The Lost Cyclist

One of my favorite bicycling books ever is The Lost Cyclist, by David Herlihy.  Maybe it is my  favorite cycling book:  Seldom is so much adventure, suspense, history, and culture crammed into such an attractive package.

The “lost cyclist” of the title is young Frank Lenz, a speed mad high-wheeler racer and photography buff from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who sets off, in 1892, to tour the world by bicycle. He never returns, but that fact, and his trip itself, are only a small portion of this tale.

In and around Lenz’s adventures, Herlihy discusses the early history of bicycles, chronicles the racing culture that built up around the famous high-wheel “Ordinaries”, and describes other early long-distance tours done on the most primitive of early bicycles, under the most primitive of conditions.  The wonder isn’t that one cyclist failed; it’s that so many didn’t.

Lenz was inspired, in part, by William Sachtleben and Thomas Allen, fellow Americans whose 1890-1893 world tour on the new Safety bicycle made them famous in an era suddenly gone bicycle-mad.  Several years later, it was Sachtleben who, in 1895, set off to determine what had happened to Lenz; that tale, also recounted in The Lost Cyclist, is as harrowing and as exciting as anything else in the book.

The book’s photographs alone — many taken by Lenz himself — are fascinating, as are the glimpses into the cultures encountered by these intrepid cyclists, the politics of financing such trips, and the means and ways of gaining access to territories with little in the way of organized government. Herlihy is an intelligent and lively writer, and  every page of this terrific book is well worth savoring.