Riding your bicycle on a railroad track is sometimes a hassle, what with balancing on the skinny rail, dodging oncoming trains, getting permission to use the track or fleeing certain authorities in case you don’t have it. You can buy or make a “railbike,” a century-old contraption that holds your bicycle on the track, but you’re still subject to trains, police or unreliable rails. Tour companies in Sweden, Belgium and Germany help some railbikers avoid these inconveniences. Now, the primary U.S. advocate of “with-permission” railbiking, Michael Rohde, has brought the sharedtrack concept to Costa Rica.
“I sold everything and moved down here, like a lot of people do,” said Rohde, 48. His company, Railbike Adventures, recently began legal railbike tours west of San José from Ciruelas, Alajuela, to Balsa de Atenas, 19 kilometers farther west.
“Mike Rohde has the only organized railbike activity I know of,” said Bob Mellin, author of “Railbike: Cycling on Abandoned Railroads.”Mellin runs Railbike International, a California association whose Web site says “railbiking is alive and well but has been called the world’s slowest growing sport” (http://home.aol.com/RAILBIKES).
The cover of “Railbike” shows a cyclist crossing an abyss on a steel rail, suspended in space where, apparently, a bridge used to be. Railbike International says that “in 1908 Sears and Roebuck offered a railbike attachment in its catalog… In the late 1800s several railbike models were available commercially and were used by the general public as well as by telegraph and railroad company employees.”
Those days are long gone, Rohde said, though he has built about 70 for his commercial tours, railroad inspectors and a rural development program. Other U.S. railbikers are the type that “build a railbike in their garage and sneak out on the tracks,” he said.
A handful of them tell their stories on the Internet; Dick Bentley of upstate New York sells build-it-yourself plans at www.rrbike.freeservers.com for $25. The “Bentley Railbike” uses a regular bicycle with a front wheel guide and an “outrigger” that glides on the other rail. With this type of setup, you must lean inward to keep the outrigger on track.
“…Railbikes occasionally ‘de-rail,’” Bentley writes on his Web site. “This is railbike talk for ‘the blankity-blank bike came off the track.’ My wife’s sister got so carried away looking at autumn leaves she leaned away from the outrigger. In slow motion, she fell into the bushes and scratched herself on a spruce stubble.”
Railbike Adventures’ bikes have heavier, permanent outriggers to avoid this problem, which is comforting for tourists in Costa Rica crossing the 95-meter high bridge over the Río Grande de Tárcoles near Atenas. One of railbiking’s benefits is that no steering is necessary – one can ride, literally, without eyes, Rohde said.
Rohde got the idea for railbike tours on a 1991 visit to Costa Rica, when he saw miles of abandoned track running through forests, wetlands, over bridges and through quiet little towns.
He went back to the United States and started building railbikes, eventually running four tourist operations in Washington and Oregon. He’s gone the obstacle-ridden route of negotiating track use with the railroads, paying insurance and giving people safe, legal rides. No one filled his void when he moved to Costa Rica a year and a half ago.
With help from Juan Paniagua, president of America Travel, Rohde worked out a deal with the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER) that allows him to lead railbike tours on the state-owned tracks. The tour company will pay INCOFER a yet-to-bedetermined amount for rights to the track, Paniagua said.
America Travel has used the same track for five years now for its “Tico Train” tours from San José to the Pacific coast.
After a trial run in August, INCOFER’s president, Miguel Carabaguíaz, authorized the Ciruelas-to-Balsa de Atenas route for railbike tours. On a recent Friday morning, Carabaguíaz took to the rails with The Tico Times and Channel Seven’s “En Vivo” reporters, guided by Rohde and other Railbike Adventures staff.
The railbike pioneer rode behind the head of Costa Rica’s railroads, pointing out track problems and occasionally helping lift the bikes over sections obscured by dirt and rocks.
Rohde, who told The Tico Times INCOFER officials would be well served to get a few railbikes themselves, said railbiking allows you to see track problems that would be impossible to detect from a motorized railcar.
“We can tell if the rail ends are out of alignment by 1/32nd of an inch, because you can feel it,” Rohde said.
The Costa Rican model looks like an exercise contraption – it’s a mountain bike bolted to a steel structure, guided by pairs of skateboard wheels front and back. Two inline skate wheels take the weight on the front, and the bicycle’s rear wheel sits on the track. A piece of steel taken from the engine of a Mitsubishi Montero holds the outrigger to the opposite track. The setup is heavy, but fast; on the slightly downhill Railbike Adventure tour, one hardly needs to pedal at all.
“I’m sure we could easily shatter the world land speed record,” he said. The human-propelled speed record, about 130 kilometers per hour, excludes rail-based bicycles, Rohde said.
European railbikes, or dressin, as they’re called in Sweden, are louder, heavier and slower because they use steel wheels, Rohde said. His designs are actually built to limit tourists to moderate speeds, about 20 kilometers per hour.
On a Railbike Adventures tour, the point is to have a unique, cultural and somewhat exhilarating tour.
“You’re actually railbiking through people’s backyards,” Rohde said – in Costa Rica, Central America or even the entire Western Hemisphere, that’s something few can claim.
It was a fun ride, and I left wishing we could go faster, longer and without track obstructions; we had to lift or push our bikes over about a dozen rough spots. The bridge was so fun, and terrifying, we rode it three times.
Railbike Adventures charges $85 for the half-day tour, including snacks, lunch and transfer by motorized railcar from San José’s Pacific Train Station to Ciruelas and back.
For more information, call Railbike Adventures at 233-3300. To see more of Rohde’s railbikes, visit www.railbike.com.