The Waterman

The Waterman

I came up for air and as I spit the brine from my mouth my guide said, “If you like that, follow me.” The “that” to which he referred was a moray eel. We were skin diving at a tiny volcanic crater called Molikini off the coast of Maui and he had spotted a shark circling nearby. Follow him I did, with a borrowed Nikonos underwater camera, and I managed to snap one frame of a blue shark before it lazily swam away.

He did all the standard guide-y things of pointing out the various fish and crustaceans, but he also pointed out the octopus I would have missed and explained how the volcano’s sunken caldera had given hundreds of species a home out of the way of strong currents.

On our catamaran ride back to Maui he and I shared a beer at the back of the boat, watching the world zoom away from us, the way time really unfolds to our eyes. He’d made his life as a fisherman, had been a competitive surfer and raced outriggers. Guiding vacationing haoles to a beautiful dive spot was as easy as it was rewarding. There was none of the competitiveness of taking tourists deep sea fishing; inevitably someone went home with the biggest fish, and someone else was rethinking their tip.

What I marveled at was how he didn’t just know the sea life in his slice of the world. He knew all the sea life of the Hawaiian islands. He knew the currents, the trade winds, could conduct himself in a boat, on a surfboard or below the waves as a diver. His skill set was as complete as was possible.

I’ve been thinking about that encounter for the last few months. For many years I devoted myself only to a select few facets of cycling. More recently, I’ve discovered within me a desire to experience a greater range of what cycling has to offer. I’ve been riding a 20-inch bike at our local pump track. I’ve been doing a lot more mountain biking.

On a recent afternoon, once I’d finished washing bikes and lubing chains, I spent half an hour working on my no-hand track stand. Why? Like all exploits, at some level I was just curious.

Mountain biking has led to an education in plants with no commercial value. Sure, I’m wary of poison oak, and I look forward to running across huckleberries, but without mountain biking, I’d never have encountered nutmeg trees or ceanothus, which I learned I can use to clean off poison oak oil.

Perhaps the most surprising turn has been my desire to volunteer more. I’ve given dozens of hours to our pump track, helping set tarps during the winter rains, tamping wet dirt and then whacking weeds as they encroached the track.

Last year I joined a cycling club that requires members to give back. That comes in the form of trail work. I’ve been joining other members deep into the forest in western Sonoma County to work on the construction of a new trail. On my first excursion I was given an education into the proper use of a rogue hoe and then six hours in which to perfect my technique. I made a victim of pine duff.

I keep thinking about that guide and what it means to know your subject. It’s not enough for me to know road bikes inside and out. It’s not enough for me to know how to ride them, race them, work on them, even sell them. It’s not enough to share that knowledge with another person. I want to know as broad a swath of cycling as possible. It’s unlikely I’ll ever know suspension the way I know road bike geometry, but I’ll be alive a while yet.

From playing on a pump track to helping cut trail, I’m more immersed in cycling than ever before. I look at the landscape differently, and recognize opportunities differently. Yet it still comes down to the same thing, making the most of a day so that when my head hits the pillow I feel rewarded by my efforts, and increasingly, that payoff feels shared. I hope to give my sons cycling in a lifetime way, and perhaps if I can give them a broad enough assortment, they’ll find something they can call their own.


Image: Zach Dischner

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  1. Neil Winkelmann

    3 pieces to my riding and identity as a cyclist. I’m a roadie with a club and all that goes with it. A commuter in all weathers, every day, and now with a couple of events in my palmares, I can also call myself a gravel guy (I guess). Mountain biking has never really clicked with me. For true wilderness experiences, I prefer to walk, and technical terrain just scares me, rather than challenges me.

  2. Pat O'Brien

    Bikes, all of them, are fun and interesting. On a recent ride in Albuquerque with fellow Mad Dog Media fanciers, we rode the Paseo del Bosque path along the Rio Grande on a Saturday. Hundreds of bike of all types from home made low riders to high end Pinarellos and everything in between. It was a hoot.

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