The first time I went mountain biking in Richmond, I didn't own a mountain bike.
I got into bikes when I was studying philosophy as an undergrad at William and Mary. Bikes were everywhere - ridden to class, chained to racks, stolen, abandoned. Every summer, campus police removed huge numbers of bikes from the racks and later auctioned them off.
At this time I was working on my own bikes as a necessity and reading Sheldon Brown religiously. For the uninitiated, the belated Sheldon Brown was a champion of year-round utility riding, DIY mechanics, fixed gear riding, and Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hubs, among other things.
During the fall I began to notice a rickety 3-speed parked outside the Education building. It looked rusty and crusty but was obviously ridden. The faded logo on the downtube said "CENTAUR". It was never locked. One day it ceased appearing. I didn't see it all winter.
In the spring, as people began to emerge from dorm rooms and sun themselves in the Sunken Gardens, I saw it again: CENTAUR. This time, the bike showed up in strange places, obviously joyridden and ditched over and over, parts gradually broken or removed. Such is the fate of unlocked bikes on a college campus.
The bike came into my possession that summer after classes had ended.
I was walking on the brick pathways of the old campus and found the Centaur abandoned, this time apparently for good. It was upside down, thrown against the trunk of an old tree. I hid the bike in the bushes and came back for it later.
I brought the bike to my friends' house across from campus to assess the damage. Bent frame. Bent wheels. Bent handlebars. Rusted cables. The whole thing was in awful shape. I got to work.
I straightened the frame (best I could) on a sidewalk in Williamsburg down the street from Paul's Deli, pounding the chainstays with scrap wood and a very large hammer. I trued the wheels, despite several of the spoke nipples being completely seized. I cleaned up and lubricated the internally geared hub, and I got it to shift into all 3 gears. I installed some truly terrible Kenda gumwall tires, some nice Oury grips, a cast-off Bianchi saddle, and a basket. From behind, you could see that the two wheels didn't exactly line up. The bike was impossible to ride no-handed. I called him Oscar the Trash Bike.
In 2008 I caught the mountain bike bug. I heard about some trails in Richmond: North Bank, Buttermilk, and some unnamed paths, many of which have since transformed or disappeared. At the time, I owned a fixed-gear-converted Fuji, Oscar the Trash Bike, and no helmet. No problem. From my house in Byrd Park, I coasted down Meadow towards North Bank Trail with butterflies in my stomach.
My first time mountain biking (at least as an adult) was on North Bank Trail on Oscar the Trash Bike, a barely-hanging-on Centaur 3-speed commuter made by Raleigh in Nottingham, England in the mid 20th century and resurrected on a hot, humid sidewalk in Williamsburg, Virginia in the early 21st. I learned to rely on the front brake (a Dia-Compe caliper squeezing a wavy steel rim) and get my weight behind the saddle as I picked my way down sketchy, loose descents. My feet slipped off the rubber block pedals as they flexed and twisted. The slick 26x1 3/8 tires slipped and slid, but they did better than I expected. When I could get the bike to shift, I found the low gear was just low enough to make it up some of the climbs. I hit my unhelmeted head on low-hanging branches and gave myself a headache.
I had a blast.
Eventually I acquired a helmet, and I bought a yellow MT Racing mountain bike straight out of the '80s from Fan Tastic Thrift. The MT Racing was my first trail rig. I've had modern mountain bikes since then, but it's just not my style.
As for Oscar, he eventually went to a friend in need of a bike. He lived on a porch for years, cruising to bars and transporting 6 packs. His current whereabouts are unknown.