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The Lost Cyclist, by David Herlihy

The story of the disappearance of would-be globe-girdler Frank Lenz

Frank Lenz in Tabriz, Iran, in the spring of 1894 - the last known image of the intrepid cyclist
Frank Lenz in Tabriz, Iran, in the spring of 1894 - the last known image of the intrepid cyclist

The Lost Cyclist, by David V HerlihyTitle: The Lost Cyclist - The Untold Story of Frank Lenz's Ill-Fated Around-the-World Journey
Author: David V Herlihy
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing (UK) | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (US)
Year: 2010
Pages: 326
Order: Penguin (UK) | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (US)
What it is: While attempting to cycle around the world in the 1890s, American Frank Lenz disappeared somewhere in Turkey - cycling historian David Herlihy attempts to shed light on what happened
Strengths: There's actually two stories being told, that of Lenz and also that of William Sachtleben who, along with Thomas Allen, completed a cycling circumnavigation of the globe and - based on his experiences doing that - was sent to Turkey to establish the facts behind Lenz's disappearance
Weaknesses: Reading like a police procedural, the story really only takes off once Lenz has gone missing, the actual account of his journey west across America, Japan, China, Burma, India, and Iran being not unlike many cycling travelogues, dry and dull

You could, if you were so minded, get around the world today in less than 70 hours, using commercial flights. It'd put a hefty weight on your credit card, and god knows what the risk of deep vein thrombosis would be like, but it's doable. You could leave work on the Friday of a Bank Holiday weekend and when you returned to your desk on Tuesday morning and colleagues, expecting to be able to trump you with tales of their adventures in Centre Parcs, asked if you got up to much over the weekend you could smile tell them how you'd seen the world, all of it.

Travelling around the world wasn't always so easy. Magellan, somewhat famously, died trying to do it in the early sixteenth century. But by the time Jules Verne sent Phileas Fogg around the world in 1873 it was all rather, well, easy: in the age of steam, boats and trains did all the hard work for you and you even had Thomas Cook on hand to take the pain out of organising all the tickets. So, naturally, people had to make it harder. In the 1880s Tom Stevens rode around the world on one of Albert Pope's extraordinary ordinaries, a high-wheeler with a fifty-inch front wheel. While much of his journey was accomplished on foot or in boats and trains, Stevens reckoned he'd ridden nearly 22,000 kilometres in thirty-odd months through twenty-five countries, completing two transcontinental rides along the way: west to east across North America and across Europe from Dieppe to Constantinople.

Among the many who followed Stevens's journey was the young Frank Lenz:

"Lenz had eagerly devoured Stevens's firsthand accounts published in Outing, a monthly dedicated to sports and travel. The Pittsburger knew all about Stevens's harrowing adventures in distant and exotic lands, his joyful encounters with foreign dignitaries, missionaries, and fellow wheelmen, and his narrow escapes from hostile men, beasts and elements. In fact, while riding in the countryside, the young clerk would often imagine himself as Stevens, plunging into thick Indian jungle in search of the next thrilling adventure.

"Lenz simply could not fathom how any pursuit could be more exciting or satisfying than touring the world on a bicycle. Life post-tour would not be bad either, he surmised. Stevens was about to release a two-volume book set entitled Around the World on a Bicycle, and he was in high demand as a travel writer and lecturer, making appearances across the country. Anytime he wanted to embark on a new adventure he could afford to do so. Certainly, Lenz would rather be a famous cycle tourist than a miserable bookkeeper, toiling his life away in the bowels of a dingy factory, juggling meaningless figures for a callous boss. If only he, too, could engineer such an envious arrangement, he would be off in a flash."

