Bullrider Zane Lambert riding Twenty To Life at this year's Calgary Stampede. The bullriding competition starts in Ottawa at TD Place. AL CHAREST / POSTMEDIA
Eight seconds after the starter’s pistol has fired, Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, will still be chugging along the 100-metre track, a good 17 metres yet from the finish line.
Eight seconds, according to a study conducted last year, is about the length of a person’s attention span, a full second shorter than that of a curious goldfish.
Eight seconds, according to another study, is how long it takes to fall in love.
It is such a fleeting time period — there 10,800 of them in a single day — yet it is in these brief increments that Zane Lambert can take stock of his career and measure its success. In eight-second clips, interrupted by countless hours of travel, too many hotel meals and years of hot, dusty fairgrounds and arenas, Zane Lambert either makes a living for his family or falls short. In less than the time it’s taken to read this far into this story, Zane Lambert can go from zero to the top of the world.
All he has to do is stay on that bull for eight seconds.
This year, Lambert — who’ll be in Ottawa Saturday as the Professional Bull Riders Canada thunders its man-vs.-steer event through TD Place Arena, the first stop on a seven-city Canadian tour — is looking a long way up at the top of the leader board, where his buddy Ty Pozzobon now resides.
(Lambert’s mother, incidentally, named him after Zane Grey, author of western novels. The PBR standings, meanwhile, are rife with cowboys whose fates appear to have been similarly set at an early age: Three Tys, a couple of Dakotas and Codys, a Garrett, a Cawl, a Brock and a Wyatt. What chance did Stetson Lawrence or Chase Outlaw ever have of becoming theatre critics?)
Lambert, who has perennially finished in the Top 10 in Canada in each of his 13 seasons as a pro — he was the top Canadian rider in 2013 — and has competed at five world championships, is currently in 37th place in Canada, owing to the three months he missed this season because of what other professional sports might obfuscate as an “upper body injury.”
“I had a bull step on me at a rodeo in Stavely, Alberta,” he says. “He knocked me out and stepped on my rib cage and broke five ribs and my scapula, and a couple of vertebrae just kind of cracked their wings off — it wasn’t real serious that way, but I had so much internal bleeding that they ended up collapsing my lungs and I ended up getting a blood transfusion.
“It was a pretty good one,” he adds. “It slowed me down quite a bit. So I’ll have to pick it up in this second half. I’m going to have to do some winning. I’m feeling healthier, and I have a lot of climbing to get to Ty, but I think it’s possible.”
He grew up on a grain farm in Westbourne, Manitoba, and played hockey as a youngster. He was only about 10 when he fell in love with the rodeo and signed up with a junior steer-riding school in nearby (330 km) Kennedy, Saskatchewan. Early successes in the ring provided fuel, and before long he and his father were driving as much as six or seven hours on weekends to attend rodeos.
“I really thrived at it. The first bulls I rode, I started winning prizes. It was fun.
“And through high school, that’s what I did. That was my work; a summer job that turned into my hobby and started paying my bills, and I just kept going with it.”
The rules at the heart of bullriding — the most popular and dangerous of the seven events that comprise a rodeo— all are pretty simple. One hand grips a rope tied to the bull. The other hand is airbound; if it touches the bull or rider, he is disqualified. If the rider stays on for eight seconds, he earns points, and possibly money.
Entire careers can be made or lost in those eight seconds, and it’s a hard living. There’s no dental plan, riders pay their travel and accommodation expenses, and only winners take home paycheques. Tanner Byrne, who at No. 13 is the top-ranked Canadian in the world, has earned $104,000 this year, but the next-highest Canucks, Aaron Roy and Dakota Buttar, at #32 and 42, respectively, have each earned only about $30,000.
Billed as “the toughest sport on dirt,” bull riding is dominated by riders from Brazil, the U.S., Australia and Mexico. Saturday’s event at Lansdowne Park will see 25 ride attempts, followed by a 10-cowboy playdown, with the top rider earning $7,000. In Canada, especially, there’s little endorsement money for riders.
“There aren’t a lot of people out there wanting to put stickers on us,” says Lambert. “That’s what we’re trying to get ahead of with tours like this — get some TV exposure and a quality event and get these sponsors on these cowboys and a little more money in their pockets.
“Coming east to Ottawa, London or Hamilton, we’re $1,000 deep already before getting on a bull, what with flights and hotels. We’re spending money coming out here; it’s a big gamble. And like when I was a kid, there was no way my family could have afforded going down the road if I wasn’t winning.”
Chris Bell, general manager of PBR, notes that today’s show is a perfect mix of sport and entertainment, with “thumping rock ‘n’ roll and pyro. We even light the dirt on fire to kick things off.”
Not forgotten in all this are the bulls that, similar to the riders, are studied and ranked. True rodeo aficionados know the bulls as well as the cowboys, and as often as not are likely to cheer them on.
“A lot of the bulls have more fans than a lot of cowboys,” says Lambert. Some, he adds, even have their own merchandise.
“We really have two athletes competing,” says Bell. “They’re both trained to do this.”
Additionally, the bulls account for half of a rider’s score, and so cowboys typically want to be paired against the toughest ones. “They’re very much a part of it. If you don’t have a strong enough bull, you’re not going to place, or someone is going to place ahead of you.”
And so Lambert studies the tendencies of the bulls he may face; whether it’s a spinner coming out of the chute, for example, and which way it’s likely to turn. “It’s just like a boxer going in the ring,” he says. “There’s even a website devoted exclusively to bulls’ stats — probullstats.com.”
Zane Lambert at the Calgary Stampede in July. AL CHAREST/POSTMEDIA
Minion Stuart, one of the bulls competing in Ottawa, is ranked 248th in the world. Another, Liquid Fire, has only been successfully ridden on four of 33 attempts. (By comparison, the world’s No. 1-ranked bull, Asteroid, has only seen four riders last the full eight seconds in his seven-year career. Sixty-nine others were bucked.)
“But some of the good bulls can read you. They can feel what you’re doing, so they’ll counter it.”
A successful ride lasts eight seconds because that’s how long a bull can effectively buck before fatigue and adrenaline loss kick in. And during those eight seconds, Lambert says, there’s no time to think about anything but riding. “I’m definitely thinking of different reactions; if he’s going left or right or moving ahead. You’re just watching and being aware of everything around you. There are lots of riding things going through your head, but it’s mostly action-reaction stuff.”
Those eight seconds, he adds, are entirely relative to what’s going on in his head. “If you get at the end of your arm or in a bad spot and you’re just holding on, it can seem like two minutes waiting on that whistle. Other times you’ll have a good seat and you could sit there all day, and the time goes fast.”