Tuesday July 24, 2012 | 12:24 PM

Last winter, a co-worker happened upon a website about rail biking. And though there was snow on the ground - not much of it, but some - we vowed that rail bikes were something we'd try when summer hit.

The rail bike tour is courtesy of the Brooks Preservation Society in Thorndike, which offers three-hour excursions on four-wheeled cycles that carry two passengers each on tracks that are no longer in operation. Call 568-3523 to schedule a ride (with a volunteer tour guide).

The volunteers will tell you to wear sturdy footwear and to bring water. They'll tell you that you'll get a workout. You should believe them.

We made the long, long drive (from Portland) on a Saturday in June. The sun was shining. There was a light breeze. The former Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad tracks were empty of trains. But there were these strange-looking four-wheeled cart-type things awaiting us. They didn't look like bikes, but they did have seats and pedals and big yellow wheels.

They also had handy crates for our coolers, backpacks and other necessities. And the bikes came with instruction.

Our tour guides explained the rules of the railroad, gave us some safety instructions and had us sign waiver forms. And then we were ready to pedal - but first we had to turn our bikes around. The hard way.

Riders are responsible for their own bikes, which means they have to pick them up walk them around 180 degrees and then set them back down on the tracks in order to change directions. Then we buckled into our seatbelts, shoved our sneakers into pedals and we were off.

It didn't take long to understand that this would be a workout. The trip to Brooks was about six miles with a two-percent grade on the way out. Our tour guides informed us that this meant the ride back would be mostly downhill. Phew!

Along the way we saw plenty of woodsy scenery, a few houses that were (unfortunately for the owners?) built right near the rails, some wildlife (a deer, cows) and several road crossings where the operators of motor vehicles didn't even give us a second look. Our guides stopped traffic at each crossing so we weren't in danger.

We stopped along the way for a picnic lunch (and a much-needed break). After about six miles we reached our turnaround spot, where we dismounted, picked up our bikes, turned them around, set them back on the rails and pedaled on home.

Or coasted, actually. The guides weren't kidding about the return trip. We relaxed for much of it and rolled along, slowing only for road crossings. And before we knew it, the depot was in sight, the fun, unique ride over.

Rail bike tickets are $10 for adults ($5 for children) and tours continue into October. Kids under 10 can't operate the bikes but can be riders. Tickets are purchased at Garden Variety in Thorndike, just across the street from the old depot where the rail bikes are docked. The shop has a few munchies (homemade ice cream sandwiches), cold beverages, some antiques and some interesting odds and ends.

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