The Lost Cyclist

January 5, 2011

Frank Lenz

Sachtleben and Allen

For close to four years now this site has featured many different topics but there’s never been a book review. It’s not that I don’t read. I read a lot. But I really only read newspapers, magazines, websites, or how-to books. How To Raise a Strong-Willed Child was my last thriller, and The Complete Guide to Bathroom Remodeling is waiting on my bedside table.

Besides the case of beer I asked for, the only Christmas present I received this year was the book The Lost Cyclist: An Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, which I just finished in a week, which is a record for a guy with two small children and bedtime of ten o’clock.

The book is look at bicycle travel in the days before paved roads and automobiles, a time when cycling was the MOST popular spectator leisure activity and sport in Europe and the U.S. It is actually a more in-depth look at three men who circled the globe by bicycle in the 1890s and it reads part travelogue, part murder investigation.

Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben made the first trip together, and Frank Lenz soon followed solo in the opposite direction. All were emulating Thomas Stevens, who in the mid-1880s had cycled around 13,500 miles across three continents on an old-fashioned high-wheeler.

Their adventures were done on dirt “roads,” which were little more than singletrack footpaths and occasionally two track carriage paths in those days- muddy, rutted, pre-gravel with little drainage. It’s amazing how they got around at roughly 30 miles/day, which even with a modern lightweight bike with knobby tires is a mean feat in the mountains. To escape the wilds, Lenz sometimes rode his bike on the railroad lines, on the ties between the rails. He managed to do 70 miles some days, which isn’t many miles shy most current-day riders on brand new lightweight bikes pedaling modern paved roads.

It is absolutely amazing that anyone could go around the world at such an early time, when bicycles were in their infancy. When parts broke, which happened to them often (and even happens often today), the cyclists had only two options: hope a local blacksmith could fix it, or send a letter home asking for a replacement to be shipped! Lenz had the forethought to actually ship spare parts to certain cities along his route.

The coaster hub wasn’t invented for another few years, so the men basically rode “fixies” through the Himalyas and Rockies. Sachtleben and Allen covered more than 15,000 miles. Along the way, they endured typhoid fever, a tortuous 12-day crossing of the Gobi Desert, and hostile natives, most of whom had never seen a bicycle. Not only that, he and the other pair rode most of the trip on hollow rubber tires, which they wore down to the rim after a few thousand miles. Luckily the modern “pneumatic” (inflatable) tire became available halfway through Lenz’s trip and he was able to upgrade. These bikes had only one “spoon” brake, which was basically a spoon-shaped lever than could be pressed against one tire when the rider wanted to stop. As you can imagine, it wasn’t very safe.

[A newspaper reporter] admired the reckless way the Pittsburgher (Lentz) charged downhill at breakneck speed. He removed his feet from the furiously spinning pedals, slipped his lower legs under the handlebar, and slouched back until he was almost completely horizontal, thereby minimizing wind resistance. Lenz insisted that he could still bring his machine to a full stop if ever the need arose. One could only shudder at the prospect.

The book is interesting not only to bicyclist but anyone remotely interested in world history or even photography, as Allen and Sachtleben toted an early Kodak camera, and Lenz carried a 13 pound wooden camera on his back. Lenz also carried another 25 pounds of gear on a bicycle weighing 57 pounds. In addition to a change of clothes, they also carried tools and a revolver.

Although the first pair finished their trip and became world famous, Lenz never made it through Turkey. He was robbed and murdered and never seen again. Sachtleben was hired to return to Turkey and find his body and his killers. The second half of the book details the search for his body and his killers.

Here’s another excerpt from a chapter titled “Ardmore, PA”:

Decoration Day 1893 found Allen and Sachtleben sailing along Pennsylvania’s Lancaster Pike, the oldest paved road in the United States. After nearly three years on the road, their world tour was at last nearing completion. Approaching the leafy suburb of Ardmore, they broke into wide smiles. In the distance, they could make out about fifty cyclists waiting in the shade by the roadside. The travelers knew instantly that these were members of the West Philadelphia Cyclers. The welcoming committee soon erupted into cheers as it set off fireworks.

I find this passage particularly interesting because Lancaster Avenue, AKA “The Main Line” or Route 322 is the road I used to leave Philadelphia on my first (and only!) long distance solo trip to Michigan. It is also the route I commuted by bicycle daily when I worked in Radnor. I had no idea that it was the first paved road in the States!

My only beef with the book is that the author David Herlihy failed to add his own comments to emphasize potentially engaging historical elements. Instead the book ends up mostly as a series of personal letters and newspaper clippings from the times. That’s not much of a gripe because this book would easily make a riveting movie.
Are you listening Hollywood? Snatch up the film rights to this gripping tale now.

Next on my list is Herlihy’s earlier book, Bicycle: The History. As soon as I finish that bathroom remodel. In 2014.


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