Ron Forster Bikes Off—way Off—the Beaten Track

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It all started because Ron Forster was a wee bit lazy. The 41-year-old pizza parlor owner had always loved bicycling, but he dreaded steep hills—and there were lots of them near his Hillsboro, N.H. home. Then one day in 1980, as he was huffing and puffing up yet another incline, Ron had a brainstorm. "I looked to the right and there were some railroad tracks," says Forster (at right on a deserted line near home). "I thought, that's the answer." The next day he attached a balancing outrigger and a lawnmower wheel to an old bike and created his first "rail rider," an awkward-looking contraption designed for pedaling along abandoned—and mercifully flat—railroad lines.

Forster soon learned that his train of thought wasn't new. Rail bikers from as far away as Europe, who heard about his invention through news stories, began writing and phoning, eager to trade design tips. Makeshift vehicles, it turned out, had been hitting the tracks since before the Civil War, and Forster decided it was time to institutionalize. He set up a Rail Riders Association (current membership: 3,000) and whipped up a sleeker, steadier, four-wheeled rail vehicle, which he dubbed Ron's Rider. He has sold 30 of them at $1,500 a pop (and for the less well-wheeled more than 700 sets of simple bicycle converting kits at $75).

Rail riders, who usually cycle with permission on unused private lines, wax eloquent about their pastime. "It's like riding a motorcycle but there's no engine noise," says Jim Pastoriza of Lincoln, Mass. Forster says the sport is also ideal for the blind: The bikes need no steering, go only 20 mph and rarely tip over. For railroad officials, rarely is too often: So far, publicly owned tracks, whether in use or idle, are off limits in all 50 states. But Forster still hopes to see some of the nation's 45,000 miles of unused tracks set aside for cyclists. "The officials should come see how much pleasure this gives a blind kid," he says. "It offers pure freedom of movement that few of them can experience. Besides, there are no cars, no trucks—and no hills."

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