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The longest eight seconds

For 7.24 seconds thousands of people at the Riel Park rodeo grounds had their eyes transfixed squarely on Len Lefebvre and Walking Tall — the tractor-sized bull desperate to buck him off his back.

For 7.24 seconds thousands of people at the Riel Park rodeo grounds had their eyes transfixed squarely on Len Lefebvre and Walking Tall — the tractor-sized bull desperate to buck him off his back.

Lefebvre was one of two hometown bull riders at this weekend's Rainmaker Rodeo. His 7.24 seconds before tasting dirt was an instant shy of the eight seconds he needed to avoid disqualification.

"One more jump and I would have had him," says Lefebvre, 26. "He had a little bit of a better day than me."

Moments after being unceremoniously thrown from the bull, he starts thinking about the next time, not the moment he started to slide.

"I did so much right before that, I am just trying to focus on the positive. I'll get him next time."

Bull riding is scored on a 100-point scale, but to be scored at all a rider must stay on the animal for at least eight seconds.

The judges look for the control the rider exerts, the balance they possess on top of the animal and how hard the animal bucks.

Lefebvre, like any competitor, is disappointed but it's the contest, not the victory he lives for.

"You have to ride jump for jump," he says. "At the end of the day when you have a good ride the adrenaline is second to none."

Man against bull

Lefebvre is in his fourth season as a bull rider in the Lakeland Rodeo Association circuit and, Sunday's performance aside, he says he is having a good season with several wins and second place finishes under his belt.

When he competes, the challenge is the bull not his fellow competitors, he says. Lefebvre says focusing on the other competitors would be foolish because they don't have any more control of the outcome than he does.

"There are so many variables that you just want to see everybody do good, but at the same time you kind of want first too."

Les Trach the stock contractor for the Rainmaker event, a 30-year veteran of the business and competitor himself before that, says today's riders are more professional and face a bigger challenge.

"The bulls have come so far that it is unreal," he says. "We have three, four and five generations of breeding into these bulls now."

Trach says breeding programs have created animals that push every competitor. "You can just about win the show on any bull if you can ride it."

Advanced school

Lefebvre says he was first exposed to bull riding and other rodeo sports from the stands. He rode in a few steer-riding contests in his teenage years and decided he wanted to be a full-time bull rider.

"One day a buddy of mine and I had this crazy idea that we would just ride bulls and we really liked it."

To get his foot in the door he attended a bull riding school in Kansas before coming back to Alberta and starting up on the circuit.

"I signed up for a school and that kind of got my foot in the door and then I started meeting guys and attending rodeos and went from there."

Trach says schools like the one Lefebvre attended were just in their infancy when he started out. Combined with year-round indoor facilities they have changed the sport, especially in Canada.

"It used to be a knock on the Canadians, we have two months of summer and 10 months of bad sledding, but with the indoor facilities these kids are riding year round."

He said combined with more opportunities to ride, the sport can only continue to improve.

"The kids get on five times more than they used to and the more you ride the better you get."

Roaming the range

When Lefebvre arrived in St. Albert the rodeo was already well under way. Sunday's match up with Waking Tall was his third run of the weekend and he had travelled that morning from another rodeo.

The bull riders often travel in groups, because they are often going to the same place.

"We always travel with a few guys; it saves on costs and that way if someone is injured the other guy can drive, it is our rodeo family we call it."

Trach says co-operation has always been part of the sport's culture.

"It is without a doubt the closest-knit sport there is. Even hockey players aren't as close as these kids," he says. "There is no team doctor, you kind of look after each other."

Working together also help the competitors with their costs. Lefebvre said it is important especially when a rider might be feeling the pinch from an unlucky streak.

"It is really hard on the pocketbook, a guy needs to keep riding and make some money."

He says he hopes to continue to improve so he can make it a more stable career.

"Once you get really consistent you can get some sponsors behind you and you don't have to worry about your next entrance fees and whether you can pitch for gas."

Strength and balance

Before his run Lefebvre starts by getting changed and wrapping his knee in a tensor bandage. Earlier in the weekend his knee was pushed hard by a bull while in the chute waiting for the run.

He inspects his ropes and applies a glycerine solution to help his hand stick while he holds on.

During the ride he aims to keep the rope as close to his body as possible. With his free hand he is constantly trying to correct for the bull's movements.

When the bull jerks to the right he throws his arm up and to the left to counter the force on his body so he can stay up on the bull.

The sport he says isn't really about strength.

"A big body builder would probably tear muscles in this sport. You have to have strength, but balance is really important."

Going into the run he also thinks about the bull itself. Last season he rode Walking Tall to a 75 and has an idea, as best as you can, of how the bull is going to run.

"The more I got into it the more I learned about bulls. You learn about different shapes of bulls and you learn from the last time you did it that he bucks in a certain way."

While waiting for the chute to open, Lefebvre empties his mind of everything but the task in front of him. He says the key to a good run is in his head, not his hand.

"You can go to the gym and work out and get good on your practice barrel, but if your head is not in the game it doesn't matter."