Also, the expression "straight as a rail" could never be applied to a railroad. Tracks bow in and out, they lean to the left and right, they go uphill and down, and they negotiate turns. And the turns are banked, like those of a stock car track. These are things you don't notice if you are in the club car sipping a dry martini, but on a railcycle they're quite evident. When the rail leans left, you lean right, and vice versa. In this respect, railcycling is like skateboarding, surfing and sailing: you spend a lot of time heeled over.
There are other hazards. Before Smart added a cowcatcher to his railcycles, small stones could cause derailments. Precipitation, as well as grease and oil, makes the rails slippery. Debris stacked on the tracks by vandals is also of no small concern.
Nonetheless, only one of Smart's guests has suffered a serious injury. About three years ago a rider didn't notice a spike that was wedged in a gap between the ends of two sections of rail and flew head over heels and handlebars, severely gashing his head. Fortunately, Smart got the man to a hospital in plenty of time. A week later the guest was back—wearing a crash helmet.
With this firmly in mind, I negotiated my first quarter-mile with wary ease. Just when I was feeling full of it, however, the front assembly jumped the rail with a clatter. I crashed seven more times in the next VA miles, before settling into a less taxing routine of perhaps one derailment every two miles.
Smart said this was normal for first-time guests. He also pointed out that after a weekend-long ride it usually takes him five or six days to straighten out the guest bike.
With my frequent mishaps slowing us down, we covered about three miles in an hour, roughly twice what a backpacker could expect to make in the mountains. On the upward trek to Lookout Pass, on grades that approached 4% over a vertical distance of 2,000 feet, our speed between derailments hovered around 5 mph; on the return trip, when all we had to do was ride the brakes and enjoy the magnificent scenery, we hit 9 mph. I bravely tried for 10 but promptly derailed again. On a well-packed roadbed over level terrain, Smart can churn along at up to 15 mph. (Where the bed isn't well packed, jumping the rail at that speed can be nasty, sort of like smacking into a 12-inch pothole with a 10-speed bike.) Smart has covered 45 miles in a single day; pressed, he could easily do 75.
But he's in no hurry. He has refused to motorize the railcycle, saying, "It's enough to go slow, enjoy the scenery and have lunch by a mountain stream."
This he does frequently. He takes about 10 all-day or overnight trips a year and often rides for R&R at the end of the work day. His longest jaunt was an 11-day trip to British Columbia last year. He and a guest drove in a pickup to Fort St. James, hopped a train to the Driftwood Logging Camp, near the 55th parallel, and then pedaled 42 miles along an abandoned line into a part of the Canadian wilderness thought in recent years to be accessible only by airplane.
The son of a retired forest supervisor, Smart fell in love with the railroads during a childhood spent in Idaho and western Montana. "One Christmas my biggest present was the one sent to me by an aunt in New England," he says. "I was more fascinated by the fact that the present arrived on The Milwaukee Road than I was by the gift."
One day five years ago he saw a picture of a bicycle-like device with flanged wheels that was kept in the baggage compartments of O.R. & N. trains early in the century. When their trains broke down, brakemen would pedal on the contraption to the next station to find help.