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Different kind of track needed to race trains

September 11, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

Commentary

I've always admired the public's ability to create daring stunts out of America's public works projects - stuff such as parachuting off of the New River Gorge bridge, scaling the Empire State Building, or escaping the gravitational pull of Queen Latifah.

So when the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle route from Cumberland to Pittsburgh opened this year, it was only a matter of time before people began to push the envelope.

The route follows the railroad a good bit of the way, and when an old steam engine operated by the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad chugs through the fall foliage next month, a group of cyclists want to race it.

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Get in a shootout with a train? What could possibly go wrong with that?

Still, some Allegany County officials are dubious.

"I'm uncomfortable with the concept," said J. Robert Dick, director of the county's 911 center. "I'm not sure this is the message we want to send."

That's right, we're not talking about racing a train to a crossing here, this is serious. In some places, The Associated Press reports, the bike trail and the train tracks are a scant six feet apart.

The train, it's operators say, is limited to 20 mph, but still ... Just because it would be the slowest derailment in the history of railroading doesn't make it worth the risk.

But then, it's probably not the train they're concerned about, is it? Trains don't lose many arguments. If they can make metal sausage out of an automobile, a bicycle wouldn't even start one of those "Did you feel somthin'?" discussions among the engineers.

Still, as a bicycle rider myself, I understand the appeal. You want to race any mechanized subdivision that happens to give you half a shot: hay wagons, farm tractors, mo-peds, '74 Buicks with the left tail light blinking.

It's that creeping John Henryism that gets in the blood of a cyclist every time he hears a two-cycle engine.

The way it works, organizers of the event say, is that cyclists get a 150-yard head start on the choo-choo. You have to do this, because cycling while breathing in the smoke and soot of the steam engine would be as awful as walking up the stairs in Los Angeles.

As I understand it, if the train catches the cyclists, it's game over. They're out. So you can forget about this race ever attracting any movie rights. Hollywood would need the cyclists to get ahead, then the train would catch them and build a nearly insurmountable lead until the last half mile when the bikers, in a heroic burst of speed, would annihilate an army of space invaders.

So all told, I don't see any real danger in this. If you're riding along through the forest and the train overtakes you, you get off your bike and gracefully step aside.

Oh, did I mention the tunnel?

The climb to 2,000 feet includes a 914-foot tube through Piney Mountain that, by the sounds of it, could present a tight squeeze between the Cannonball and the Cannondale.

Race founders say there will be posts outside the tunnel to make sure bikes and train do not occupy the same space.

Oh, why? I would think this would be the real sport. You're halfway through the tunnel and all of a sudden you find yourself spotlighted like Sammy Davis Jr. in the locomotive's headlamp - that would show a person how fast he is truly capable of pedaling, I would think.

Sometimes, just a little inspiration is all it takes to exceed your previous personal best. You might not realize that you have the ability to crank a bicycle at 45 mph up the side of a mountain until you feel the gentle nudge of a cowcatcher against your rear reflector in a confined space.

Be a bad time to get a flat, though.

If that happens, the tire won't be the only thing that's flat.

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