It took a while to engineer, but by the spring of 1892 all the pieces had fallen into place for Lenz to emulate - and eclipse - his hero, Stevens. The same magazine that had reported Stevens's journey, Outing, agreed to fund his journey to the tune of $2,000 (at the time, Lenz was earning a little over $1,000 as a bookkeeper, and his journey around the world was likely to take him two years) and the Overman Wheel Company - Albert Pope's chief rival in the American cycling industry - provided one of their Victor safety cycles with sprung suspension in the front forks, two sprockets on the rear hub so the wheel could be flipped to change gear, and pneumatic tyres. On May 15th Lenz set out from Pittsburgh, bound for New York, where his globe girdling journey would officially begin at three o'clock on the afternoon of June 4th.

The Lost Cyclist, by David V Herlihy

Frank Lenz, self-portrait, Autumn 1892

The first part of Lenz's journey, transcontinental from New York to San Francisco, took nearly five months to complete with more than a few banquets along the way as his fellow wheelmen fêted his progress. He then crossed the Pacific by ship, stopping in Hawaii where he had time to go for a ride on the island of Oahu and photograph himself outside he Iolani Palace in Honolulu. Arriving in Yokohama, Japan, he rode south to Nagasaki, where he boarded another ship, taking him to Shanghai, China. For the next six months he trudged, often literally, across China, much of the 4,600-odd kilometres travelled accomplished on foot. It was July of 1893 before Lenz exited China and entered British-controlled Burma (Myanmar), near Bhamo. The monsoon rains were already falling and that put the kibosh on plans of travelling west and crossing into India near Calcutta (Kolkata). Instead he was forced to head for the south of Burma where a boat would take him from Rangoon (Yangon) to the Indian port city.

The Lost Cyclist, by David V Herlihy

Lenz in Japan

It was September before Lenz arrived in India. He was by then six months behind his original schedule. As well as causing problems for him - he shipped a trunk ahead of him, carrying spare parts et cetera and because of his delay in reaching India that had been sold on as lost luggage and so had to be reacquired - this was also problematic for others: letters sent to him in Calcutta were returned undelivered and those writing feared for his safety until he was able to write home shortly before reaching Burma.

The Lost Cyclist - David V Herlihy

Like modern travellers, Lenz had to get a selfie in front of the Taj Mahal

The worst of his journey, though, seemed to be behind him and India proved to be much easier to traverse than either China or Burma, with Lenz making good time travelling from Calcutta to Lahore (in modern Pakistan). Then, instead of crossing Afghanistan, he headed for the coast and the border with Persia (Iran). He then headed toward the border with Turkey, reaching Tabriz, north of Tehran, at the end of April, 1894.

In July Lenz's mother received a telegram from Thomas Cook & Son informing her that her son's trunk remained unclaimed in Constantinople. This had happened before, in Calcutta, but as the weeks turned into months and no word was heard from him, anxiety about Lenz's fate turned into frustration at the lack of answers from his employers in Outing and the disappearance of Frank Lenz became a cause célèbre, friends turning to the media to attack Outing in an effort to prod them into action.

What counts as action? When the explorer David Livingstone was reported missing in Africa in the 1860s an American newspaper, James Gordon Bennett's the New York Herald, commissioned the journalist Henry Morton Stanley to find him. Years later, when Stanley himself disappeared in the 1880s on another commission, Tom Stevens - the original globe girdling adventurer - was dispatched by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World to discover his fate. Action, then, as in the movies, was about sending out a search party, at whatever cost. After much toing and froing, the man chosen to be the Ethan Edwards to Lenz's Debbie was William Sachtleben who, in June 1893, a year after Lenz had started his journey, completed his own globe girdling attempt in the company of his travelling companion Thomas Allen.

Sachtleben and Allen had started their globe-girdling attempt almost by accident in 1890: in July of that year they had arrived in Liverpool intending on completing something a sort of European Grand Tour, recently having graduated from Washington College. Acquiring a couple of hard-tyred Singer safeties they set out on a tour of the UK, taking in Chester, Caernarfon, Dublin, Belfast, and Glasgow before pedalling down to London. A conversation with a couple of travellers recently returned from Constantinople encouraged the two travellers to stretch their European adventure as far as the Ottoman capital - they were piqued by the plight of the Armenians and the prospect of adventure - and once they resolved to do that ticking off Asia seemed like a piece of cake, leaving just the final leg across the US to complete to make the journey round the world.

