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The Lost Cyclist Examines a Mystery in the Golden Age of Bicycling

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious DisappearanceThe Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance by David Herlihy

Reviewed by Jeff Mapes
The Oregonian

David V. Herlihy is a recovery artist, adept at finding things most of us failed to realize we had lost.

Herlihy did just that with Bicycle: The History, an impressively researched study of the bicycle from its invention in the 1860s to its zenith of popularity in the last years of the 19th century.

The bicycle ushered in a new era of individual transportation and literally paved the road for the automobile, for it was ardent cyclists who were the first to demand asphalt byways for their conveyances. And once the dangerous high-wheelers were replaced by the "safety bicycle" that resembles what we ride today, women in particular gained a new mobility and freedom that contributed in their march toward equality.

Besides recapturing the lost history of the bicycle, Herlihy gave new hope to those who see an important role for this simple two-wheeled vehicle in urban transportation. If cities are finding a new use for the streetcar, another 19th-century innovation, why not the bicycle?

In his latest book, The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, Herlihy once again looks back to the late 1800s, when cycling was a huge spectator sport and the best riders earned the kind of celebrity nowadays reserved only for Lance Armstrong.

Herlihy focuses on the most adventurous cyclists, the ones who used their new machines to explore the globe. His major protagonist is Frank Lenz, a Pittsburgh cyclist who decided to vault himself into celebrity by circumnavigating the globe by bike (and, yes, by ship, for those sticklers who wondered what he did in the watery parts).

Lenz made his way through China, often attracting not-always-friendly crowds who had never seen a bicycle before. In Burma, he hired porters to help him carry his bike over narrow mountain trails. Often, he would make his best time riding between the tracks of a railroad, which gives you a sense of the harshness of his journey.

Lenz was urged to bypass Turkey, which was then coming apart at the seams. The fading Ottoman Empire was losing its grip, Armenians were being massacred and the Kurds were restive. Lenz was not deterred, though, and he crossed the border in mid-1894, never to be heard from again.

William Sachtleben, who had successfully cycled his way around the world with Thomas Allen Jr., set out to find Lenz. It bore some resemblance to journalist Henry Morton Stanley's famous search for Dr. David Livingstone in Africa, but by the time Sachtleben reached Turkey, his more realistic hope was to find Lenz's remains and see that his murderers were brought to justice.

Here, too, Herlihy recaptures an era when much of the world was still cloaked in mystery and the American public eagerly consumed tales of overseas adventure travel.

Sachtelben's quest, which was well-covered in the American press of the time, had more twists and turns than a good mystery novel. But there was no simple or satisfying resolution, and Herlihy's too good of a historian to pretend that Sachtelben had his own "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" moment.

Herlihy's tale is a fresh reminder of how the bicycle has long inspired big dreams in so many of its enthusiasts. And he's provided a clear portrait of an era when it took a true adventurer to explore much of the globe.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of... Used Hardcover $12.95
  2. Bicycle: The History
    Used Trade Paper $15.00



2 Responses to "The Lost Cyclist Examines a Mystery in the Golden Age of Bicycling"

  1.  
    ed zeppeli July 29th, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Lately I have been wondering why Powell's "Review a Day" does not include the names of the publishers whose books it features. This C-plus review of a B-minus-smelling book whose appeal appears minimal at best only begs the question further. If a company is willing to publish a book with a niche the width of a bicycle spoke, there is hope for more struggling writers than many of us previously reckoned. Divulging the name of its publisher, along with the publishers of other books reviewed under the Powell's arch, would point aspiring authors everywhere in the direction of companies willing to roll the dice at the "New Authors" (and all too soon the "Sale Books") table.

  2.  
    Rowan July 29th, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Hi Ed! I think you've touched on one of the wonders of the book world...for every reader, there is a subject. Perhaps this isn't yours, but it certainly is likely to be someone's cup of tea. To be critical of a review based on your lack of interest in its subject matter makes me wonder -- would you be able to see the forest if all those pesky trees weren't in the way?
    If you're curious about publishers, they're listed on each book's particular page.
    http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780547195575

    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt might also be interested to know that they've published a B-minus smelling book from an obviously undertalented and struggling author, as many of their authors must be, like Audrey Niffenegger and Yann Martel. Second raters, for sure.

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