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Channel your inner cowboy in a mechanical bull fitness class at Travaasa Austin

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Brutus looks vicious, but he's no Widow Maker.

Yes, the rubber-horned mechanical bull tossed 38-year-old Marlene Chen to the turf in less than a minute. But Chen landed softly on an air-filled cushion, and her abs got a great workout in the process.

Travaasa Austin, a resort west of Austin near Lake Travis, bills its mechanical bull fitness class as a way to hone fitness and flexibility. I'm just hoping to make it out unscathed.

So far, I've survived the 10-minute warmup session, led by instructor Jillian Lambert. Chen, another student and I bounced around the room on exercise balls, whirling our arms overhead as if we were about to lasso stray calves.

Then it was on to the Real McCoy.

Brutus, which takes up a corner of the resort's fitness center between the treadmill and elliptical machines, is covered in genuine brown-and-white cowhide. A built-in leather strap is conveniently situated on his shoulder.

Before we mounted up, though, Lambert gave us some tips. Use your legs to grip the sides of the barrel-size torso, she told us, and flex your core muscles while Brutus bucks and spins.

"Just don't pull his tail. He doesn't like that," Lambert said.

The class is not recommended for people with neck or back issues. It is part of the resort's "experiential hotel concept" that aims to give guests a taste of the local culture during their visit. In addition to riding mechanical bulls, visitors to Travaasa Austin can scramble through the Prickly Pear Challenge Course or take a two-step dance class. There's also the usual array of yoga, core fitness and swim classes.

Form counts, of course, so Lambert showed us how to raise one arm in the air to help maintain balance. The key, she said, is focusing on a spot on the back of the bull's head.

"He goes forward, you go back. He goes back, you go forward," Lambert said, tipping her black bad-guy hat back with the flick of a finger.

Then she flipped a switch and a red, inflated corral rose around Brutus. She cranked up the volume on the sound system, triggering Garth Brooks' country classic "Friends In Low Places."

Chen gamely hopped onto the bull, and Lambert promised to start the machine off slowly. She reminded us of the awesome workout our upper and lower abdominal muscles, obliques, back and thighs were about to get.

Chen squealed pretty convincingly as Brutus started a slow-motion buck and spin. Then she gracefully slid off his side, flopping onto her back in the marshmallow-soft corral.

The rest of us hooted and hollered as she climbed aboard again, repeating the same sequence three or four times before her face turned red and damp with sweat.

"It's fun. It's a little counterintuitive," Chen told me as she moseyed out of the corral. "Remember to grip with your legs."

Now it's my turn and my legs are quaking a wee bit. Still, I'm all about public humility, so I'm ready to mount up for another ride on the merry-go-round of life.

Lambert hands me a straw cowboy hat, Johnny Cash wails in the background and I channel Ty Murray as I spring onto Brutus' back.

Thirty-one years after "Urban Cowboy," I'm about to get a shot at the electric-powered beast made famous by John Travolta.

Lambert turns up the dial and Brutus starts his slow dance. I concentrate on that spot atop his head, and imagine there's Velcro sticking my legs to his side.

One rotation and I stay on.

Brutus dips and spins again and I'm still feeling pretty good.

Eight seconds later and I expect to hear a rodeo buzzer. Yeehaw!

Lambert twists the dial a little higher and Brutus twirls like a ballerina, bowing and rearing faster and faster. Impossibly, I stay aboard.

Two minutes later, though, I feel myself coming unglued. Suddenly I'm slapped to the ground, huffing and puffing.

"It's fun, isn't it?" Chen says.

Mechanical bull riding is surprisingly challenging — and kind of addictive. I wonder to myself how much it would cost to install a mechanical bull at my home.

Lambert cheers us on as we take turns riding Brutus. A few months ago, she tells us, several Cleveland Browns football players took the class. None of them could stay on more than a few seconds.

"Women usually do better. They have wider hips and a lower center of gravity," Lambert says.

Here's to wide hips.

I'm hooked. I'm beginning to understand why old-time cowboys always look so fit. My abs are screaming, too.

And I've got just one question: Where's that rodeo buckle I'm pretty sure I just won?

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

If you go

Travaasa Austin is at 13500 RM 2769. The class is available to overnight guests or as part of a day package to the resort. Rates start at $225 for a one-night stay or $175 per night for a three-night stay. For information, call 258-7243 or go to travaasa.com/austin.