Riding the Rails : Bicyclists Track Down Adventure : Oregon: The equipment has been around since the Civil War, but railroads’ opposition, and danger, keep the crowds down. After all, says one devotee who hopes to organize group tours, ‘One train can ruin your whole day.’
Michael Rohde can talk for hours about why the odd sport of rail biking is poised to catch on big. Asked why it hasn’t yet, he sums things up in seven words: “One train can ruin your whole day.”
Rail bikes--bicycles fitted with guide wheels and outriggers to run on railroad tracks--have been around since the Civil War.
The 1908 catalogue of Sears, Roebuck & Co. offered a $5.45 device for attaching bikes to rails.
In recent decades, however, riding the rails has been a sneaky and largely illegal pursuit. Big railroad companies, loathe to share their working rails with easily squished bicyclists, regard rail bikers as trespassers. Even abandoned tracks almost always are off-limits due to liability concerns.
Rohde wants to change rail biking’s outlaw status. He sees riding the rails as a healthy, ecologically friendly way to get people into scenic country. He thinks he might make some money off it too.
Which explains why, one recent autumn weekend, there were seven middle-age guys and a fleet of strange-looking bicycles at a railroad crossing high in Oregon’s Coast Range.
Rohde had accomplished what few other rail bikers have: He got permission.
The Port of Tillamook Bay agreed to let him test the potential of its 83-mile freight line for running rail-bike tours.
Among Rohde’s guests was Dr. Richard Smart, one of the biggest names in the small world of rail biking. Smart, a dentist from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, guesses there are 200 rail bikers in the United States, many of them riding cycles they built from his patented design.
For the Tillamook ride, Smart brought an extra bike for a reporter and, after some tedious tinkering, the group set off.
The route followed 15 miles of twisting mountain railroad, nearly all downhill, along the Salmonberry River.
It soon was clear why rail biking persists despite official discouragement: It’s a blast.
This ride featured white-knuckled crossings of narrow trestles, followed by black plunges through tunnels where a novice’s precarious sense of balance quickly derailed, along with the bike.
The bikes rolled for miles past a green blur of tangled forest, quiet pools and clamorous cascades. Like many rural tracks, the Tillamook railroad traverses country inaccessible by road.
“I like to go places where nobody else can,” Smart said, turning backward to address the biker behind him as his own bike steered itself down the rails.
At 51, Smart is lean and muscled from 20,000 miles of rail-riding over the last 20 years. Cruising dormant tracks across the West, he has startled rattlesnakes in Nevada, pedaled past surprised bears in British Columbia, and rolled through herds of cattle in Montana.
Even absent the locomotives of active lines, abandoned track poses hazards. Rocks, branches and dried-up cow patties strewn on rails can cause wrecks.
Smart dwells instead on the pleasures, such as the stretch of Montana track where tall grass hid the rails. He felt as if he was gliding through the world on a sheet of glass.
“The attraction for me is the feeling of moving along on a ribbon of steel, not knowing what’s coming around the next corner,” Smart said. “To me, adventure is as much a need as food and water.”
Rohde, 37, is neither the adventurer nor the athlete that Smart is.
Until last year he avoided bicycles of all sorts, wary of them since age 6, when he fell from the basket of his brother’s bicycle and got run over.
Last year, the first time he tried one of Smart’s rail bikes, he toppled over and split his lip on a boulder. But he got back on, built his own bike soon after, and now is one of the sport’s biggest boosters.
Rohde works in Olympia, Wash., as an analyst for the state Department of Labor and Industries. On his own time, he’s an inventor and craftsman with a social conscience, forever pursuing offbeat ideas.
He built pedal-powered lathes so Ecuadorean villagers could turn tagua nuts into buttons instead of logging the rain forest. He never heard back from them.
He started carving jewelry from pig tusks, hoping to slow the killing of endangered walruses and elephants for ivory. It didn’t pan out.
Rohde believes rail biking is his most promising project yet.
He thinks the rail-bike tour business could help developing countries exploit the popularity of ecotourism by opening up under-used and abandoned rail lines.
He has researched tracks from Russia’s Sakhalin Island to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. These days, he’s big on Portugal, where he dreams of running rail-bike tours and living in a converted rail station with his wife, Ann Storey.
Rohde hooked up with the Port of Tillamook Bay almost by accident.
He was seeking track on which to test his new tandem rail bike; to his surprise, port officials agreed. What’s more, they were interested in the commercial possibilities.
“We’re almost solely dependent on the timber market, and you don’t have to be a genius to know that’s not good these days,” said Linda Smith, chief clerk for the port’s railroad division.
Like rail officials everywhere, Smith worries about unauthorized use of the rails. Any rail bikes on the line would have to be with guided tours under close watch of railroad dispatchers, she said.
“As long as we can keep it safe, we feel we have an asset here that should be shared,” Smith said.
Such talk encourages Rohde and Smart, who envision rail biking as a recreation fit for the masses. To be sure, there are places to ride. Half the nation’s rail network, nearly 300,000 miles at its peak 70 years ago, has dropped from use.
But obstacles remain.
Abandoned rails often are ripped up for scrap, and rail bikers are at cross purposes with environmental groups who want to turn old rail corridors into walking paths.
Rail bikers themselves don’t always help the cause. Some enjoy the bad-boy image of sneaking onto rails. The midnight ride on active track, dodging rail cops and locomotives, is firmly entrenched in rail-biker lore.
There even are scurrilous reports that Dr. Smart himself has had to ditch his bike a few times as locomotives bore down. Asked about it, he answered carefully and vaguely.
“It’s extremely dangerous to ride on active track without permission,” he said. “There are a few fools out there. But nothing to do with me.”