Cowboys ride 'em downhill

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It took Lance Kelly, a bareback rider from Stephenville, Texas, all of 20 minutes to learn to ski upon arriving in Steamboat Springs for the 30th annual Bud Light Cowboy Downhill.

On Monday, in preparation for the Tuesday afternoon competition, Kelly learned to turn and stop -- sort of.

"I busted my butt like 40 or 50 times," he said.

Tuesday, Kelly and more than 70 other professional rodeo cowboys navigated around slalom gates -- and each other -- in the Cowboy Downhill's timed event and crazy Stampede winner-take-all race on Headwall.

The Steamboat Ski Area has been hosting the Cowboy Downhill for 30 years and one of the founders of the race, Billy Kidd, director of skiing at the Steamboat Ski Area, said he knows why this unique event continually attracts large numbers of competitors and fans.

"The same thing that brings the cowboys and spectators back is they like to have a good time on the slopes," he said.

For many of Tuesday's participants, the Cowboy Downhill was all about having fun. But for a few, it was about trying to win, as well.

Take Michael Sisk, for example. The Steamboat Springs resident is not only an orthopedic surgeon, but a saddle bronc rider and a former Cowboy Downhill Stampede champion.

He didn't feel pressure to ski clean and fast because he is from Steamboat.

"There was more pressure because I've won it before," Sisk said.

Tuesday, Sisk beat the rest of the field in a straight shot down Headwall to the finish line.

Before the chaotic Stampede, the registered rodeo cowboys went head-to-head and against the clock in the timed slalom race.

Danny Millett, a team roper from Greeley, came in first with a time of 28.48 seconds. He was clean around the gates and perfect off the jump that stood more than 5 1/2 feet.

Five cowboys from Alberta, Canada, came in second through sixth, including Kyle Daines, a saddle bronc rider from Innisfail, Alberta, and Dustin Flundra, a saddle bronc rider from Pincher Creek, Alberta.

The Cowboy Downhill is scheduled to coincide with Denver's National Western Stock Show and Rodeo each January.

Racers must be entered in the Stock Show and must be a member of the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association or the Professional Bull Riders to compete in Steamboat.

But race organizers don't just hand out awards for the most talented skiers or riders; they also recognize the best crash.

This year the prestigious title went to Layne McCuslan of Elk City, Okla., for his end-over-end tumble down Headwall.

The Cowboy Downhill frequently attracts return spectators and cowboys, and this year was no exception.

Tuff Hedeman, a longtime participant in the 1980s through 2000, came back after a short hiatus, and though he didn't finish among the top 10, he received warm applause from the crowds gathered alongside the course and at the ski area base.

"It's good to be back," Hedeman said.

The Cowboy Downhill may already have found its first entrant for next year's race. While Kelly said he isn't about to give up bareback riding for skiing, he has found a fun, enjoyable way to at least participate in the sport.

--To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208

or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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