Rodeo cowboys remind us of Steamboat’s claim to Western roots |

Rodeo cowboys remind us of Steamboat’s claim to Western roots

Cowboy Downhill founders six-time all-around world champion rodeo cowboy Larry Mahan, left, and Olympic silver medalist Billy Kidd reunited at the 40th anniversary of the event at Steamboat Ski Area Jan. 20, 2014.

— Steamboat is expecting 14,600 visitors in town for the three-day Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend Jan. 14 to 16, and it's a good poker bet that many of them will be looking for validation that this really is a cowboy ski town. Their timing couldn't be better.

Some of the best rodeo cowboys on the planet will be in town as Steamboat Ski Area plays host to the 43rd Bud Light Cowboy Downhill. Like all rodeos, the Cowboy Downhill will result in a certain amount of mayhem, but in this case, the protagonists won't be rank broncs and snorting bulls, but a slippery ski slope and one nasty drop-off in the middle of a ski race.

If you thought that skiing might come easily for bowlegged cowboys and cowgirls who aren't easily bucked off, listen to what Steamboat Director of Skiing Billy Kidd had to say on the subject in a 1982 video interview with Chuck Richardson.

"In traditional ski technique, you try to stay on your feet all day," Kidd said. "In cowboy ski technique, if you're on your feet for 8 seconds, it's a victory."

It was Kidd, and six-time All-Around World Champion rodeo cowboy Larry Mahan of Salem, Oregon, who seized on the idea of the Cowboy Downhill. The two athletes from different worlds first met when a mutual friend urged Kidd to give the rodeo champion his first ski lesson at Steamboat.

Mahan described the genesis of the grand daddy of all cowboy ski races to Steamboat Today on the occasion of the event's 40th anniversary in 2014.

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After his ski lesson, Mahan said he returned to Denver and persuaded a Chevrolet dealer to lend him three cars so he could return to Steamboat with 15 of his rodeo buddies to take part in the first cowboy downhill. The next year, Mahan said, Frontier Airlines offered to fly the first 25 cowboys who showed up at the old Stapleton Airport to Steamboat for free.

"We left straight from a bar to the airport," to catch a flight that morning, Mahan said.

Mahan and Kidd patched bareback bronc champion J.C. Trujillo, who was based in Steamboat, into the mix, and it was the bond among the three men and Steamboat's savvy public relations department that gave the Cowboy Downhill its longevity.

The Cowboy Downhill is essentially a dual slalom race with some cow town twists. After the pairs of cowboys clear the jump at mid-course, they toss a saddle on a horse and rope a duster-clad ski instructor.

The grand finale is a mad dash down the slope that results in more spills than the average rodeo.

But there's more to the Cowboy Downhill than the ski race. Savvy spectators show up early for the chance to mingle with the bull riders and steer wrestlers.

Don't be hesitant — rodeo cowboys are unfailingly polite. Stick out your hand, introduce yourself and ask them where they hail from. You can expect to be called “sir” or “ma'am.” Cowboys seem to be universally humble.

And after all, they're on vacation too.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

If you go…..

What: 43rd Annual Cowboy Downhill

When: 4-H animal petting zoo at 11 a.m., rodeo cowboys ski race at 1 p.m. followed by Walker McGuire concert on outdoor stage, Jan. 16.

Where: Stampede ski trail and Gondola Square at the base of Steamboat Ski Area, 2305 Mt. Werner Circle