Bull riders risk serious injury for money and rush

Last Wednesday, Chris Lloyd, a 22-year-old bull rider from Virginia Beach, moseyed into Acredale Saddlery on Indian River Road wearing a straw cowboy hat, black jeans and a plaid Western shirt with blue stripes that matched his eyes.

The goateed electrical-apprentice-by-day was fixin' to order some rowels - those little spiked wheels - for his spurs.

"Hi, Miss Peggy," he said, greeting store manager Peggy Stein. "I'm hurtin' today. I banged up my noggin last weekend."

By that, he meant a 1,700-pound bull stomped on his head. Luckily, the novice rider was wearing a helmet at the time. He pointed out some faint bruising alongside his left ear.

Lloyd is one of 30 riders who will mix the thrill of an extreme sport with the threat of serious - even fatal - injuries by strapping onto the back of a bucking, spinning and kicking bull at Saturday's Professional Bull Riders Touring Pro Division event at Hampton Coliseum. There, newcomers like Lloyd will rub shoulders with veteran cowboys. Considered the "minor leagues" of bull riding, the tour serves as a steppingstone to the PBR's popular Built Ford Tough Series.

He and other area bull riders - such as Josh Faircloth of Randleman, N.C., and Koby Allen, a former Texan who settled in Virginia Beach after a stint in the Navy - say the adrenaline rush is what keeps them coming back for more battles with the bulls. The prize money doesn't hurt, either - a winning rider can earn thousands per rodeo, depending on the purse.

Faircloth, 23, is one of the top riders participating in the Hampton event. Ranked 36th in the world, he climbed on his first bull at age 14 and now makes a living at it.

The best riders can earn six figures, with an elite few bucking their way to millionaire status. To do that, they need to earn the favor of the event's judges, who determine each rider's score - if he can last eight seconds on the back of a burly bull.

Scoring is based on a 100-point scale, and 50 percent of that depends on the beast.

"If your bull really kicks hard and spins fast, you're going to get more points," Faircloth said. "The other half is how well you ride.... That's what the judges are looking for, how hard the bull bucks and how well you control him."

Controlling the bull is definitely something to aim for, Lloyd said. But right now, he's just glad to "cover," or make that eight-second ride.

Lloyd has been riding bulls for only a year or so, but he grew up watching the sport on TV and at local rodeos. In January 2012, encouraged by some bull-rider friends in the Navy, he finally got the nerve to try.

"I'd been on mechanical bulls before, just messing around," said the 2009 Salem High graduate. "But it's nothing like the real thing."

What was it like the first time, climbing on top of a feisty bull in the slim bucking chute?

"Nerves got to me a little bit," he said, chuckling. "Everybody's talkin' in your ear on how to do it, and I was like, well, let me just try it for myself. And I did it totally wrong. I just locked up. I didn't stay loose and do what I was supposed to. I came off right outside the gate."

Since then, he has kept getting back on. Lloyd rides most every weekend and has joined the Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association. Based in Archdale, N.C., SEBRA organizes amateur and professional rides year round.

"It's pretty tough," Jeff Canter, SEBRA's vice president of productions, said of young upstarts entering the PBR tour. "They have to go to a lot of events. He was fortunate and talented enough to get in."

It's not all good luck, though.

Last September things turned bad for Lloyd during a ride at the Isle of Wight County Fair rodeo when he broke his arm in six places.

The injury required six hours of surgery and months of physical therapy.

While looking at rowels in Acredale Saddlery, Lloyd rolled up his left sleeve. "I don't have bone from here to here," he said, indicating his bicep area. "It's all a metal rod."

Bull riders are nothing if not matter-of-fact about their injuries. They tick them off like grocery lists.

"Numerous concussions," Faircloth said. "Dislocated elbow. I've broken my nose a few times. Pulled groin. MCL tears. Just stuff like that."

