WATONGA — The wheels that started turning in Steve Neuman's head were different — some were made of metal, others had spokes.
Neuman, an avid cyclist, had certainly heard of the famous Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, an annual bicycle race in Durango, Colo., inspired by a race between two brothers, one on a train, the other his bicycle.
So, when he learned that friend Austin Lafferty's family owned the AT&L Railroad, the wheels started moving pretty quickly.
“I looked at Austin and said, ‘Hey, there's a train we can race,'” said Neuman. “Austin's brothers, Todd and Ladd Lafferty, ride bikes, so there was a connection.
“It seemed like a neat idea. That's really how it started.”
Thus was born Race the Rail!, a fundraiser held since 2010. This year's start time is 9 a.m. Oct. 12, the second day of the Watonga Cheese & Wine Festival.
The AT&L is owned by Wheeler Brother Grain Co., based in Watonga, and is used for moving grain. “Because of track limitations, the train cannot travel faster than 10 mph,” Neuman said.
So on race day, at 9 a.m. the train starts out of Geary, headed north to Watonga. Bicyclists start at Watonga, ride to Geary, turn around and at that point, the race is one to catch the train.
About 125 bicyclists participated the first year. The race has made steady gains, with about 170 expected to ride this year.
An appealing challenge
The appeal is rather obvious to Neuman.
“I think it's 100 percent getting to race a train,” said Neuman, who lives to the east of Watonga in Kingfisher. “I think there's a pride factor there to say you raced a train and you won.
“The route for cyclists is just over 32 miles.”
Through each of the first three years, about 15 to 20 percent manage to beat the train. Those who are successful receive a railroad spike. There are traditional and nontraditional bicycle divisions with male and female winners, those finishing first in each category. The winners receive an 8-inch section of rail attached to a wooden plaque.
But there are other winners.
Each year, proceeds from Race the Rail! are donated to different causes. For example, in 2012 a portion of proceeds from Race the Rail! went to Young Survival Coalition, a global organization dedicated to the critical issues unique to young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, according to its website.
Another recipient of proceeds in 2012 were Roman Nose State Park rangers, who were presented with two mountain bikes.
Last year's beneficiary
Neuman said they bought the bikes for several reasons. About four times a year, he takes his mountain bike to Roman Nose to ride the trails and knows many others do the same. He also had volunteered with the Roman Nose Mountain Bike Festival, often hosted in May.
Through that he came to know park ranger Travis Lindley, who is the facilities manager at the park. Neuman noticed the mountain bikes that Lindley and other park rangers were using.
They were using the bicycles for patrols and sometimes to visit camping areas. They hadn't used them much to access the multiuse trail system. The trail is available to hikers and those with mountain bikes. Some of the trails also are available for equestrian use.
“A business called Charley's Bicycle Lab sold us the bikes at cost,” he said. “We got a nice bike that was built well.
“We bought them the mountain bikes for several reasons. First, there was a need here in the park. No. 2, it promotes cycling and we felt like it also promoted Roman Nose.”
Neuman felt the use of the mountain bikes conveyed to other cyclists that Roman Nose is a bike-friendly park.
The bikes primarily are used by Lindley and park ranger Ethan Auge. They have provided better access to people, in various ways.
“When you're cruising through in a truck, people don't always get the opportunity to flag you down and just talk,” Lindley said. “When you're on a bike, people want to stop you and ask questions. It makes you seem a little more approachable.
“And it presented a more effective way for us to do our job, environmentally and just for what we do, making contacts with guests.”
One day Auge was contacted by another mountain biker, who said he had been on a trail with someone else and they had come across a woman who was having a medical problem. Lindley and Auge keep the mountains bikes in their trucks, so, “they're another tool for us to use if needed.”
“He was able to lead me to where they found her,” Auge said. “Sometimes it might be a situation where a parent or a guardian in a campground says, ‘Today our kids went out for a short hike and we haven't seen them for a couple of hours. We're kind of worried about it.'
“The mountain bikes make it quicker and easier for us to access the trails.”
Again, that was made possible through a different style of fundraiser.
Neuman said they've already determined who they want to help with this race.
“This year's charity is an Oklahoma City organization called Wig Out,” Neuman said. “It is a charity that provides wigs to individuals going through medical treatment where they have lost their hair.
“A family from Guymon, who I am familiar with, decided to do this charity in honor of their mother, who died of breast cancer several years back.”
Racing the train
“You've got to be in decent shape to manage 18 to 20 mph for about 32 miles,” Neuman said. “But these guys will get into groups and draft off each other, and they'll take turns doing the work at the front of the group.”
While little has changed in the format of the race, Neuman said, “I'm seeing a group of faster riders show up each year.”
Neuman's glad to see all cyclists pull into town on race day and then remain for the festival.
“I purchase wrist bands to the festival, so that is included in their $30 entry fee for the race,” he said. “That's also my way of helping the festival out.
“I don't get to ride, because I'm too busy on race day. It's great though to see so many cyclists come to Watonga to race the train.”