Angelo Wash poses outside with his bike

Riding for the Next Generation

Photo: Jonathan Mehring

After finding mountain biking in his late 20s, Angelo Wash is gaining traction as a downhill athlete, but his vision for the Richmond, Va., bike community is bigger than making the podium.

By Joe Potoczak

Angelo “Wash” Washington is climbing his way up the mountain biking ranks doing what he does best: racing downhill. And along the way, he’s helping uplift a promising new riding community where his unlikely journey began. At 36, Wash didn’t find his way to the saddle until late 2014. That relatively late start in an action sport that’s oriented to youth hasn’t stopped him from the pursuit of a competitive career going fast and steep on two wheels. His first season racing was a year later, and by 2019 he leveled up to Category 1 amateur, gained sponsors like Commencal bikes, and is now gearing up for another season of downhill racing in the Southeast.

Wash’s momentum builds off a unique path. He grew up in Creighton Court, one of the most poverty-stricken communities in Richmond, Virginia. Mountain biking was not on the radar. He picked up a baseball in high school, committed to the sport, and—along a coursing journey that included the start of a family plus a career in architectural design—played through amateur success on the Richmond Blue Jays. After suffering an injury in 2014, he started drifting away from the sport he dedicated more than a decade to. A friend suggested mountain biking. Wash found a $300 bike on Craigslist and hit Richmond’s rolling singletrack. He’s been riding ever since.

Wash spends the summers heading to the mountains, racing at Snowshoe in West Virginia, and Massanutten Bike Park an hour northwest of Charlottesville. But his goals for riding go beyond his own accolades. He’s started a coaching practice in Richmond called Keep It Sketch. The father of (soon-to-be) four children also mentors youth riding teams, like the Richmond Cycling Corps, and connects with groups like Minority Mountain Bikers. Wash is out to go fast, but his broader goal is to bring out the best in the next generation of riders. 

Angelo Wash rides his bike downhill Photo: Jonathan Mehring

PUBLIC LANDS: You stepped away from the baseball diamond and climbed on the bike saddle. What is it about mountain biking that sparked the transition?ANGELO WASHINGTON: It’s all you. If you mess up, you have nobody else to blame but yourself. Sometimes mistakes happen, but it’s one of those things that you build upon. My season last year, that was me. Being able to figure out what’s bothering me or what’s messing me up mentally: That’s the process about mountain biking that I like.

You’ve been coaching now as well. What drew you to that aspect of the sport?To be honest, when I first started, I really didn’t want to coach. I just wanted to race. It just became one of those things where everybody in the city was like, ‘Hey man, you should start coaching.’ And about two and a half years ago my girlfriend said, ‘Maybe you should try coaching out.’ I put a post up on Facebook saying, ‘Hey, let’s go learn how to do bunny hops and stuff at Pocahontas Park’—eighty people signed up.

After doing my first couple of lessons and seeing the gratification on people’s faces was when I realized, ‘Oh, that was fun.’ To see those aha moments: That’s what really drives me now, to see people get it.

You’re an athlete working with youth riders, building your coaching practice, and have also gotten involved with different riding groups. Do you feel you have a role within the mountain biking community?
I would say the biggest thing for me is representation. In 2014, I had no idea mountain biking existed. I had no idea Richmond had mountain bike trails. 2016 was my first year racing, and the group I used to ride with took me to Snowshoe for the very first time. We were up there Memorial Day weekend for four days, I didn't see one other Black person riding bikes. So I was kind of like, Oh, wow, I’m the only one here, but it’s cool. Everybody treated me like family, but it was just a culture shock. Besides Elliot Jackson, there are no other African Americans in pro downhill racing.

Another time I remember at Massanutten. I’m pushing up the hill with my teammates, getting ready to do some practice runs. And this group, one is an older Black woman, they walk past us, and she goes ‘Baby, we don’t do this.’ And she's rubbing the top of her head. So I’m looking at her like, What do you mean? And she’s like, ‘Baby, we don't do this.’ The guys, they saw it, and I just walked off and we got up to the top and we rode. 

Something about it rubbed me some kind of way. Like, What do you mean? I’m not supposed to be able to ride a bike? I’m hanging out with my friends, why can’t I do this? I was 29 years old at that point. It’s been one of my things now to be that representation in my community. So they can see, there’s all sorts of things out here they can do.

Absolutely. So, that really puts the emphasis on exposure then?
Growing up in the inner city, we get so lost on the big three sports: basketball, football, and baseball. In the city, all the baseball fields got [overgrown] grass running through the infields now. For mountain biking, if they don’t see it, how would they know? Because I didn’t know.

I want them to see me as much as they can. When we have these events, I do little bike expos and I got this backdrop with me in a race kit. Kids will come up to my table to see all these stickers. When they see the picture of me they go, ‘Is that you?’ And when I say yeah, they’ll be like, ‘What?’ So just being able to share it and to show, Yeah and you can do this too.

We see these programs like the Richmond Cycling Corps that feature high school athletes from the city, racing in scholastic mountain bike events around the region. Do you believe finding the trails around Richmond has an impact, and can change the trajectory of what they (and you) expect in life?
Yes. Mountain biking opens you up to the outdoors. You know, I played baseball, and so we always went to Baltimore, New York, and Atlanta. Played at the same stadiums. We didn’t travel anywhere else.

I remember the first time my daughter saw the mountains. We were driving to Snowshoe for an event and you could see a couple of ridge lines a ways back and how hazy it looked. She asked, ‘Dad, is that water?’ I was like, ‘No, baby, those are mountains back there.’ She was like, ‘What?’ Now every race I go to, they go with me. They experience the race weekend, they experience the mountains, they meet new friends, they go play, and they go explore. I’m going there to ride a bike. We’ve been to so many places just from mountain biking.

Why is it so important to open up kids to the outdoors, and what lasting effect does this have for kids growing up in Richmond’s city communities?
To educate and empower the lives of youth riders by constantly pivoting toward relevant outreach. Every youth is empowered to be part of a thriving and engaged cycling community. I share the beauty and freedom of cycling as a gateway to physical activity, relationship building, and empowerment.

What advice do you have for people looking to get into biking?
Don’t get discouraged by bike prices. There are plenty of ways to find a bike as a beginner. Once you have a bike, the first thing I would do is join a Facebook group. I’m pretty sure every city now has a mountain biking group that does group rides, and they should have a beginner and an intermediate ride. There is so much knowledge in a group ride.

Do you have a personal goal in mountain biking, do you see yourself becoming a full-time professional rider?
My long-term goal will be to own my own team and produce and develop [ICU] World Cup-status racers. In five years I should have my first rider that’s ready to submit for the world cup or junior elite.

You know, I’m 36. I’ve got a whole family. I can’t put in the time that I need on a bike to become a world cup racer. But I can help a kid get there.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.