Trace Brown is thrown off a bull named Easy Rider at the Professional Bull Riders' Bangor Classic at the Cross Insurance Center on Friday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Thousands flocked to the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Friday for the first time in 16 months to see some of the world’s top bull riders compete in the menacing rodeo sport.

Day one of the three-day Professional Bull Riders’ Bangor Classic was the first of several events that will come to the Cross Insurance Center this year after the arena closed for 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unlikely the reopening would be possible without rising vaccination rates, which led Gov. Janet Mills to lift capacity requirements for venues.

It was a jubilant, party-like atmosphere inside the venue, with spectators downing beers as they cheered on the riders and sometimes the bulls. Many came dressed in cowboy gear, including cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans, chaps and fringe jackets. All seemed happy to be in a crowd again after more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions.

Patrons line up for the Professional Bull Riders’ Bangor Classic at the Cross Insurance Center on Friday. It was the first event at the Cross Insurance Center since March 2020, when the effects of COVID-19 shut the popular spot down for events. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Few attendees wore masks for the indoor event. The Cross Insurance Center had asked, but not mandated, that unvaccinated people wear a face covering.

Bangor’s rural suburbs were heavily represented as people traveled from other communities to attend the event. Anthony Wardwell, 20, and MaKenzie Smith, 21, both of Bucksport, were one of many couples who came together. Having attended the 2019 event, they knew how exciting it was and wanted to experience the same atmosphere again, Smith said.

“It’s something new for the area,” Smith said. “It’s nothing like we see in Bangor normally.”

Sally Colley drove four hours from Templeton, Massachusetts, to watch the riders with her sister, Shirley Bickford of Liberty. Colley’s love of cowboys was what made her want to make the trek, while her sister enjoys the contest.

“I like the competition between the animal and the man,” Bickford said.

Brian Harnish, 38, of Orono, said it felt great to be at a large gathering again after more than a year of lockdown and to be able to do it without wearing a mask. Harnish, a racing fan, had never been to a bull riding event before but was drawn to Friday’s event by the danger factor.

“I like nice, safe danger,” Harnish said.

Clockwise from left: A bull that ran across the floor after a ride stares at the crowd as they snap photos at the Professional Bull Riders’ Bangor Classic at the Cross Insurance Center on Friday; Bryan Titman rides a bull named Trinity; and Vinicius Rainer rides a bull named Jump Street. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

One by one, each of the riders attempted to hold on to rowdy bulls who tried to throw them off. Some lasted only seconds, while other riders were far more successful. Kyle Jones of Troy, Michigan, led the day with 79 points out of 100. Seth White of Statesville, North Carolina, was second with 72 points.

Most of the 40 bull riders who participated in the event came from various parts of the United States, while a dozen were originally from Brazil, home to many of the sport’s most successful riders. Texas had the most extensive representation of any U.S. state with five riders, while four were from Virginia. Wesley Goncalves, 44, from Rockland, Massachusetts, was the only rider from New England.

Each were competing for money and points that could earn him a chance to compete in the sport’s top series, the Unleash the Beast Tour, and in the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas Nov. 3-7.

Some of the riders took the chance to interact with the greater Bangor community earlier in the day. The Cross Insurance Center and Bangor Parks and Recreation department brought riders Kyle Jones and Keith Hall, both of Missouri, to read at a summer camp at Fairmount School. The reading celebrated the National Day of the Cowboy, a day honoring cowboy culture.

Bull riding has been referred to as “the most dangerous 8 seconds in sports.” One frightening moment on Friday came when Brazilian rider Ben Morales was injured after falling off his bull. Morales, who was conscious but unable to get up, was taken off the field by medical personnel.

Professional Bull Riders Keith Hall (right) and Kyle Jones read to a large group of children in Bangor’s Summer Day Camp Programs at the Fairmount School on Friday. PBR, Cross Insurance Center and Bangor Parks and Rec brought Read Em Cowboy to Bangor in Honor of National Day of the Cowboy, a day for honoring cowboy culture and preserving their pioneer heritage. After being closed since March 2020 due to COVID-19, Cross Insurance Center is re-opening Friday evening with 40 of the top bull riders in the world to compete in the PBR Bangor Classic. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

There was a great deal of crowd interaction. One young woman who had been dancing was encouraged to move along to “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor and other songs on the stadium’s screen as the crowd cheered her on. Another man was picked from the crowd to throw three balls through a hoop to win whiskey.

The crowd for the event was significant, though the stadium was not completely packed. The event has long been popular in Bangor, where it has sold out five out of six times, a Professional Bull Riders spokesperson said Friday.