DENVER ― It had been quite some time since PBR fans were treated to a Mike Lee lap around the dirt at a Built Ford Tough Series event, when he hopped off Tahonta’s Magic in Billings, Mont., two weeks ago.
Once the 2004 World Champion’s feet grazed the dirt, he was off to the races and sprinting in wobbly fashion around one of the smaller dirt arenas on the BFTS. Fellow riders, stock contractors and bull riding analysts could only hold their breath and watch, as the 13-year veteran began to pick up speed every step of the way.
With every uneven patch of dirt inside Rimrock Auto Arena, Lee sidestepped and dashed his way around to the thrill of fans in attendance.
“Oh, you know a lot of people were telling me, ‘Don’t do that,’ but that’s what I felt like doing,” Lee said this weekend during the Denver Rodeo All-Star. “When I take that lap, I am running for my fans and Christ and showing people that the love of God is in me and that’s why I’m here.”
There was no hesitation that Lee was going to take a lap after coveringTahonta’s Magic for 85 points, despite spraining his right ankle – the same leg in which he had meniscus surgery in late March – while getting hung up on Night Rider 6.
It was the 30-year-old’s first ride in eight attempts, and the last thing he needed was to stumble and aggravate his already damaged knees.
However, Lee knows his fans expect his tradition of taking that lap.
“Without the fans, we wouldn’t be here,” Lee said. “My fans are good to me. On Facebook, they support me and I really appreciate them.”
The solution was simple: just be careful.
“I just paid attention to where my feet were,” Lee said. “A lot of times these arenas are unlevel and they have holes in them from horses and bulls. When you don’t have that stuff (meniscus) left in your knee, you have to make sure that your ankle doesn’t twist and your knee will pop. Me and my knees have been hurt for a while. I am pretty careful where I put my feet now.”
Still, it may not have been the wisest of decisions for the man ranked fourth in the world standings. A decade after winning his only world title, Lee has kept his name in the championship hunt despite missing two BFTS events following his surgery.
Ben Jones is not surprised to see Lee continuously grabbing his bull rope and climbing into the chutes every year on the BFTS as the injuries continue to pile up.
“Mike is just that strong mentally,” Jones said. “You can tell Mike he couldn’t fight a tank, and, I tell you, he is going to – and win. He is just that strong mentally.”
The Decatur, Texas, resident had torn his right meniscus during a Texas practice pen session following the PBR Passport Invitational in Tacoma, Wash. He explained that it is not uncommon for neighbors and friends of his to ask him to climb aboard a bull during the week so that they can videotape their animals and send footage to PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert with the aspirations of getting them in the PBR.
He very rarely hesitates, regardless of the risks that come with climbing board some unknown bulls.
“Most of the time, I’ll do it and if they have a real rank bull, I’ll get on them,” Lee said. “But some of the bulls aren’t very good in the chute and they run down the gate; and what he did was he ran the gate, turned my foot backwards and tore my meniscus.”
The meniscus was stuck in his joints, so he underwent a procedure to remove the meniscus completely. The surgery kept him out for two weeks before he returned to action in Nampa, Idaho. He went 0-for-4 at the DeWALT Guaranteed Tough Invitational before going 1-for-3 in Billings.
Lee was bucked off by Kit Kat in 2.3 seconds during this past weekend’s Touring Pro Division bull riding event at the Rodeo All-Star, but he says his knee is feeling a lot better since the surgery. So too is the minor ankle injury.
“It just went numb on me and I couldn’t stand on (the ankle) for a minute,” Lee said. “I figured I would get out of the arena faster if they took me out. It would have taken me a long time to limp out.”
The summer break is less than a month away and Lee plans on trying to continue to strengthen his legs in hopes of getting healthier for the stretch run. The world-title contender agrees that health will be the No. 1 factor in the World Championship race with injuries already hindering title contenders J.B. Mauney and Robson Palermo.
“That’s the way it is every year,” Lee said. “I am going to work hard at it. I need to get back in the gym and there are some guys there that want to help me get my leg strong.”
Guilherme Marchi, who has been the No. 1-ranked rider for the majority of the season, has been relatively one of the healthiest riders ranked in the Top 5 this year.
“That is part of the sport and that’s why it is so tough,” the 2008 World Champion said. “We need to be tough, too.”
Mike Lee takes off in a victory lap after riding Meat Hook for 90.25 points during the championship round of the 2013 Battle at the Beau in Biloxi, Miss.
Lee admires the toughness of Marchi, Joao Ricardo Vieira, Fabiano Vieiraand Silvano Alves. It is part of the reason why those four Brazilians are ranked in the Top 5 of the world standings.
Marchi, Joao Ricardo Vieira and Alves have competed in all 15 BFTS events this year, while Marchi (27), Fabiano Vieira (26) and Alves (25) have ridden the most bulls on tour.
“I love those guys, and they are brothers to me,” Lee said. “The Brazilians are tough people and they take care of each other. They are good brothers to each other and I respect them.”
Lee enters this weekend’s BFTS event in Des Moines, Iowa, with a 47.62 riding percentage (20-for-42) and has posted five Top-5 finishes and seven Top-10 finishes – both surpassing his 2013 season totals (two and six) when he finished 10th in the world standings.
Along with health, Lee said there are three additional things that are key to winning a world title: peace of mind, wildness at heart and confidence in your abilities.
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He doesn’t hold much credence to the fact that he won the world title 10 years ago. Instead, Lee is trying to focus on enjoying the present and letting the future take care of itself when it arrives.
“I don’t live in the past, number one,” he said. “I don’t live in the future. I am living right here, right now. I really try to keep things simple. I am a simple person.
“Just live and enjoy. Enjoy that smell of that animal and the smell of that rosin burn when you can get in there. When they open that gate – that’s enjoyment, that’s freedom. It’s just you and the bull. It’s awesome to me.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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