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The Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo enters its 71st year with real rewards for 21st-century riders

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In a matter of just two weeks this summer, Josh Peek will have traveled more than 9,000 miles. During the final week in June, he's ventured from rodeos in Canada to Reno, Nev., to North Platte, Neb., to Evergreen, back to Canada, and on to Greeley.

After competing June 27 in the Greeley Stampede, he and his wife Kori pack their active 2-year-old twins, Keagan and Emry, into car seats in their black SUV. Josh's horses, Smoke and Gus, are in a separate trailer.

Though Josh sometimes has to negotiate airports, today he and Kori will share child-time and 22 hours of driving back to Canada. Josh can also do a little business over the phone when his wife takes the wheel, an important opportunity considering the next few months will be a similar scheduling nightmare.

For instance, from Canada, he'll go on to Cody, Wyo., back to Greeley, and then to St. Paul, Ore. — among a few other spots — before ending up here in Colorado Springs for the start of the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo on July 13.

It's just part of the 70,000 to 100,000 miles that he says he travels each year. Which is why it's good that for the Peeks, the 31-year-old's career is a family affair. The twins attended their first rodeo when they were just 10 days old, Kori says. And while they all could be on the go 24-7, Josh says that he intentionally only competes nine months each year, currently in steer wrestling and tie-down roping, so he can take a few months off to be at their ranch in Pueblo.

With all the travel, you might think a rodeo in Colorado Springs would be less exotic for a Pueblo guy who has some top awards to his name, including the 2009 National Finals Rodeo All Around Championship. Not so. Josh says that he has an emotional connection to Pikes Peak or Bust. "It's just kind of a hometown rodeo for me."

Of course, Josh does admit that the Springs' professional rodeo, one of 26 stops on the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, "is kinda one of them that a guy has to hit, because it's got a bunch of added money ... so you get all the contestants that are vying for the [National Finals] to go there."

This year that list includes seven world champions — young guys such as Trevor Brazile and Bobby Mote who, like Josh, make a living in the rough-and-tumble world that is rodeo.

Fair catch

Including Pikes Peak or Bust, the Colorado Springs-headquartered Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association sanctions about 600 multiple-event rodeos in the U.S. and three Canadian provinces. (Colorado Springs' "other" July rodeo, the Ride for the Brand, is a ranch rodeo — meaning it's not open to professionals.) Total payouts last year equaled almost $40 million.

That, of course, is about what a trio of football or basketball all-stars might make in a year. It's not lost on Josh that as he's in the dirt roping a steer, collecting (or not collecting) his pay day-by-day, event-by-event, National Football League and National Basketball Association lockouts have team owners and players stuck in squabbles over how to divide up their billions of dollars.

As a high schooler, Josh had a chance to play basketball. He just saw something in it he didn't like.

"In inner-city schools in basketball and different things like that," he says, "it's all about politics. It's all about undercutting somebody else to get a scholarship, and it's all about cheating the system to get ahead. In rodeo, there's no way you can cheat the system. You can have the best calf ... and win a rodeo or lose a rodeo."

Another difference between rodeo and some pro sports is that because of its individually based structure, it can continue to expand. Pro teams tap out at a certain number of players per each; in the National Hockey League, for instance, fewer than 700 men are on active rosters. Recent counts by the PRCA show more than 5,300 individuals actively competing.

"I believe it's a growing sport," says Cory Wall, 2009 PRCA bullfighter of the year and 42-year-old Burlington resident. "Now there's areas of the sport that are struggling, for whatever reason. I think bareback riding is struggling in their numbers just because it's a brutal event, and the learning curve is so tough. Young guys coming up, instead of taking a beating like that, they'd rather jump in and compete at something else that they can be more competitive at right away. ... Every other event, though, I believe, is really growing."

In many ways, he adds, it's due to recent growth in television markets. That, and perhaps the fact that there are no age limits on cowboys. "You can go as long as your body or your mind can go," Josh says. He jokes a little when he says he's got a 73-year-old neighbor who still gets out and does a little roping every now and then.

Josh, Kori says, "will do it as long as his heart's in it."

No slack

Under a hot Greeley sun, while watching Josh compete (and doing some child-wrangling herself), Kori stresses that rodeo is really about one thing: "We all know we're just trying to provide for our families."

It's something more than one Peek has been doing for years. Josh and his brother Jeremiah are both following in their father's footsteps. (Third brother Jon is also a PRCA member, but is taking this year off.) Other members of the family, going back to their great-great-grandfather, also rodeoed, and a cousin of theirs has won four world titles as a bullrider.

Rodeo family isn't limited to blood relatives, though. And in many ways, it's the extended family that gives cowboys the extra push. Because earnings each year are directly related to event performance, finances can be up and down even for someone like Josh, who as of July 6 sits at 23rd in the world in steer wrestling. Sponsors help pay for everything from fuel to food to equipment; Josh says Stallion Oilfield Services and DirectLoop have been with him since the beginning and are "as close to family as my wife and kids. Without them, I'd be out on the side of the street with my thumb up."

When Josh lands on his knees in the Greeley stadium, Kori laughs when asked if he goes through a lot of jeans. She says thankfully that Wrangler helps keep a lot of the cowboys in denim, and when she takes him shopping for dress jeans, she has to remind him to not wear them in the arena.

Rodeo comes with another kind of support, too.

"It's one of the only competitive sporting events in the world that I know, that everybody roots for everybody. And everybody wants everybody to win," Josh says. "I think it's because there's so many variables in rodeo as it is, that you don't have control of, and I just think that rodeo people and cowboy western industry people have a code that, it's just a respected code that you treat people as you like to be treated."

Wall agrees. "We compete with each other, but our real competition is against the animal that we draw. So, you can still root for your friend a hundred percent, but you can give a hundred percent because your competition is really against the animal that you're dealing with. And I think that makes a difference. It's not a head-to-head competition where like football or basketball is played. It's kind of a unique sport in that way."

When it comes down to it, Josh says, "You have to stand up and do your best. And if your best won, be happy. And if your best didn't win, work harder. That's kinda the cowboy motto: When the times get tough, get tougher."

kakens@csindy.com

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