Cowboy ski junkies

Cold beer and big spills at classic Steamboat event

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— The jump in the middle of the Bud Light Cowboy Downhill course has changed a bit over the years.

Since starting the event 33 years ago with six-time all-around world champion cowboy Larry Mahan, Billy Kidd has continued to increase the size of the jump.

"It used to be just big enough to jump over a row of beer cans," said Kidd, a former Olympic medalist and the Steamboat Ski Area's director of skiing. "Now it's big enough (that) if you stood up there, they'd jump right over your head."

Although the bigger jump gave many cowboy competitors bucked landings in the dual slalom event, one thing has not changed - the apparent go-for-broke attitude exemplified by the nearly 60 racers in the Stampede race Tuesday on Steamboat's Headwall ski trail.

Of course, these racers are real cowboys - Cowboy Downhill competitors must be entered at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver and be a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association or the Professional Bull Riders to compete.

From the mass start, only a handful of the racers clad in chaps and cowboy hats went straight for the jump. The majority tried to squeeze the right channel between the jump and the plastic fencing lined with spectators. What resulted was a congested funnel of kicked up snow, flying skis and pure cowboy carnage.

"I hit the fence, a guy wrecked right in front of me, and I don't know what my head hit, but it was solid," said Kyle Miller, a bull rider from Waller, Texas.

"It was elbows all the way," added Ray Thurston, who finished in the lead pack.

On the less-crowded left side, Scott Montague emerged from the pack to claim the overall Stampede win by what he said "couldn't have been more than a head."

Montague, a bareback rider from Rapid City, S.D., has competed in the Cowboy Downhill the past 10 years, but he had never finished better than fourth.

"You gotta time it where you hear, 'Go!'" Montague said about his start. "If you see people wiggle, you gotta hit it."

Before the Stampede racers came crashing across the finish line, the dual slalom race saw competitors weave through eight gates with a jump in the middle, lasso one of the four guest Denver Broncos cheerleaders, mount a saddle on a horse and cross the finish line. Many races took a light-hearted approach to a race plagued by crashes and disqualifications.

"I was laughing so hard I didn't even realize they were coming right at me," Broncos cheerleader Terita Johnson said.

Joe Gunderson's dramatic head landing won him the Best Wreck Award.

France's Evan Jayne had seen pictures of the Cowboy Downhill in PRCA newsletters and vowed that "one day I would be there." With plenty of ski experience in the Alps near his hometown of Marseille, Jayne looked to have the event wrapped up in 32.25 seconds.

But it was one of the event's three Colorado skiers that took the win. Thurston, a Tabernash native, former J3 Junior Olympic Alpine racer and professional bull rider, made the course look easy with a clean run to beat Jayne with a time of 30.43.

After his first year at the Cowboy Downhill, 2006 Canadian Bareback Champion Dusty LaValley, who took fourth behind Cheyenne's Jed Moore, shared one final sentiment with most of his fellow races.

"All the cowboys talk about (this event)," he said. "I'll be back next year. : They say you gotta go once, and once you go, you'll never miss it."

- To reach Dave Shively, call 871-4253

or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com

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