Shortly after William Sachtleben and Thomas Allen began their perilous ride across Asia in 1892, another young man set off on his own round-the-world trip. Frank Lenz, a 25-year-old cyclist from Pittsburgh, had landed an assignment from Outing magazine to make the 20,000-mile journey. Quitting his dreary job as a bookkeeper, he embarked on the ride alone, traveling across the U.S. to Japan and from there to China, Burma, India and Persia. He planned a final leg across Europe.
Instead he disappeared, probably near a remote Turkish river, as the world fretted about his fate. After a lengthy delay, the penny-pinching editor of Outing finally took action: hiring William Sachtleben, now safely home but still eager for adventure, to travel to Turkey and figure out what happened. It was a dangerous quest: The roads and defiles were treacherous, Kurdish thugs were roaming the land, and a wave of Armenian massacres was under way. A foreigner on the still-unfamiliar bicycle, loaded with gear, would be a tempting target for thieves.
In his book The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, author David V. Herlihy cleverly and compellingly traces all three threads of the Sachtleben-Allen-Lenz story. First, he reviews the Sachtleben-Allen ride and its triumphal ending, interspersing that account with the tale of Lenz and his hopeful start. Then he describes Sachtleben’s dogged pursuit of the truth despite cultural, bureaucratic and linguistic barriers.
Herlihy has been relentless himself, tracking down information about the three cyclists from diaries, newspapers, government records and archives. During his research, he turned up new information, including Sachtleben’s papers at the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles, which also has his Kodak camera and the Humber bicycle he used to cross Asia (the London Science Museum has Allen’s). UCLA holds some 400 fragile nitrate negatives, which it plans to scan soon, taken by Sachtleben and Allen during their world tour.
The book, which came out in 2010, made the Publisher’s Weekly list of that year’s top 100 titles. A New York Times review called it “grippingly detailed” and noted Herlihy’s ability to write “from inside the heads of the cyclists.” Certainly, no one knows cycling better than Herlihy, who earlier wrote Bicycle: the History, winner of the 2004 Award for Excellence in the History of Science from a division of the Association of American Publishers.
At the center of The Lost Cyclist is Lenz, the only son of a widowed mother who chafed at his stepfather’s mistreatment and longed to be off on his own. His ticket to independence was the high-wheeler, and he was the dashing, slightly reckless, star of the Allegheny Cyclers, the largest of three cycling clubs in the Pittsburgh area at the time, with about 30 members. Blue-eyed, with sandy blond hair, he was “a young man in the prime of life, beaming with joy as he straddles his beloved two-wheeler,” writes Herlihy.
After honing his skills in regional races, Lenz moved in a new direction, long-distance touring, with a thrilling 1,200-mile jaunt from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in the summer of 1891. He also discovered a second great love: photography. Acquiring a bulky wooden box camera and a mount (with a timer that allowed him to capture himself), he was set to become a touring reporter, if only a major magazine would send him on an exotic journey.
In this ambition, he had an idol: Thomas Stevens, who had circumnavigated the globe by bicycle from 1884 to 1887, traveling through 25 countries. After his trip, described in harrowing installments in Outing, Stevens had become a successful author and lecturer. “Lenz simply could not fathom,” wrote Herlihy, “how any pursuit could be more exciting or satisfying than touring the world on a bicycle.”
In the early 1890s, the bicycling landscape was shifting quickly and dramatically. The conventional high-wheeler, with its huge wheel in front and tiny one in back, gave way to the modern safety bike with refinements such as lighter-weight frames and pneumatic tires. Clubs of avid young men were springing up all over the United States, as bicycling became the sport of the middle class, not just wealthy Easterners.
In 1892, Lenz’s dream of a round-the-world assignment came true. Outing editor James H. Worman hired him to travel across the globe on a new Victor safety bike, sending in reports and photos every other month. On May 15, before an adoring crowd, Lenz left Pittsburgh. Three weeks later, Outing gave him an official send-off in New York City, where he began his dash west across the country. Asked whether he was nervous about making it home, Lenz answered stoutly: “I have nothing but the most pleasurable anticipation of my trip abroad. Besides, I have never encountered anything yet that I have not overcome.”
In Japan, he encountered interesting sights, such as ancient pagodas, rice paddies and his first red-light district. The hotels were spare but clean, and the people, for the most part, friendly. But in China, where he narrowly missed meeting the returning Sachtleben and Allen, he encountered bitter poverty, terrible roads and anti-foreign fervor. Mapping a route along the telegraph line so he could find shelter with operators, he began his trek, filled with foreboding.
Soon he had some close calls. One day he confronted a mob of farm workers, driven into a frenzy by the sight of a foreigner on a strange, silver device. Dodging blows, Lenz suddenly had the sense to act the clown, dissolving tension and gaining permission to pass. Often he found shelter and advice from American missionaries who, almost to a man, advised him to abandon his trip.
But he made it through China, and then Burma, India and Persia. As he left Tabriz, determined to cycle through a lawless region of Turkey, he wrote to Worman: “I must confess to a feeling of homesickness. I am very, very tired of being a ‘stranger.’ I long for the day which will see me again on my native hearthstone and my wanderings at an end.”
Sadly, he never made it, and by the time the dilatory Worman sent Sachtleben to trace his fate, the trail had largely gone cold. Still, the determined Sachtleben, who made the hunt a personal quest, did his best against fearful odds. Was he right in pointing the finger at several Kurdish thieves, who finally escaped punishment? Were his Armenian accusers, two of whom died for their testimony, actually telling the truth?
Herlihy lays out the evidence in vivid detail, concluding that “If Sachtleben did indeed get anywhere near the truth of the murky Lenz matter … that was truly an extraordinary accomplishment.” As to the doomed Lenz, Herlihy echoes every reader’s sentiment when he adds: “A brave and resourceful man, full of noble intentions, he … deserved a better fate.”
Candace O’Connor is an Emmy award-winning freelance writer based in St. Louis.