Adventure Goes Awry in 'The Lost Cyclist'

A frustrating tale of official intransigence, ethnic strife, and blockheaded American shortsightedness.

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 326 pages
Author: David V. Herlihy
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-06

Sailing round the world, climbing Mount Everest, seeking the source of the Nile—history is filled with the daring exploits of hardy adventurers who set out to achieve something previously only dreamed of. Whether it's Amundson's trek to the South Pole or Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, there is something compelling about men and women who need to accomplish the previously un-thought-of. Of course, sometimes things go wrong -- Amelia Earhart comes to mind -- which only serves to make the story more interesting.

The Lost Cyclist chronicles one such adventure gone awry. In 1892, Frank Lenz decided he would ride a bicycle around the world, departing west from New York City and passing through his native Pittsburgh. His route was to take him across America's west to the Pacific, thence to Hawaii, Japan, and China, where he slogged for months across muddy roads, bogged down by rain and belligerent peasants. Finally he reached Burma, from where he needed to catch a ferry to Calcutta, where he discovered, to his delight, the Grand Trunk Road stretching across India all the way to Lahore. He cycled south to Karachi, west through Persia, and north into Turkey. At that, correspondence from Lenz stopped as he abruptly vanished from the earth.

Lenz was no dilettante. In his early 20s, he was one of the nation’s premier cyclists, or "wheelmen", a compact character of considerable strength, courageous to the point of recklessness. As he traveled, he penned a series of articles for Outing magazine detailing his adventures, which were many, and publishing numerous photos of his travels. Other men had completed long bicycle trips before, but Lenz was the first photojournalist on wheels, sending back dispatches and images from his travels. In this, he was a true pioneer.

Alas, he was also a tragic one. As months of silence passed and hope for his survival dwindled, Outing's editor sent a search party in the form of one William Sachtleben, a wheelman who had crossed Eurasia some years before with a companion and enjoyed considerable fame as a result. Sachtleben's search for the missing Lenz occupies the second half of the book, and it is a frustrating tale of official intransigence, ethnic strife, and blockheaded American shortsightedness.

Turkey in the 1890s was a country in turmoil, as Armenian Christians suffered oppression and massacres at the hands of Kurds in the east, and Turkish officialdom turned a blind eye to their coreligionists' murderous transgressions. Arriving on the scene, Sachtleben quicky sniffed out what he believed to be the truth behind Lenz's disappearance, but in his single-minded pursuit of the case, he repeatedly put innocents in harm's way. Cooler heads were derided by him (and to some degree, by the author as well) as being lazy or stupid, but given the tragic consequences of Sachtleben's bull-in-a-china-shop maneuverings, it is difficult to feel too much sympathy for the investigator.

Ultimately, some degree of resolution was reached. What happened to Lenz was sorted out to the point where the reader will feel satisfied, even if some parties on the ground could never cease squabbling over the particulars.

David V. Herlihy uses the Lenz story as a way to document the remarkable rise in popularity of the bicycle itself. A machine that went from obscurity to a hugely popular craze in a remarkably short time, the machine spawned cycling enthusiasts across the United States and the world, many of whom turned out to rendezvous with Lenz at various points in his international travels. In America, cycle clubs sponsored races and outings that drew large crowds. The early part of the book, documenting Lenz's involvement in this milieu, is lively and quick. Also fascinating is the account of Lenz as he tramps across the globe, at a time before films or even photographs gave the traveler much notion of what to expect. To the modern mind it is nearly impossible to imagine lurching into another country so thoroughly unprepared.

Lenz experienced adventures both pleasant and dire, but the pleasantness seems to have won out, at least at first. "At last, the party reached Talifu [in western China], a picturesque city nestled in the mountains that was famous for its marble quarries ... Once again, Lenz demonstrated his wheel at the local yamen. 'I circled about for the old man,' Lenz reported, though 'he never changed the expression of his face. But I knew he was pleased when he presented me with pressed tea and sweets.' "

The second half of the book loses steam, as Sachtleben commences his investigation and the question shifts from "What will happen next?" to "What really happened, anyway?" This is hardly the author's fault, and Herlihy keeps the momentum going as best he can through a series of starts and stops, breakthroughs and setbacks, and horrific historical events. It's slow going, though; as any cyclist knows, it's tough to get anywhere once the wheels have stopped turning.


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