Monday, January 31, 2011

The Lost Cyclist

I am deep into this tale of late 19th century wanderlust. Wonderfully rich with world history, three intrepid bicycle travelers set off—two go East and one sets off West. The single traveler, Frank Lenz, is a cocky soul who used to race high wheelers in his native Pittsburgh, but to get sponsorship for a world tour he succumbs to the inevitable popularity of the "safety bicycle".  And just a year before, William Sachtleben and Thomas Allen ride their bikes on a jaunty tour of Europe, Turkey, and across Mongolia before their trek across the United States. The two groups intersect, but never meet, on the west coast of the U.S. After 20,000 miles Frank Lenz disappears in Persia, (present day Eastern Turkey) and Sachtleben sets out to discover what happened to the iconic traveler.

The tale is a fascinating account of cycle touring through countries like China and English-occupied Burma where the natives had never even seen a bicycle. Toting a revolver, a change of clothes, spare tubes, and pounds of camera equipment, Frank Lenz hires coolies for protection, then follows telegraph lines and railroad beds, fords rivers, develops malaria, yet he also connects with bicycle clubs in Mandalay and Calcutta. The popularity of the bicycle is celebrated worldwide—hard to imagine that kind of excitement today.

Lenz chronicled his journey so the book is chock full of photos of ordinaries (high wheelers) and safety bicycles. At that time, cycling was proving it's popularity with two competing bike manufacturers in Massachusetts. Author David Herlihy knows his historical bike stuff. He is also the author of Bicycle: The History. 

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