Leadville, Colorado

Owner Sean Fay is chugging along on a pedal-powered path to growth with innovative rail bikes.

Photos Jonathan Castner

The seed for Railriders took root in the 1970s when Ron Forster, a pizzeria proprietor in New Hampshire, made a crude outrigger for his bike to ride abandoned railroad tracks. He soon developed a pedal-powered four-wheeler and started selling the vehicles in 1980.

“I started as a customer, so I bought a unit off of him and traveled all around the U.S. using it,” says Fay, who bought the company when Forster retired in 2017 and relocated it to Colorado.

Forster “was doing it at a much, much smaller scale,” says Fay. “At the time, the demand wasn’t there, so he concentrated on selling wheels.”

That’s changed in the 2020s: “Demand has definitely gone up. I’ve also started selling complete units, so people who don’t have the time or the resources or the patience to assemble their own bike can now buy one pre-built from us.”

The company now sells the fully assembled rail bikes — branded as Railriders or riders — starting at $3,200, as well as kits and components like wheels and crank systems. The supply chain is a mixture of off-the-shelf parts and custom parts made by Tioga Tool in Endicott, New York.

Made of a patented polyurethane material by a Tennessee-based contract shop, the wheels are “really similar to the material that roller coaster wheels ride on,” says Fay. “Sometimes, we’ll make hundreds and hundreds of these at a time, and other times we’ll just trickle an order through.”

Railriders sell to individual customers as well as tourist attractions like the Skunk Train in California. “There is an increase in people doing this for tourism where they’ll have a tourist railroad that maybe can’t run a train because the track quality is not enough, so they go and buy a set of our bikes and they can run the bikes down some just terrible tracks and they’ll do just fine,” explains Fay, noting that the load is a few hundred pounds — versus thousands of tons for a fully loaded cargo train.

Fay is the business’ sole full-time employee, and he brings in as many as five contractors when the company gets a large order. “The frames are welded here locally in Colorado,” he says. “We do a couple of final finishes to the frames, drilling holes and whatnot, and then we just start manufacturing the bikes. Typically, on a good day, if all the parts are here and there are no manufacturing discrepancies or anything like that, we can get one or two bikes done.”

The pandemic proved to be a catalyst for a company. “It has grown substantially and surprisingly,” says Fay. “When I got into this, I was working full-time at one of the resorts in Summit County in management and I just did this on the side. During 2020 and everything going on with COVID, it really took off in such a way that I was able to leave my day job and be able to do this full-time.”

And he can speak from experience on what’s behind the uptake: “As a private owner, I’ve been a guest on multiple different railroads in Nevada, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. That’s been beautiful to get the permission and you’ve got the entire railroad to yourself, and you’re just out exploring and being with nature.”

Challenges: “The supply chain issues that everybody is facing,” says Fay, noting that turnaround times on assembled rail bikes have jumped from four weeks to as many as 16 weeks for a large order. “Last year was really tough, because we couldn’t even get plastic.”

Railriders also has a regulatory hurdle in its home state. “We are actually bringing tours to a location on the Front Range, but the state is wanting us to get fully ASTM F1159-certified, so we’re currently working through that with an engineering firm,” says Fay.

Opportunities: “The complete units are definitely outpacing everything else,” says Fay. The majority of sales go to rail parks, and Railriders is responding to that with two new models “geared specifically for commercial tourism,” he adds. “Essentially, these will be highly ergonomic and highly durable, with super low maintenance cost and maintenance hours.”

Railriders also has a growing industrial market it is addressing with new vocational models likewise due out later in 2022; mining operations and railyards are prime target markets.

Needs: “We’re definitely seeking investment capital or a strong partner to work with,” says Fay. “There is quite an opportunity to grow, but without those in place, it’s kind of hard to do it.”

“We’re always looking to partner with different machine shops,” he adds. “It’s always good to have a secondary supply line up and going. We’d love to find a machine shop to partner with in Colorado that is cost-effective.”