David V. Herlihy,
The Lost Cyclist:
The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer & His Mysterious Disappearance

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

"Velocipedes" were first manufactured and ridden in Western cultures beginning in the late 1860s. By the 1880s, clubs of bicycle-crazed men could be found in just about any city of any size. Though neither the roads nor the wheels were yet durable enough to sustain them, long-distance races were soon organized. The four-day, 100-mile trip from Buffalo, N.Y., to Erie, Pa., held in 1888, was just one example of those contests. An exhausted young Frank Lenz of the Allegheny Cyclers pedaled his big-wheeled contraption through several days' worth of muck and mud to come in third in that race. His finish would gain him renown throughout western Pennsylvania.

Frank George Lenz (1867-1894) was a bookkeeper from Pittsburgh. Although he was known locally for his cycling capabilities, Lenz soon lost interest in the racing scene. But he liked long-distance traveling on his own two-wheeler, and he took up photography as well in order to document the landscapes he passed through. Eventually he landed a deal with Outing magazine to go "Around the world with wheel and camera" and send regular reports back to New York. For best results, he traded in his big-wheel bike and adopted the new "safety" bicycle that featured wheels of equal size and height.

A few daredevil "globe girdlers" had already attempted such feats. Englishman Thomas Stevens did part of it in 1884-87, and William L. Sachtleben and Thomas G. Allen Jr. rode across Asia in 1890-91. But Lenz would add a personal flavor by going solo and by submitting both narrative and photographs to an American readership. He quit his day job and started pedaling westward across North America in the spring of 1892. From California, he sailed to Hawaii, on to Japan, and then launched himself across China and the rest of Asia. His was not an easy ride by any means; most rural Asians had never before seen a man on a bicycle, let alone a white man in western clothing.

Lenz's last report was filed from somewhere in the area of present-day Turkey in 1894. His disappearance made worldwide news.

Since his communications had always been delayed by various mail systems, it took a bit of time to realize that Lenz was indeed missing. Outing sent experienced international cyclist William Sachtleben to the Middle East to follow Lenz's trail and hopefully find the man. But the kind of political and cultural tensions that would cause difficulties for an American to undertake such an investigation in the early 21st century created similar challenges in the late 19th century. Whether or not Sachtleben was successful in his assignment is a matter of opinion; the clues he found were sketchy at best.

The first half of this book details Frank Lenz's background and his two-year trip across three-quarters of the globe. Readers may be inspired to look at their old Schwinns with a new sense of imagination, pondering over the exotic places that could be reached by bike and the interesting people who could be met along the way. Those dreams will be dashed in the second half of the book, which focuses on Sachtleben's search for Lenz in the Middle East. That portion of the text seems to last far too long -- almost as long as the investigation itself. It may be just as frustrating to read about as it was to experience in person.

The Lost Cyclist is expertly written and tells a compelling, fresh story. One quibble is that the map of Lenz's journey is small and is hidden within the second set of illustrations in the book. It would have been nice if it had been bigger and more easily accessible, like on an inside cover or end sheet. Having a comprehensive map that would have additionally included the Stevens and Sachtleben-Allen trip routes would have been even better, since the author refers to those tours often. We may not all have a clear mental picture of the history and/or geography of the other side of the planet.

The author adds an epilogue to the story in which he offers an extensive final analysis of the success or failure of the investigation. This woulda-coulda-shoulda section seems unnecessary. It repeats information already presented and raises concerns that readers are probably able to figure out for themselves. Nevertheless, The Lost Cyclist is an intriguing read that should appeal to anyone who has coasted around his or her neighborhood on two wheels.

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

14 August 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new