Sunday 30 May 2010

Book Review: The Lost Cyclist

L.P. Hartley began a novel with the sentence: “The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.”  And in his new book, “The Lost Cyclist,” noted cycling historian David Herlihy introduces us to a most peculiar world, albeit with elements that we would still recognize.  The book is actually two stories The first deals with Frank Lenz, a young bookkeeper from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who became a noted high-wheel bicycle racer in the late 1880s before recognizing his chance for fame and fortune would really come with the advent of a new kind of bicycle, the “safety bicycle,” with new-fangled pneumatic tires.  Frank Lenz decided to take advantage of the new invention, then in its infancy, and using his skills as a cyclist, and as a passionate amateur photographer, his achievement would be the first around-the-world solo cycling trip on a safety bike.  To this end, he sought out sponsorship and arranged with the editor of New York’s “Outing” magazine to send back stories and photos of his trip, which was expected to last two years.

He began his formal launch of the around-the-world tour on May 15, 1892 from Pittsburgh, setting out with a 57 pound Overman bicycle, 13 pounds of camera gear and 25 pounds of other equipment.  He headed eastwards and in New York met worked with the editor of Outing to garner maximum publicity before beginning the trip proper on June 4, heading west and crossing the United States in five months.  He was 25 years old.

Although Frank Lenz may have been slight in stature, weighing 145 pounds, he was clearly, as one witness is quoted in the book as saying, “he was quite a novel person–one possessed of great pluck, energy and determination...” He told a reporter who asked about the dangers of the trip: “I have nothing but the most pleasurable anticipation of my trip abroad.  I have never encountered anything yet I have not overcome.”

In the telling of Lenz’s story, the author is clearly charmed by his cherubic protagonist and clearly wishes us to be as well.  Frank Lenz was indeed an innocent abroad, and his letters home, written in his superb bookkeeper’s script, are fascinating.  It is easy to forget that in 1892, most people simply did not travel to foreign countries, let alone on a bicycle.  His photos of Japan, his first stop after taking a steamer from California, are marvellous and he constantly comes across as a go-ahead, can-do and very good-humoured young man.

Along with the wide-eyed wonder, however, there was definitely danger.  Travelling alone, speaking no languages except English and German, he was highly vulnerable.  Although his writing tended to make light of the scrapes he gets into, some of them, such as an encounter with Chinese peasants, were quite terrifying.  He managed to deflect their hostility by clowning around and using his bicycle to entertain them.  The Chinese, most of whom had never seen a bicycle at all, threw stones and mud at him, and he often simply avoided encounters by riding at night through cities and towns.

His long, long ride in China came to an end as he headed next towards Burma.  It is here that the real dangers become evident, as the roads are impassable and he hires coolies to basically carry his bike onwards.  During the crossing of a rain-swollen river, one of the bearers drowns, and the reader begins to wonder how much of a toll Frank Lenz’s dream ride will eventually take.

Making his way to India, he caught up with his enormous steamer trunk, full of spare parts and equipment, and basically built up a new bicycle.  He had been on the road for a year and a half in his projected two year project, and there are indications of his weariness.  But he continued undaunted through India (and today’s Pakistan), visiting the Taj Mahal, and, as a good egalitarian American, expressed his dismay over India’s caste system.

In mid-December 1893, “he found himself mired in the Makran Desert without food, water or shelter.  Fortunately, a camel caravan came to his rescue.”  Shortly after, he entered Persia and by April was in Tabriz, where he met the Crown Prince of Persia, Mozaffar al-Din Shah.  “A technology buff, he grilled Lenz about his gear and took copious notes...the prince himself took a photo of Lenz in the royal courtyard, mounted on his bicycle.”

Although local Westerners urged him to go to Europe via Russia rather than Turkey, he was only 900 miles from Constantinople, and was looking forward to cycling in Germany, his ancestral homeland, with a Pittsburgh club mate.  He missed pie and ice cream and while enjoying his trip, he wrote to the editor of Outing confessing his homesickness and how he longed for his wanderings to end.

The photo by the Persian Crown Prince, showing a pensive-looking (but surprisingly well-dressed) Lenz on what even then must have been an old-fashioned bicycle, is the last known photo of the adventurer.  Because after April 1894, nothing was ever heard from Frank Lenz again.

This takes us to the second part of the book.  Frank Lenz’s mysterious disappearance caused great concern among his friends and readers and the editor of Outing endeavoured to find someone to look for him.  After some false starts, William Sachtleben, another long-distance cyclist and seemingly cut from the same cloth as Lenz, went to pick up the trail.  The author intersperses an account of Sachtleben’s great cycling trip, with a companion, Thomas Allen, on a pair of solid-tired bicycles, riding in the opposite direction to Lenz.  This too is an interesting story and probably adds some bulk to the book, which would probably be a bit thin if only about Frank Lenz himself.

The book now moves away from cycling to the political situation in Turkey.  Sachtleben demanded action from the American Embassy and, unsatisfied with the results, launches his own investigation, hoping to shed light on the disappearance of Frank Lenz, recover his body, if possible, and see that any malefactors were punished.  In spite of his furious activity, Sachtleben’s mission ends in failure.  We never learn for certain how Lenz died, a cyclist alone in Turkey, but we do know that his route took him into an area rife with ethnic tension between Turks, Kurds and Armenians.  Sachtleben himself was to witness a massacre of Armenians by Kurds, and to learn that due process of law in America was nothing like due process in Turkey.  The Turks, probably to placate Sachtleben, arrested some Armenians, who were probably completely innocent of Lenz’s death, and two of them died in prison, bringing the number of deaths connected to Lenz’s trip to four, including his own.
David Herlihy’s book is highly entertaining, with an extraordinary cast of characters, and includes truly enchanting period photos of Lenz and Sachtleben & Allen.  It was an era of handlebar mustaches and dirt roads and while sepia-toned, promised bright futures to adventurous young men.  The craze for the bicycle in the United States would end, probably much sooner than Sachtleben or Lenz would have imagined, and their stories quickly forgotten.  The author has done copious research and “the Lost Cyclist” is not only a worthy addition to any cyclist’s bookshelf, but is in itself revealing social history of a world in transition.

The book will be released on June 18.

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance
by David V. Herlihy
326 pp, hardcover, ISBN 978-0-547-19557-5
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Suggested price: US$ 26.00

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