It took Jeff Bertus 14 hours to drive from his small town in South Dakota to reach the Friday night rodeo in San Angelo, Texas, fueled by the young cowboy's hope of seeing eight seconds of action -- tops.
The baby-faced American aged 29 is a bull rider, one of the stars that rodeo crowds wait for all evening and who are often the reason people buy tickets.
Their job is to try and stay on the back of an out-of-control bull for eight seconds.
Once flung to the ground, they have to avoid being gored or crushed by the powerful animals. Only the boldest (and luckiest) earn a reward of $2,000 to $7,000 as best rider of the evening.
But despite the high stakes, the San Angelo rodeo is a real relief for the riders: after a year in which the coronavirus pandemic closed down much of the rodeo circuit, the event is a sign that things are starting to go back to normal.
Bertus is excited to finally get back in the saddle, where he's been comfortable since childhood.
"I've been doing it for quite a while, I guess," he says, smiling, as he uses resin to coat the rope that will go around the bull's stomach, and that he'll cling to while getting bucked around.
"Since I was little and started out with calves and slowly kept on, getting on more and more."
In winter, riders generally participate in a few competitions over the weekend. But during the summer, the high season, there are about five rodeos each week.
- Masks recommended but rare -
Then begins a busy, but also expensive time for them: "You can make a lot of money riding bulls in rodeos, but you also spend a lot of money like on fuel, plane tickets, hotels... all that stuff," says Ty Wainwright, a 22-year-old from Louisiana. "Just going up and down the road."
At San Angelo, the evenings are packed with patriotic tributes and Wild West-style competitions -- the national anthem, cowgirl races, Texas flag parades, lasso contests...
The rodeo, which takes place in the heart of ranching country, draws 5,000 spectators per night over three weekends.
Mask wearing is recommended but rarely followed. Fifteen days after the rodeo opened in early April, health authorities said that infection rates have stayed low in the county, with only three new cases out of 120,000 residents.
The pandemic has not disrupted this event at all, unlike so many others: the 2020 rodeo was scheduled a few weeks before the crisis broke out in the United States, and the 2021 rodeo was set a month after the state reopening announced by Governor Greg Abbott in early March.
- 'Full swing' -
Other rodeos were not so lucky. The biggest one in Texas, in Houston, was canceled in early February for the second year in a row.
"There's a couple of months when there wasn't any rodeos," says Jake Orman, a 29-year-old professional cowboy and a specialist in team calf roping.
There were a few during the summer, but "we had to drive like ten hours to every rodeo, and they didn't pay very good," he said. "But at least they were having rodeos."
Bull rider Wyatt Gregg, who coaches a Texas university rodeo team with his wife, says he stayed home doing "cowboy work, mainly.
"Stuck at the house, so (I got) a lot of fence work done and rebuilding, and working with cattle and horses at home for the most part," says the 31-year-old.
"But now it's set up, back in the full swing, summer round is coming up and (I) decided to be at it all summer long."
The rodeo gets off to a good start for Gregg because, unlike Bertus and Wainwright, he manages to stay on his bull for eight seconds. Although he is well ranked, he is eventually surpassed by a high-schooler, Jace Trosclair, who managed to make the most of the past odd year.
Thanks to virtual schooling, Trosclair was able to work and save enough to leave his town of Chauvin, Louisiana, and embark on the great American rodeo tour. This was his first time competing in such a major event.