Lost En Route Around the World [From BA 43-100]

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"Like now, Lenz’s era esteemed the bicycle as a means of transportation that promised to reveal new horizons and potential."

A review of David V. Herlihy’s The Lost Cyclist by Alison Rutherford Krieger

The year is 1892 when Frank Lenz sets out to travel the world by bicycle, the modern car only a dream in its inventors’ minds. The bicycle still reigns supreme as western culture’s pinnacle of freedom and mobility, and Lenz is on the cutting edge of that movement. By the early 20th century, the first automobiles introduced to the American market would overshadow and eventually displace the bicycle, but for now, during the years in which David V. Herlihy’s latest work The Lost Cyclist is set, the bicycle dominates the collective imagination and opens doors of incredible opportunity and loss to the book’s main character, Lenz.

As a young man, Frank Lenz threw himself into the burgeoning cycling scene of 1880’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, eventually taking up the new “safety” cycle with its pneumatic tires as his cause. A move away from the traditional high-wheeler model, the safety would eventually carry him over three continents on a tour sponsored by Outing magazine. On his adventure, however, Lenz made it just beyond the interior border of the politically unstable Turkey, and was never heard from again. His disappearance generated an uproar reflective of the growing tensions between East and West. Though Herlihy focuses primarily on Lenz’s unsettling journey, The Lost Cyclist paints a picture of larger forces at play during the cyclist’s ill-fated last years—forces that had a hand in his mysterious death and the thwarted efforts to uncover what became of Lenz between his last report home and the time it was obvious he was missing.

Before Herlihy began writing about this particular historical moment, the entirety of Lenz’s story had gone unrecorded. Having taken four years to research and write The Lost Cyclist, the author weaves a successful narrative out of what was previously a loosely-related collection of archaic newspaper articles, interviews, personal letters, and journal entries of Lenz’s all strewn about the country. When Herlihy first learned of Lenz’s story from a journalist for The Washington Post, he knew he had a good story on his hands and began to consider how best to record it. His publisher convinced him that it would be better to compose a general book on cycling first, and so Herlihy put Lenz’s case on the back burner in order to create his first work, Bicycle: The History. Following its publication in 2004, he set about the long and detailed process of putting together the pieces of Lenz’s life and early death. Part of what makes The Lost Cyclist so compelling is Herlihy’s willingness to fill in the gaps left between the archival material available on Lenz; his factual prose details Lenz’s world and personality with the perspective gained only from knowing a subject matter so well that—as Herlihy puts it, the character of Lenz became “clear” through his voice in interviews and personal writings.

Part mystery and part investigation, The Lost Cyclist details the exotic landscapes Lenz covered along his globe-girding adventure. As any cyclist today knows, the world is experienced intimately atop the saddle, and the small sensory details that make up a travel route—the scent of a woodstove burning in November, subtle changes in barometric pressure throughout a day, the dance of sunlight on an early commute—are lost to the speed of a car yet fully experienced by bike. Herlihy, himself an avid cyclist, captures this, as the following section from Lenz’s time in Japan shows:

“Starting down the eastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s central island, Lenz sailed past endless rice paddies, where men and women were wading up to their waists to cut the ubiquitous grain. He soon reached Kamakura, home of the famous giant bronze Buddha cast around the year 1250. As Lenz pushed on, he was struck by the friendliness of the natives, who yelled to him ‘ohayo’ (good morning) and ‘sayonara’ (goodbye). He soon made his way to his first beach and the picturesque island of Enoshima, where he explored a cave.” (114)

Though the work addresses a bygone era in which Lenz’s experiences of eastern cultures were rare to westerners, something in his story taps into the recent increased popularity of cycling. As Herlihy began to map out his process for writing The Lost Cyclist, he discovered that a few others around the United States also had designs on the same project. While no one else developed the idea to fruition, the fact that Lenz’s story was in the air now after having remained unexplored for so long is significant. When asked, Herlihy resists the temptation to explain this phenomenon, yet it does point to the fact that, like now, Lenz’s era esteemed the bicycle as a means of transportation that promised to reveal new horizons and potential.

Though cycling’s popularity in late 19th century would fade with the advent of the automobile, for all Lenz knew, his bicycle was the future. From a current vantage point, we have seen the negative effects that cars have on the health of our environment and communities, and consequently the bicycle has reemerged as a creative (and practical) alternative. It’s hard not to think that Lenz, who Herlihy describes as a bicycling “evangelist” believing firmly in the bicycle’s revolutionary ability to shape culture, would be proud.

The book’s cover depicts a mustachioed young man with an unreadable expression on his face, poised easily on his bicycle. Lenz remains “one of those frozen figures, immortalized—ironically—by his premature death,” and in The Lost Cyclist Herlihy creates for him a place in the ongoing history of cycling to which he devoted himself entirely. 

Evan P. Schneider