish line.
The stampede is much easier to explain. The first one to the bottom was the winner.
"My strategy changed about five feet out of the gate," Bowers said. "I was standing there and saw about 20 guys take off to my left. I pushed off the line and sat down on my skis."
The Cowboy Downhill started in 1974 and was created by Steamboat Director of Skiing Billy Kidd and pro rodeo cowboy Larry Mahan.
The event originally attracted just a handful of horrible skiers.
Now, the Super Bowl of Steamboat's winter activities pulls in long-time competitors and some pretty good skiers and riders. Consequently, Roger Perricone and his race staff have to create a slightly more difficult course.
It hasn't deterred cowboys like Gary Leffew. The bull rider from Canada was a participant in the second Cowboy Downhill over 25 years ago and isn't quite on par with guys like Bell and Bowers, but he can have just as much fun.
"This is the best time of the year," he said. "It doesn't get any better than this."