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Herlihy finds “The Lost Cyclist” a good topic for new book

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[Note: Here's another story about a couple of early bicycle explorers. Written by noted bicycling author David Herlihy, the book was published this past summer.]

If you're looking to travel by bicycle vicariously this summer by reading about someone else's adventures, I'd recommend “The Lost Cyclist” by David Herlihy. But I'll warn you that, as the title implies, it ends badly.

From the opening pages, you can tell “The Lost Cyclist” is not going to be your average book about a bicycle tour. It's an historical account of Frank Lenz's around-the-world bicycle adventure gone wrong, possibly made worse by attempts to make it right again.

Herlihy starts by describing how one of the main characters in the story walks out of the mists of time and into a newspaper office in 1953 to take care of some business. He's recognized by the editor. They chat, and the editor asks if he'd like to talk to a reporter about his attempt to rescue a missing bicycle traveler halfway around the world a half-century earlier.

The man, Will Sachtleben, at first agrees, then says he's got to take care of something first. He bolts from the office, never to return.

Early bike travel

Why did he run away like that? His rescue mission turned into an attempt to seek justice — an action that may have led to the loss of innocent lives and the escape forever of the guilty parties. And it all happened against a backdrop of ethnic massacres in Turkey that have not been forgotten to this day as survivors seek the U.S. Congress to declare them as genocide.

The story starts in the late 1880s when bicycling was just catching on as a national pasttime. Herlihy is familiar with this era through his previous work, Bicycle: The History In fact, he stumbles upon the story of Frank Lenz while researching that earlier book.

Lenz is a noted local racer of the high-wheeled variety of bicycles. The adaptations and development of the bicycle is accompanied by improvements in photography, and Lenz becomes an early practitioner of the bicycling travel writer — although both contraptions are extremely bulky and cumbersome. Lenz makes the best of timers and remote switches to include himself in the photographs.

Around the world

At last, Lenz resolves to travel around the world by bicycle. He won't use the high-wheeled bone-shaker that his predecessor Thomas Stevens used, but he'll ride the newly developed “safety” bicycle outfitted with pneumatic tires. And he'll cover more land by bicycle, instead of hop-skipping around Asia by boat like Stevens.

At the same time, Sachtleben and a companion happen to be traveling the world by bicycle. Sachtleben and Lenz make for interesting comparisons, as the former is a college grad bicycling around the world with a friend almost as a lark while Lenz has struggled his whole life and is using this bike tour to escape his hum-drum existence as an office worker in Pittsburgh.

Herlihy uses their letters and articles in newspapers and publications tell about their trips. Lenz, for instance, is chased by Chinese farmers who consider him a “flying devil”. At one point he performs stunts to amuse a local mob bent on killing him.

Slow communications

Things go better in India, but then he completely drops from sight. The world was a much bigger place back then, and by the time Outing magazine decided Lenz had turned up missing, months had passed.

While the first part of the book deals with Lenz's tour, the second half deals with Sachtleben's search for him and those ramifications. Sachtleben had traveled the area of Turkey where Lenz disappeared. Under pressure, the Outing editor hires Sachtleben to return for the search and he leaves — 10 months after Lenz was last heard from.

Herlihy suggests that although Sachtleben's motives were noble, he made mistakes. Lots of them. Although he's somewhat familiar with the country, he has lots to learn about the local customs and has little patience for dealing with the political establishment. I admired his tenacity, but it had disastrous results.

Personal appearances

I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes healthy doses of history and mystery with their bicycle touring travelogues. I was especially amazed by the barriers and hardships that bicycle travelers of the 1880s and 1890s endured, as well as their celebrity status in the public eye.

The material is well-documented, and Herlihy goes as length to explain Sachtleben's search for Lenz.

Herlihy is making book tour this summer. Among the places he'll visit in the Pacific Northwest:

Autie's in Spokane at 2 p.m. July 16;

Powell's Burnside in Portland at 7:30 p.m. July 19;

Seattle Public Library (central location) at 7 p.m. July 20 for a talk and autograph session;

Village Books in Bellingham at 7 p.m. Sept. 16.

Links related to  The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance:

Houghton Mifflin Books

House panel OKs Armenian genocide measure, MSNBC

Permanent link to this article: http://www.bikingbis.com/2011/02/24/herlihy-finds-the-lost-cyclist-a-good-topic-for-new-book/

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