Ride 'em, Cowboy!

Imagine a rabble of rodeo riders skiing down a mountain. Imagine the wreckage at the bottom... Andrew Gumbel couldn't, so he just had to git along to see the Cowboy Downhill for hisself
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Why would a bunch of Wild West cowboys want to leave the familiarity of the prairies behind, drive three hours into the Rocky Mountains and expose themselves to utter humiliation in a downhill ski race? Maybe just because they can.

Every January for the past 28 years, the cream of America's rodeo circuit have made the detour from the Denver stock show to take part in the unique, utterly crazy Cowboy Downhill race in the Colorado resort town of Steamboat Springs. Talent is not exactly the point – in fact, quite a few of the participants have never been on skis in their lives before. What it takes, above all, is guts, and the good humour to realise that an entire mountainside of ski enthusiasts will be laughing themselves silly for half an afternoon.

"They say that if you give a cowboy a challenge, he'll take the challenge," says John Shipley, the race's long-standing master of ceremonies, waxing philosophical at the sight of skis, poles and cowboy hats flying in all directions within the opening minutes of this year's race.

Generally, the rookies reckon it can't be so bad. After all, they've got nicks and scars on their faces from taming broncos on the rodeo circuit. And the pros, the ones who have been coming for years, love every minute. "Shoot, a lot of guys I know just enter Denver so they can come up here," said Jed Moore, a bull rider from Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The 100-yard course has been tailor-made for the event – nothing that the International Olympic Committee would recognise as a bona fide winter sports fixture, of course, and certainly not a downhill race in the strictest sense of the term, but who's complaining? In the first of the event's two rounds, the contestants have to negotiate a few warm-up slalom gates, fly over a 10-foot jump, grab a lassoo on a pole, rope a girl standing plumb in the middle of the piste, saddle a horse – or at least throw a saddle in the horse's general direction – and then, if they are still standing, go for broke and the finish line.

The jump generates an inordinate number of spectacular wipeouts, suggesting it was designed with that purpose specifically in mind. The lassoo also causes no end of trouble: cowboys accidentally rope themselves, or their skis, or even the horse. Sometimes they will rope the girl so tight that she'll pirouette down the slope behind them. Quite often, they miss completely.

And then there is The Stampede. Everyone who is still conscious after the tribulations of round one gets sent back up to the starting line for the crowning moment of the whole event: a free-for-all downhill in which the several dozen contestants (this year, it was 90) form a single line at the top of the hill and then attempt to ski, roll or fly to the bottom as fast as they can.

By now, the rhythm of the event is well established. The cowboys roll up well ahead of time, their hats and their bright leather chaps prompting cheers and whoops wherever they pop up around the resort. (Steamboat is an old cowtown.) The downhill is sponsored by Budweiser, and there are copious amounts of free beer to calm any pre-race nerves. At the bottom of Steamboat's main gondola ride, some of the boys show skiers how to rope a cow (using a plastic model stuck on a metal tube).

And then, as John Shipley's commentary booms around the course over the amplifier system, they are off. "We measure their time in seconds and even hundreds of seconds, ladies and gentlemen," Shipley announced, "but believe me, sometimes they have to be measured in minutes."

It is not long before the first casualties arrive. One contestant decides to take on the jump backwards, only to regret it almost immediately. Another is so dazed as he tumbles down the hill that, in Shipley's words, "we had to show him where the finish line was". Plenty of contestants give up on skis altogether and sprint in their ski-boots down the rest of the course. There is no mercy even for Charlie Sampson, the only black man on the rodeo circuit, who is earmarked to be inducted into the Cowboy Downhill Legends and Founders Club because he has been coming to Steamboat since 1981. He too ends up face first in the snow.

The organisers are on the lookout from the start for candidates in the Best Wreck award category, and soon they have their man. Steve Anding, a bareback rider from Kaufman, Texas, who pretty much explodes on impact as he comes off the jump. "Is that a red gate, or blood on the snow?" Shipley asks, and the crowd roars with laughter.

Further down the course there are other hazards. The lassoo girls (or race ambassadors, as they are known) look pretty in their long white sheepskin coats, but are less than ladylike when it comes to dodging stray skis and the full weight of square-jawed, out-of-control cowboys.

Some of the cowboys aren't half bad, especially the ones from mountain states such as Wyoming, Alaska and Colorado itself. Quite a few compete on snowboards, which do not prove themselves especially practical when it comes to picking up the saddle. (The snowboarders have to unhook one boot to do it.) Seven skiers complete the course in under 35 seconds, including a local boy, Steamboat's orthopaedic surgeon and part-time bronco rider Michael Sisk.

"It's all about cheatin'," Sisk says, a phrase that is destined to come back to haunt him later in the day. The eventual winner of what might be termed the steeplechase round, a team roper from California mountain country called Murt Stewart, manages a finish time of 31.66 seconds, believed to be a record.

The weather is less than perfect. In fact a fair old snowstorm is whipping itself up. But nothing can temper the excitement as the Stampede gets under way. From the bottom of the course, the skiers look like Wild West riders assembling in the mist. When the starter signal goes, however, the scene more closely resembles the D-Day landings in Normandy. You can hear the low rumble of all 90-odd competitors moving together, then the cries and metallic clangs of at least 20 of them collapsing to the ground. The others continue, grim-faced and determined, and within no time there is a tremendous clatter as they all screech to a halt at the bottom.

The winner is Michael Sisk, who once again insists that he cheated like mad. "I watched the race last year and learnt you have to stay to the side," he says. Did he consider going over the jump? "Hell, no!"

At the awards dinner that follows the race, the true story behind Sisk's success at last emerges. He only ever entered professional rodeo because he wanted to take part in the ski race and win. Turns out he is the official doctor to the US Olympic freestyle ski team. "I've been ski-ing all my life," he explains. "I really wanted to kick y'all's ass in the downhill today." And now that goal is achieved, he has no intention of going back to rodeo ever again. "My wife pretty much retired me," he admits, a little sheepishly.

Is this entirely fair? The other cowboys are much too good sports to say anything, but they don't look best pleased by this admission. They reserve their enthusiasm instead for the plucky loser Steve Anding, who wins the Best Wreck trophy by a landslide.

"How many times have you skied before today?" John Shipley asks him.

"Today," comes the sheepish answer. Anding, a burly man with ginger hair and a moustache, is a man of few words.

"You told anyone in Kaufman yet about your achievement today?" Shipley continues.

"No," comes the reply.

His fellow cowboys love it, and give him the biggest ovation of the night.

Andrew Gumbel stayed at the Steam Grand Resort Hotel. For information about the hotel and Steamboat Springs in general, visit www.steamboat.com