David V. Herlihy, author of “Bicycle: The History,” jumps back on the bike for the subject of his new work, “The Lost Cyclist.” The story of a bookkeeper who quits his job to tour the world, the book is far from a tale of a young man finding his way in life through travel and adventure. Its subject, Frank Lenz, was a bicycle racer and enthusiast who jumped at the chance in 1892 to circle the globe on the newly popular “safety bicycle,” a departure from the standard high-wheel bicycle. Herlihy’s book unpacks Lenz’s failed attempt to pedal the earth and the subsequent search to find the lost cyclist.
In his early twenties, Lenz made a name for himself as captain of the Allegheny Cyclers in his hometown of Pittsburgh, showcasing a rare combination of strength, endurance and a fearlessness on two wheels. Wanting to find the fame and adventure that Thomas Stevens experienced when he became the first to ride around the world in 1887, Lenz worked out a deal with “Outing,” a sports and travel magazine, to document his trip across North America, Asia and Europe. Promising to write his mother every week, he sets out from the East Coast. Along the way, he sees the preparation for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, takes a ferry across the Pacific Ocean and, after making it through countless dangers and setbacks in Asia, vanishes somewhere in Turkey.
William Sachtleben, a native of Alton, Illinois, had himself recently completed a world bicycle tour with a friend from Washington College when Lenz turned up missing. Sachtleben knew the precarious terrain where Lenz was presumed lost, and when the editor of “Outing” asked Sachtleben to go to Turkey and find out what had happened to Lenz, he immediately accepted the proposition. “The Lost Cyclist” is the story of Lenz’s and Sachtleben’s separate cycling triumphs and their shared somber tale of a missing man on a bike and the man who would circle back to find him.
Herlihy’s reimagination of Frank Lenz from his letters, writings for “Outing” and photographs portrays a vibrant young man who is a pleasure to read and ride along with. He forgoes his mother’s exhortations “to settle down and find a good girl” and takes his bike and his camera to the other side of the world. Going through San Francisco, he drinks too much with some new-found friends and spends the night in jail. When surrounded in China by a hoe-wielding mob, he saves his life by intentionally falling off his bike, turning the crowd’s mood from vengeance to laughter. He gets malarial fever and sees a Chinese coolie he hired drown. Recklessly courageous, Herlihy’s Frank Lenz is a late-nineteenth-century American pioneer, visiting foreign lands on a new instrument in travel technology.
Sachtleben’s story, before he goes in search of Lenz, is less interesting. Sachtleben and his similarly mustachioed travel companion get through their world tour fairly unscathed and come home to a hero’s welcome. Herlihy leads the reader through both journeys with alternating chapters, and it takes a little while for Lenz, the lost cyclist, to get, well, lost. But the search to find Lenz or to determine his fate ultimately captivates, with characters including an egotistical bureaucrat in Constantinople, violent bands of Kurdish criminals and Armenian victims of increasingly horrific violence. Perhaps most interesting is Sachtleben’s tireless and at times inexplicable efforts to get justice for Lenz, a man he had never met.
“The Lost Cyclist” shows how bicycle tourists in the 1890s became celebrities of their time and how they just as quickly faded into irrelevance. Herlihy’s story transcends its historical research in the end—and certainly to the author’s credit—becoming a truly sad and captivating human drama on youthful curiosity that proves perilous.
On his ride, Lenz writes poetically about the “fraternal feeling of the human race” and is so overcome by his first visit to the Taj Mahal that he returns the same night for a second go. But his impassioned tour is left incomplete, and Sachtleben, who would save a happy ending, only spins his tires and is himself lost to history. Herlihy has found both their tracks, though, and the riders come back to life in “The Lost Cyclist.”
David V. Herlihy reads from “The Lost Cyclist” at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln, (773)293-2665, on July 16 at 7pm.
“The Lost Cyclist”
By David V. Herlihy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 336 pages