A Dirty Physics Lesson

For their size and substance, soccer cones are extremely overpriced. But for what they can provide—regained faith and superior cornering abilities—they’re priceless.

A Dirty Physics Lesson Walmart, Practice Laps and Soccer Cone Salvation

If there’s one thing I never thought we’d be burnt out on, it was mountain biking. Each other? Most likely. Biking, however, was the reason behind this whole venture in the first place.

It was the cones that saved us.

Last spring, Mark Taylor, Will Cadham and myself quit our jobs, packed into a van, and started a three-month tour of North America’s premier riding destinations. Aside from the complete lack of personal space, the trip was mostly a success, traveling from Whistler Bike Park to Crested Butte, CO and back to Nelson, BC, living each day with no purpose other than to ride bikes.

But it turns out that living the dream can get boring.

The realization hits while climbing a fire road outside of Pemberton, BC. We are worn down after months of riding, sleeping in the van, and nonstop travel. The trail ahead had been described as “still so mossy it is hard to follow,” the type for which we’d quit our jobs. But the entirety of our attention is devoted looking at our stems.

This lack of motivation wouldn’t be a problem if we could just go back to normal life, but we still have a full race season and some of the year’s best riding ahead. After our third (unnecessary) break, Will loudly sighs and says, “All I want to do is learn to turn like Luke Strobel.”

Mark and I nod in agreement, although we leave the conversation at that. The rest of the climb is silent, as we all ponder Strobel’s unique talent. The World Cup-racer-turned-web-celebrity doesn’t ride through corners; he rides straight at them, turning at the last second on what seems like an inch of space and two distinct sets of side knobs. It both defies common sense and provides a beautiful, dirty physics lesson.

A week after that monotonous climb, we cross the Canadian border heading south toward Bellingham, WA for the Cascadia Dirt Cup, a locally famous Enduro in the thick forests that surround the city. Our enthusiasm has reached such precipitous lows that we’ve barely committed to practicing, much less racing.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say. Will Cadham laying down a respectable time on the makeshift course and his best Luke Strobel impersonation.

We have one stop to make. Along with Trader Joe’s, one of many U.S. novelties for Canadians is Walmart, an awe-inspiring source of $5 flannel shirts and 10-pound bags of gummy worms. We wander the aisles until we reach the sporting goods department. Then Will’s Strobel ambitions suddenly flash through my mind, and I have an epiphany.

Ten minutes later, I return to the van carrying a pack of soccer cones. They are cheap, flimsy and shockingly neon. They are perfect.   

Over breakfast and coffee the next morning, we binge on Strobel videos, analyzing his technique: body completely still until the last possible moment, when he instantaneously and lazily weights and unweights the bike before snapping it around. Minds full of YouTube tutorials, we drive to the start zone, a gravel parking lot high up in the local mountains, where we set up the cones and start taking runs.

Within minutes, deep ruts are arcing around the three-inch-tall neon markers. Practice laps go by the wayside as our antics become a three-person competition. With each run our times are quicker, and our form more refined. Fellow racers soon mix into the lineup, trying the mini-courses between shuttling actual practice runs (what are those?).

We start a leaderboard to record the standings, and as practice winds down a crowd gathers. Racers, volunteers, spouses and parents heckle from their tailgates, drinking beer and cheering the participants along. One-on-one duels break out, pushing the fastest lap times even lower. Strangers of all abilities go for personal records, ripping between the cones with stupid grins plastered on their faces.

Eventually, the parking lot empties as people go home to fill their bellies and rest their legs. We, however, are finally ready to take our first practice lap down the actual racecourse. It’s dusty, full of holes and generally blown out, but we find ourselves galloping ahead, slapping corners and hooting and hollering like we haven’t in weeks. Tomorrow we’ll race, but right now we revel in our soccer cone salvation, pretending with each turn that we look just like Luke.