The Lost Cyclist, David V Herlihy (2010)

The engaging account of a nineteenth century adventurer who did not return to tell his tale

Mainstream 9781845964320 326pp quarto £12.99

You don’t have to look too hard to find accounts of epic cycle rides from the early days of the bicycle. Thomas Stevens’ book has been in print almost continuously since it first appeared nearly 125 years ago. Histories of cycle touring – either as a mass activity or in its heroic form – are significantly rarer.

Herlihy’s subject is the unfortunate American Frank Lenz who died 1892 somewhere in eastern Turkey. By that time, Lenz had crossed his native United States and made a remarkable progress through China as well as northern India and Persia. He was not the first – Stevens holds that distinction, although his penny-farthing progress did rely on other means of transport for some of his journey. And, Will Sachtleben and Thomas Allen girdled the globe (to use a period phrase of which Herlihy very fond) on safety bikes over three years, completing their journey as Lenz set out.
Nevertheless, Lenz’ explicit desire was to establish himself as a celebrated adventurer, he departed with a contract with Outing magazine and his Odyssey was extensively reported in the US and the UK. His transit of China might well have been the most arduous and dangerous bicycle ride ever undertaken.

When his dispatches dried up there was an international outcry. Rather belatedly, Outing magazine sent Will Sachtleben, whose story is also weaved throughout this book, to find what had happened to their correspondent and ideally to bring home him his remains.

Herlihy draws on an extraordinary range of sources, including contemporary newspaper and magazine reports, journals kept by the main participants, letters home, the books written by Schatleban and Allen and a large number of diplomatic and state department archives. He also lists 51 libraries and learned society archives that he consulted. From this research, he has produced a narrative that has a readable quality that gives his work the quality of a novel. There are extensive sourcing notes at the end of the book, but no footnotes. It might not be an approach that delights academics, but it makes his tale a pleasurable read.

Along the way, the story is rich in fascinating period detail. There are the endless cycling clubs in the US and Europe that Lenz encounters and who appear to have a banquet waiting for him wherever he visits. There is the fast-changing technology of cycling – Lenz bike is hopelessly out of date a year into his journey. And there are the provinces through which he journeyed – often as their first European or cyclists that ever encountered.

Here is Lenz deep in China.

“Still, his situation had hardly improved. Lamented Lenz in a letter home: “the roads continue to be bad. From ten to forty-five miles a day has been my record, sometimes walking mile after mile.” He has to patch up his frame with the help of a blacksmith. The locals continued to hurl mud, stones and sandals in his path. Added Lenz: “When I come along they yell like so many demons out of hell. Day after day I run the gauntlet and only by tremendous will power can I control my temper. If I ever strike one of them I would no doubt be killed on the spot.” Lenz wisely resolved to “never show fear and to try to satisfy their curiosity.”

Satisfyingly, Herlihy records how all his main characters spent the rest of their lives. Lenz, alas, despite his brief celebrity, was quickly forgotten – until now. This book not only does his epic journey justice but also a fine exploration of the time when the bicycle opened up a world about which little more was known that that recorded by Marco Polo 600 years previously.

TD Feb 12

Jack Thurston spoke with David Herlihy on The Bike Show

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