The bicycle mania that swept America in the mid-1890s was equivalent in many respects to the country's startling economic booms. Prototypical wheelmen of the era were generally upper class dandies with far too much time to waste, but this was hastily changing as the racing scene soon incorporated daring innovators, including women, of all social temperaments. Vastly influential cycling clubs of agile athletes sprouted up throughout the world, especially in the United States and Britain, no doubt attributable to the introduction of the "safety bicycle" and the extinction of the risky, appropriately named "boneshaker."
Into this fast world, adventurous young men strove for glory on the racing circuits, yet many of them yearned for more spectacular challenges. None, perhaps, was as audacious as the Pittsburgh racing enthusiast Frank George Lenz, who, in the words of David V. Herlihy in The Lost Cyclist, "was certain of one thing: both cycling and fame were intrinsic to his destiny."
Planning to cross the globe in two years, Lenz embarked from California in 1892, heading ever west, traversed China during the violent winter months, entered Turkey and was never seen again.
Strapped with an unwieldy camera (he was a prolific photographer), a revolver, extra clothes and some tools, Lenz landed in Japan by way of Hawaii. Forced to assimilate into Asian culture—he was incredibly adept—he subsisted on ascetic regional foods and was shocked at the sight of co-ed bathing. He had little inkling of what lay waiting in the remainder of the continent. Narrated in the journalist's confident tone, Herlihy pursues Lenz into China in 1893, months behind schedule, where his real hardships begin: thieves, a debilitating winter, threats of starvation, insensible mobs eager for a glimpse of his "soulless horse," sudden dead-ends in the route, urban squalor, shady inns and illness. At one point, confronted by a crowd of angry field workers, Lenz barely survived by performing amusing stunts on his bicycle. On some days he averaged as low as 10 miles a day. Riding precariously toward Burma he became afflicted with "a feeling closely akin to dread."
After a stay in Calcutta enjoying himself with the local cycling club, Lenz proceeded to the Makran Desert in the direction of Persia, although nearly everyone he met warned him to avoid war-torn Turkey, where Kurds were in the process of eliminating Armenians after a suppressed tax revolt. He shrugged off all advice and continued, hounded by doubt and a foreboding that grew the nearer he got to Teheran. In a final, iconic photograph taken by the crown prince of Persia, Lenz appears fatigued, yet impassioned and prepared. His final letters told of his wish to return to Pittsburgh immediately.
"Frank Lenz is lost," the Evening News Review reported, somewhere in the vast, 300-mile stretch between Tabriz and Erzurum. After an unhurried decision by Lenz' sponsor at Outing magazine amid something like a national crisis, another famous bicyclist, William Sachtleben (who had made Lenz' trip in the opposite direction a short time earlier with a companion) was sent to Turkey to investigate his fellow wheelman's fate. With scant assistance from either the Turkish or American governments, Sachtleben concluded that Lenz had been murdered in the small village of Chilkani by local brigands. In the ensuing fiascoes, international debacles and "colossal failures" of the case, Herlihy dutifully recaptures the vivid mood. Sachtleben's investigation, like the ill-timed undertaking of the missing cyclist, is doomed to remain an unsatisfied question. When a disgruntled Sachtleben returned to America, the bicycle frenzy went bust. Lenz was promptly forgotten.
Herlihy, an authoritative cycling historian (his first book, Bicycle: The History, is justly considered the definitive chronicle in the field), recounts the exploits of Lenz, his forebears and his rescue party in engrossing storytelling, covering the events as though he had witnessed them firsthand. Although not always drafted from compelling material, his minute descriptions of both riders' travails are perpetually stimulating and consistently thorough. The author's reliance on the letters, articles, official records and photos of his sportsmen, politicians and dignitaries to propel the story is refreshing: Herlihy writes as though he were merely a confidante to these forgotten adventurers, an assured recorder of their thoughts and exploits. Luckily, Lenz and Sachtleben were profuse travel writers and photographers; without their input, this would have been a slimmer, far less absorbing volume.
An obvious heartfelt passion for the antiquities of cycling has given Herlihy great admiration for these headstrong "globe girdlers." The Lost Cyclist painstakingly follows the inner velocity of Lenz and Sachtleben, and also their infuriating missteps and political maneuvering as it merges personal dilemma with universal reaction to the wild events. It manages to restate the sobering fact that the lives of hundreds of intrepid men and women, George Lenz among them, and their daunting excursions oftentimes end in frustrating ellipses.
David Herlihy reads from The Lost Cyclist at Fact & Fiction Friday, Sept. 17, at 7 PM. Free.