Seeing the world on a ‘rail-bike’
An Idaho pioneer of bicycling on rail lines remembers his globe-trotting rides.
Northwest travel guides
He can recall in vivid detail his adventures on bicycles adapted to glide stealthily along deserted railways, including his final ride on Aug. 8, 2012.
It was along Idaho’s Payette River north of Boise, and Dick Smart was scouting for a group outing that was to include fellow rail bike enthusiasts from Sweden. “We waded like little kids in the river,” he said.
The plans came to a sudden halt the following day when Smart suffered a seizure back home in Coeur d’Alene. The retired dentist soon would learn he had a brain tumor, and his attention turned to the battle to survive.
A year and a half later, surgery and treatments have proved ineffective. There is no known cure for his fast-growing tumor.
But Smart, 69, is happily reflecting on his long love affair with rail biking with a new book recounting his globe-trotting adventures. The memoir was completed with contributions from friends he turned on to the obscure sport, all drawn to the serenity and solitude of exploring places far from roads and towns.
“I just wanted to let people know what a fun time it was,” said Smart, who figures he traveled well over 30,000 miles by rail bike on three continents.
Rolling on the rails
A rail bike simply is a regular bicycle with mechanical or magnetic guides that allow it to roll on top of a rail without slipping off and an outrigger reaching across to a roller resting on the opposite rail.
People have tinkered with rail bike designs since the 1880s, and it was a photo of one of those early models that caught Smart’s eye in a Spokane bookstore one Sunday afternoon in 1976.
“I knew immediately after studying the photo that I would build one of these contraptions,” he wrote. “I felt sure that ... it would open up a new pathway for adventure that I had been thirsting for since childhood.”
The self-published “Biking on Rusty Ribbons of Steel” reveals Smart’s passion for trains and bicycles while growing up at remote ranger stations in Western Montana before his family moved to Coeur d’Alene.
“I’m basically the same person as I was when I was 5 years old,” Smart said in an interview at his home.
Forbes magazine called him the father of modern rail biking, and Smart did as much as anyone to advance the hobby and inspire others to take it up. He developed a guide wheel carriage that he continued to perfect over three decades, including employing magnets to improve traction.
He called his invention the Railcycle and secured a patent on the design in 1980. Between 1983 and 1999, Smart built and sold nearly 50 Railcycles. One innovation was they could be converted into a standard mountain bike for pedaling around obstacles on the tracks.
Eight of Smart’s Railcycles went to the London Underground for use by subway inspectors. Two more were shipped to Australia for use in a 1986 film starring Henry Thomas of “E.T.” fame. For a time, West Virginia toyed with promoting Railcycling for tourism.
Off the beaten track
Smart recalls that the major railroads weren’t keen on his business and confronted him over worries about liability of people who might ride on active rail lines. “They treated me at times like I was manufacturing some kind of assault weapon!” he wrote.
Smart and his rail biking pals always chose abandoned rail lines or small branch lines they knew were not in use. He grew tired of being asked what he did when a train would come. There were no trains to worry about.
But there was plenty of company on his trips — bears, wolves, foxes, beavers, badgers, porcupines and countless species of birds. Smart would slide across landscapes almost silently, stopping to snap candid pictures of wildlife.
He and his friends called rail biking the slowest-growing sport in the world, and Smart believes its run is coming to an end as more abandoned rails are pulled up for scrap materials. But he is glad to see so many rail lines converted to bike paths, opening new recreational opportunities for people of all abilities.
Smart pedaled rail bikes along the Route of the Hiawatha and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes long before those North Idaho routes were paved for bike riders.
After exploring this region, Smart went looking for more remote terrain. He found it on four trips into the mountains of British Columbia, and later on tours of Argentina, where he and companions explored the old rails of Patagonia against the backdrop of the Andes, and a trip through Sweden and Norway.
He liked that it was clean, quiet and left no footprint. “It’s probably the most ecologically friendly vehicle ever invented,” he said.
And he savored meeting people who lived and worked near the tracks, from hobos and sheepherders to North American Indian tribe members and children in remote villages.
“I’ve had amazing adventures in my life, most of them on the rail bike,” Smart said.