If I could time travel into the past, I’d like to visit the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan where Mexico City stands today. I’d also like to be a guest in a Viennese parlor in 1793 listening to Beethoven play the piano. And I’d like to spend time in an American city after the bicycle had been introduced but before cars had appeared on the streets. The Lost Cyclist, a nonfiction book by historian David V. Herlihy, takes place during that very window of time when bicycles contended with horses and carriages on the roadways but not with cars. The book tells the story of two “wheelmen,” William Sachtleben and Frank Lenz, who never met but who both set out to circle the globe by bike in the early 1890s.
Sachtleben, a 25-year-old from Illinois, bicycled 15,044 miles through Europe, Turkey, Persia (now Iran) and China with his college buddy Thomas Allen, a trip that was considered at the time to be the “longest continuous land journey on record.” In the dispatches Sachtleben wrote from the road, he was clearly an early bike advocate. “Traveling always by first class is like staying in your own country. There is such a thing as too much convenience. For our part, we have long since tired of trains …. We love to roam on our bicycles, unfettered, among the scenes of unsophisticated nature and the common people.” The duo, who would return home to banquets, medals and front-page stories, left Shanghai by boat in December of 1892, six weeks before Frank Lenz arrived in China on his own westward solo bike trip.
Lenz, a 25-year-old bookkeeper from Pittsburgh, was riding a 57-pound “safety bike,” the name given to bikes with same sized tires (as opposed to the more accident-prone high wheelers). He carried 25 pounds of gear and a 13-pound Kodak camera, which he used to take photos that he sent to Outing. This New York-based magazine paid him $2,000 in travel expenses and agreed to publish photos and stories from his around-the-world trip. By the time Lenz reached China, he had already ridden across North America, taken a 1,000 mile tour of Japan and was set to travel across China, India, Persia and Turkey and then through Europe.
My favorite parts of this meticulously detailed book come in the first section where it offers glimpses into what international travel was like in the 1890s and the varied reactions to bicycles and bicyclists. In Rome, Sachtleben and Allen rode several laps in the Coliseum and were guests of honor at a banquet hosted by a local bicycle club. Days later, in the Italian town of David, they were arrested and fined for riding on the streets. They staged good-natured, impromptu races with farmers in mule-drawn carts in Greece and endured having their bicycles called “devil carts” in Turkey. Lenz too recounted how he was regularly yelled and laughed at in China, with mud, stones and sandals thrown at him. The black and white photographs in the book are fascinating to look at and include images from both of these long-distance trips as well as from Lenz’s early races and tours on a high-wheel bike in the US.
The book bogs down in the second section after Lenz, the lost cyclist of the book’s title, disappears in Turkey in 1894. Sachtleben reenters the story as the man Outing Magazine sends to find Lenz, or at least to find out what happened to him. Herlihy offers a slowly recounted chronology of Sachtleben’s dealings with embassies and consuls, police and politicians, courts and insurance companies and Lenz’s bereft mother back in Pittsburgh. In the end, neither Sachtleben nor Herlihy found the answer to what happened to Lenz. The best guess is that he was murdered. His body, his bike and his belongings were never found.
Herlihy, who won awards for his 2004 book Bicycle: The History, has done a worlds-worth of research for this book, drawing from newspaper accounts, government reports and the bicylists’ own diaries and dispatches. Far less attention is given here to the “original globe girdler,” Thomas Stevens, the British cyclist who biked across three continents from 1884 to 1886. Herlihy wrote this book to resurrect the names of these lesser known American cyclists who I view as early bike advocates. Their long rides within the U.S. and abroad no doubt helped to introduce the idea of bike riding as a mode of transportation.
The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance
David V. Herlihy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 326 pages
— Book Review by Kelly Nelson