Eight Seconds or Bust

Photos by Carlos Verde

A collective buzz rises from the crowd of 4,682 at TD Place Arena; rock music blares out of floor-to-ceilling speakers, while the smoke from the sophisticated rider introductions pools above the dirt ring.

The rush of excitement is one unique to the realization that, in a few short seconds, one incredibly brave man is going to go to war with a beast.

In one of the chutes adjacent to the ring, 21-year-old Thor Hoefer II straddles a behemoth of an animal named Millennium’s Back.

The music is cranked and the crowd buzzes, but just four seconds after the chute opens, Hoefer’s lying face-up in the dirt — score it as a point for the beast — while the arena announcer extols the virtues of Bud Light and Monster Energy drink.

This is PBR Canada, the top Canadian loop and something of an elite minor league in the burgeoning world of professional bull riding.

“As soon as that chute gate opens, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Hoefer an hour before his rough opening ride. “You can’t control or define a bull, yet we confine it to a 200-by-100-foot pen — this is sport in the live flesh.”

The second ride of the night, on a bull named One Cool Dude, goes no better for the Idaho native. He hangs on gamely for roughly three seconds, but is still thrown to the dirt well shy of the eight-second objective of all bull riders.

“Most 21 year olds are in college, preparing for what they want to do the rest of their life,” beams  Hoefer, whose father (a bull rider) and grandfather (a saddle-bronc rider) also competed at elite levels. “I’m out here and, really, I’m already where I want to be for the rest of my life: Competing.”

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Despite its fireworks, large crowds and numerous sponsorships, PBR Canada’s Monster Energy Tour is still very much a secondary circuit.

While the likes of J.B. Mauney and Silvano Alves — the sport’s top athletes, competing on the Built Ford Tough Series — have earned more than $5 million purely from riding, Hoefer has pocketed a comparatively meek $5,047.91 riding near-weekly since his November debut.

What is on the table for all riders competing on the tour is a shot at qualifying for the big-league finals in Las Vegas and all the sponsorships and exposure that come with it.

“My goal, like everybody else here, is to be a world champion,” says Hoefer. “You want to travel and compete with these folks — they make you better, and the competition raises everybody on the tour’s level.”

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Given the nature of a sport that pits 150- and 160-pound men against bucking 1,600-pound animals, serious injuries are unavoidable — something 29-year-old Justin Lloyd knows all too well.

“One year I had four surgeries in eleven months,” says Lloyd, a nine-year veteran on various Canadian circuits. “Between a broken jaw, collarbone, and surgery on my legs, (the) torn groin muscles were the most challenging, because as a bull rider you’ve got to use your legs to ride.”

On this night in Ottawa, only one rider — A.J. Vaal — needs medical attention, following a stomp to the face that left him sporting a bloodied splint for the remainder of the night.

Despite the obvious hazards of the job and less-than-lucrative prize money on the tour, there’s no shortage of cowboys willing to straddle bulls every weekend for a shot at Las Vegas.

“I’m going to do it for as long as I can, as long as I’m competitive,” says Lloyd. “The sport’s come a long way in terms of how guys look after themselves (and) I don’t see why a guy can’t be a Jaromir Jagr or Cal Ripken Jr., where you can compete into your 40s.”

Lloyd, a native of Tisdale, Sask., takes home second place on the night — the top-finishing Canadian behind the night’s American winner, Cody Casper.

For his efforts in lasting eight seconds on a bull named Wild Mexican, he takes home 50 points towards the world standings — he now sits 153 points behind the final qualifying spot for Las Vegas — and a second-place cheque of $4,861.63.

Ultimately, however, bull riding is about much, much more than numbers; it’s a larger celebration of the grit, toughness and tradition of a sport that is only just beginning to reach the mainstream.