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Ride the Rails by Bike

Here's a new one for the athletically inclined tourist: in the foothills of Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington State, you can now literally ride the rails through forests and valleys by pumping the pedals of a jerry-rigged bicycle. It travels, like a rollercoaster car down --OR like a highwire act, on top of-- the tracks. It's called "railbiking." The Savvy Traveler's Tom Banse was game and sent these impressions.

Ride the Rails by Bike
by Tom Banse

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Okay, if you're like me -- always on the lookout for a new thrill -- then railbiking sounds just loopy enough to demand it be tried. But you're thinking, what about the trains? A good question, because as railbike entrepeneur Michael Rohde acknowledges, "One train can ruin your whole day."

Michael: "The Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad has two routes that they run. During the day, we can run groups on the opposite piece of rail that they're using. We're always in contact with the conductor and with the shop. We have cell phones, all kinds of things to make sure the communication is there."

Rail Bikes Rohde has handcrafted a fleet of railbikes by buying eight department store mountain bikes and bolting on guidewheels and outriggers. The front wheel rolls securely in place over one rail with the outrigger attached to the other. The safety lecture for newcomers like me is short.

Michael:"You can't dump your bike and you can't steer around the person in front of you, so you need to leave sufficient room. Sufficient room is like driving; it depends how fast we're going."

And with that I join several other tourists from Olympia, Washington as we clamber on board our gawky bicycle contraptions and head down the rails.

Tom:"All right, hang on tight because here goes for the first time, railbiking. It takes a little bit of effort to get going, but it doesn't seem very difficult, certainly not like learning to ride a bike for the first time. There's a little clickety-clacking as I gain speed. And there's really not much to it. Can't steer the bike. Don't actually even have to hold on." [Chuckle]

Supposedly, the attraction of railbiking is the ability to get off the highway and view countryside that's otherwise inaccessible. And indeed, inside 15 minutes we surprise a herd of elk in a secluded hay meadow.

Tom: "Probably at least twenty five elk there in that herd. Half of them are laying down, but most of them are getting up now that they've seen us...eyeing us rather warily."

But the biggest thrill of railbiking is yet to come...that being the trestle crossings. Before we pedal across the first of several bridges, Michael tells us to look straight ahead and not look down, should the height make us nervous. Train

Tom: "We're crossing the Nisqually River which you might be able to hear in the distance. And looking down through the railroad ties, I can't see anything for about 50 feet until the foaming river appears there. But it's not that scary, since I'm locked onto these rails."

Anyone in reasonably good shape can railbike. My companions on this 14 mile roundtrip through the wooded foothills of Mt. Rainier are in their fifties...Ed Terrazas and Alex Cannon.

Ed: "I enjoy biking, so this was different form where I didn't have to pay attention to traffic, the condition of the road, and potholes and such... just ride and enjoy it."

Alex: "I would recommend it for anyone who's looking for a bit of a lark."

Was it so much fun that they or I want to run off and buy our own railbikes? No, not really and it probably wouldn't be a good idea anyway. Railroads are extremely wary of railbiking for obvious safety reasons so there are almost no legal places to ride aside from an organized tour. If you want to try it, the roughly three hour Mt. Rainier tour including equipment costs $30 to 35 a person. Michael Rohde claims to be the only tour guide in the United States operating with railroad permission. Similar tour companies can be found in central France and Sweden.

In Elbe, Washington, I'm Tom Banse for the Savvy Traveler.

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