Around the world with ‘The Lost Cyclist’

lostcyclistIt used to be that just about every advance in technology was accompanied by someone deciding to take it around the world — bikes, cars, balloons, boats, you name it. Maybe it’s technology that’s changed, maybe it’s us, in either case the round the world trip has become a touch routine by yesterday’s standards.

Sure you could grab an iPad and jump on a plane, but you’re not going to impress anyone. Not like you would if you hopped on a bike in 1892 and road it all the way across America, Europe and Asia.

Which is exactly what several adventurers did when the bicycle was first taking the world by storm.

Next time you’re feeling like the world is small place, just grab a bike and set out for the far side of the globe. Mostly likely the world will start seeming rather large before you get out of town.

Riding your bike around the world today is still an impressive feat, riding one of the first bikes around the world — the world of 1892 — is something only a handful of people ever attempted.

Those early pioneers — both of the bicycle and of extended backpacker-style travel — are the subject of the new book from David Herlihy who previously wrote, Bicycle: a History.

For his latest book, The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, Herlihy takes on the mystery of what happened to Frank Lenz, one of the first men to attempt an around the world trip by bicycle.

In 1892, Lenz set off from Pittsburgh on what was then the very innovative “safety” bicycle (a prototype of the modern bicycle design, the first with two equal-size wheels) in a quest to cycle around the world. Lenz first crosses the U.S., then hops a ship to Japan which he rides across. From there Lenz crosses China, India and much of the middle east before disappearing two years later in Turkey under what might be called “mysterious circumstances.”

That he made it as far as Turkey is impressive enough. Forget the physical stamina required for the trip, much of areas Lenz crossed didn’t even have roads. Although he wasn’t always riding his bike Lenz does make a dogged effort to cross every mile under his own power.

Until a fateful day in Turkey when he simply dropped off the face of the earth. Eventually Herlihy largely answers the question of what happened to Lenz, though the exact details have been lost to history.

In the end The Lost Cyclist isn’t just about Lenz, but also another pair of round the world cyclists — Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben — and their quest to find Lenz. Allen and Sachtleben actually completed their trip before Lenz (they went in the opposite direction, from London riding east). When Lenz disappeared it was William Sachtleben who went looking for him (you can see the New York Times 1895 write up)

Working from the diaries of Allen, Sachtleben and Lenz, as well as letters from Lenz to various friends and family back in the U.S., Herlihy manages to reconstruct a fascinating yarn that is equal parts adventure story, travel narrative and historical document.

The diary reconstructions will be of particular interest to those who’ve ever wondered what Japan, China and India looked like to an outsider circa 1892.

And if you think dealing with international regulations and bureaucracy is hassle for today’s traveler, the last third of The Lost Cyclist should make you feel better. William Sachtleben, who eventually attempts to track down Lenz and bring his body back to the U.S., faces an endless series of frustrations and horror — from an uncooperative U.S. State Department to the Turkish civil war and even the first Armenian genocide.

Suffice to say that The Lost Cyclist deserves a spot on the traveler’s bookshelf (or on their iPad if you prefer) and makes for an inspiring read. In fact, ever since I finished it I’ve been eyeing the bicycle sitting in the corner of my office thinking, I wonder if anyone has ridden from Gnome to Tierra del Fuego?

Answer: Of course they have (see AntiCompass, for one) but why not another?

In the mean time, The Lost Cyclist will be available June 18, 2010. You can pre-order a copy on Amazon.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | March 16, 2010
Category: Adventure Travel, Travel Writing

One Response to “Around the world with ‘The Lost Cyclist’”

  1. Rebecca Travel-Writers-Exchange Says:

    Thanks for the information! It’s an amazing feat to cycle the world. Unfortunately, most people would forgo this because bicycling = exercise and some folks are not fond of exercising for 30 minutes let alone for an entire trip. It’s definitely a great way to “go green” and get around a city with ease. Maybe “bike tours” will make a come back thanks to The Lost Cyclist!