"Broken ribs, broken arm," Lloyd said. "Dislocated my shoulder multiple times. Tore my hamstring, tore my shoulder muscles, broken collarbone...."

Despite the obvious dangers associated with straddling an ornery 1-ton beast, Lloyd and his peers live for the rush.

He hopes to someday make it to the next level of the PBR as a full-time pro.

"I'm in love with it; it's got me hooked," Lloyd said. "I've done a lot of crazy things - jumped out of airplanes, gone bungee jumpin'. The adrenaline rush (of bull riding), you just can't explain it. It's like you're nervous at first and you're like, man, I'm crazy, I'm stupid for doing this. Then you get in, get on your bull, get your rope set up and, OK, it's time to take care of business, win you some money, get your job done."

And fight past the pain, as Lloyd did after recuperating from his Isle of Wight injuries.

"When I broke my arm, I got back on in December and I covered - I made eight seconds," he said proudly. "It was awesome, because I'd been out since September and it was killin' me."

beware the buckle bunnies

Want to make a bull rider blush? Ask him about buckle bunnies.

Every sport has groupies, and professional bull riding is no exception, trailed by its own flock of diehard female followers who chase rodeo belt buckles the way basketball groupies search for tall guys with championship rings.

"There's just girls that'll be there always wanting to know what's going on after the event," said North Carolina rider Josh Faircloth. "That's what we call the buckle bunnies."

Cowboys have long embodied a sexy, rough-hewn masculinity - from the Marlboro Man to Clint Eastwood to Guilherme Marchi, the Brazilian PBR rider nicknamed "Hollywood" for his chiseled good looks. Lindsey George, a salesclerk at Acredale Saddlery in Virginia Beach, boiled the attraction down to the basics: "Men in cowboy hats, tight jeans and boots."

But she's no bunny. George grew up around the industry, the daughter of a Texas stock contractor who provides bulls for the rodeos and events.

"I try not to get involved in that," she said. "I've been asked out by one, though."

Did she say yes?

"No," she said, rolling her eyes. "He's got a baby in every town."

For all their swagger, bull riders get awfully "aw, shucks, ma'am" when asked to describe the bunnies.

"They don't dress a certain way, I don't guess," Faircloth mumbled. "They might wear a short skirt and a pair of boots or something.... Shoot, they all dress different, just like anyone."

With barely a year of riding under his belt, Virginia Beach rider Chris Lloyd chuckled and his face reddened beneath his cowboy hat at the topic.

"I really don't focus on it," he said of the female groupies. "A lot of people, they get that attention around 'em, and it messes with their head. You gotta stay focused. If you don't stay focused, it's a tough sport. You will get hurt."

get your cowboy on

Looking to two-step with a bull rider? Your chances are better at these local watering holes:

The Banque 1849 E. Little Creek Road, Norfolk. A line-dancing landmark since 1973, it has a full-service restaurant and a Western store. (Attention buckle bunnies, as rodeo groupies are known: Wednesday is military night, and since most local bull riders are active duty, reserve or retired, well, you figure it out.) www.thebanque.com

Eagle's Nest 1723 Parkview Drive, Chesapeake. Country radio station 97.3 FM "The Eagle" broadcasts live from this bar "where the bulls buck hard, the music rocks loud, the bar gets danced on and everybody sweats." www.eaglesnestrockincountrybar.com

PBR Hampton Roads 1976 Power Plant Pkwy., Hampton. Yep, the Professional Bull Riders league owns a chain of restaurants, including this spot. The franchise offers live music, mechanical bulls and cornhole tournaments. It also has a sly sense of humor - its female servers are called "buckle bunnies." www.pbrvirginia.com

Want to see the bull riders Saturday?

What Professional Bull Riders Touring Pro Division

Where Hampton Coliseum, 1000 Coliseum Drive

When 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Cost $10 to $40 (all tickets increase $5 on day of event)

More info 838-4203, www.hamptoncoliseum.org

Teresa Talerico, tjtalerico@gmail.com


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