The Lost Cyclist, by David V Herlihy

Sachtleben and Allen in Tehran during their round the world adventure

It was the Armenian issue, in part, that helped bring Sachtleben on board the attempts to discover what had happened to Lenz after he had departed Tabriz in April of 1894: in August there had been an uprising in the Sassun region near to where Lenz would have travelled through Turkey. Over the next two years that grew into the Hamidian massacres. While others held out hope of finding Lenz alive, Sachtleben held out no such hope:

"Certainly a major concern for the wheelman was the stark realization that Lenz 'was past being found.' It was fun to fantasize, of course, about creeping into a Kurdish camp in the dead of night to slice the cords that had kept Lenz in bondage all this time. But Sachtleben knew well there would be no joyous encounter in the wilds à la Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone. He had lost the opportunity to meet Lenz.

"Still, the proposed mission to turbulent Turkey was not without possible benefits, especially if he could find Lenz's remains, unravel his fate, and bring about a measure of justice in the event of foul play. He would earn the eternal gratitude of Mrs Lenz, the wheel world, and the American public. And if his work compelled the Turkish government to pay Mrs Lenz an indemnity, he knew he could expect a liberal reward.

"Even if he did not fully succeed in that mission, he reasoned, it would certainly satisfy his pent-up cravings for more adventure. It would also thrust him back into the international limelight and renew his reputation as a world wanderer and roving reporters par excellence. While in Turkey he might even delve into the Armenian massacres and make himself an even more valuable commodity on the lecture circuit."

* * * * *

History has, more or less, forgotten the likes of Lenz and Sachtleben. Surprisingly, though, there is a wealth of information available on them. The travels of both were reported not just in their sponsoring magazine, Outing, but elsewhere in the press, both in America and along the routes of their journeys. Upon completing their journey Sachtleben and Allen, like Tom Stevens before them, published an account of their travels, Across Asia on a Bicycle. Photographic records of both journeys also exist, as does some correspondence between the travellers and others at home, as well as diaries. In addition, where Lenz is concerned, there are US State Department and British Foreign Service records of the diplomatic efforts to discover his fate. Herlihy has sifted all of this and pulled together a comprehensive account of the two globe-girdling attempts and an equally comprehensive account of the efforts solve the puzzle of Lenz's disappearance.

The Lost Cyclist, by David V Herlihy

The Lost Cyclist, by David V Herlihy - US and UK covers

The story, though, needs to be more than merely comprehensive: the characters need to come alive. Here, none of them do. This is less of a problem in the book's second half, when the story becomes that of a police procedural, plot driven, and you can hold out hope of the question of Lenz's disappearance having an actual answer. But in the first half, the travelogue portion, it holds back a story already suffering from having originally been constructed for nineteenth century sensibilities. Lenz found the Chinese "a plaguey bad lot" who, for all their flaws, were hard workers with vast possibilities, if only their own government would stop shielding them from Western culture and values. In India he was critical of those who criticised their colonial overlords and saw themselves as downtrodden and persecuted. In general, the further Lenz travelled the more he seemed to draw into himself and his own cultural beliefs and the less he seemed to see the world he was travelling through. And the less you want to travel with him.

The true story at the heart of The Lost Cyclist isn't really that of Lenz or even Sachtleben, though those are the stories that fills the book's pages: it's about why these men undertook the journeys they did. Were they just seeking the nineteenth century equivalent of insta-celebrity? Were they driven by wanderlust? Did the educational claims they attached to their journeys stack up? Were they naïve and foolhardy? Did they consider the risks not just to their own lives but also to those of others? These are the same questions that we could be asking in our own new era of ultracycling events and international adventurers. If we can understand why men like Lenz and Sachtleben risked everything to travel such vast distances on bicycles, maybe it can help us understand why it is still being done today.