The time-drowned lads look out at us from the old black-and-white photographs, their faces shining, hearty, and exuberant—or pensive, weary, and distraught. One of the posers—they are all amateur bicycle fanatics from the Victorian era—shows a mild resemblance to the young Paul Newman. He is Frank Lenz, twenty-four-years-old, and he has conceived of the grand and bold notion of cycling alone entirely around the globe. He will never succeed, meeting a mysterious death in Turkey: a death that will induce further heroics from one of his peers.
This in a nutshell is the nigh-forgotten saga, now welcomely brought back to light, which David Herlihy briskly and grippingly recounts in The Lost Cyclist. Having previously delivered a book on the history of the bicycle, Herlihy is steeped in the lore and allure and science of that mode of human-powered transportation. Moreover, he has dug deep into the primary sources surrounding his new tale, collating and assembling out of the extant paper shards a seamless narrative that is part travelogue, part character study, and part murder mystery, all of which might, in parts, remind readers of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.
Inspired by the very first global bike trek completed in 1887 by Thomas Stevens, the ambitious Lenz enlisted the sponsorship of a sporting magazine titled Outing, and set out to cross America from east to west, whereupon he would take ship for Asia and continue his quest. Little did he realize that two other wheelmen, Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben, were just on the point of completing their own multi-year circumnavigation, having endured 20,000 miles of arduous travel in comparison to Stevens’s 13,000. Even had Lenz succeeded in his own journey, his accomplishments would have been forever in the shadow of Sachtleben and Allen. So the ultimate irony or perhaps justice occurs when, Lenz having gone missing, Sachtleben assumes the task of traveling to Turkey to seek the murderers of his compatriot, and recover Lenz’s remains.
Herlihy alternates his chapters deftly between the rival riders until Lenz’s disappearance. At that point the narrative perforce focuses on Sachtleben alone. In both cases, Herlihy exhibits meticulous attention to the particulars of the expeditions, with a keen eye toward the excruciating physicality of the riding and the primitive conditions on the road. But the cultures of Victorian lands are not slighted, nor are the various characters whom the riders encounter. All are developed in novelistic depth.
Without being blunt, Herlihy draws many implicit connections between Lenz’s period and our own, where we see resonant incidents such as a fourteen-year-old girl determined to sail around the world, and three wayward hikers kidnapped in Iran. The wheelmen are technophilic gearheads akin to computer hackers of our day. The geopolitical realities are appallingly familiar and unchanging. And the 1890’s media landscape, while admittedly limited to print, is astonishingly like our twenty-first century coverage of seven-days-wonders.
Herlihy uses his final pages to round out the fates of his cast, and to speculate on the philosophical and personal implications of the tale. The saga, as he beautifully recaptures it, certainly bears much appreciation and mulling.
-PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.