The Unsolved Case of the "Lost Cyclist" | Smithsonian

Author David V. Herlihy discusses his book about Frank Lenz's tragic failed attempt to travel the world by bicycle

Shown here are Thomas Allen, left, and William Sachtleben, right, in 1892 in China

The sport of high wheel riding was introduced to the United States from England in the late 1870s. In its first decade, it was an elitist, fringe sport. American cyclists were predominately well-to-do young men daring enough to mount high wheelers—bikes with a large front wheel and tiny rear wheel. In 1892, Frank Lenz, an accountant turned long-distance cyclist from Pittsburgh, set off on a solo around-the-world tour to promote the “safety bicycle,” a successor to the high wheeler and precursor to today’s road bike that would ultimately spark the great, turn-of-the-century bicycle boom and transform cycling into a popular sport. In his new book, The Lost Cyclist, bike historian David V. Herlihy tells the story of Lenz, his mysterious disappearance in a volatile part of east Turkey and the ensuing investigation led by William Sachtleben, a fellow cyclist who succeeded in circumnavigating the world by bike. 
What drew you to this story? It’s been about 20 years since I first delved into bicycle history. I was familiar with the [bicycle] boom-era literature of the 1890s. Lenz is a name that comes up a fair amount. In the summer of 1890, he rode to St. Louis along the National Road from Pittsburgh. Then, in August 1891, he rode from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. But of course when he embarked on this around-the-world journey, he became quite the celebrity. When he disappeared in Turkey a few years later, he became even more famous. I knew there was a mystery surrounding him and found him an intriguing character. But I also knew, as well known as he was in the 1890s, he was completely forgotten afterwards. 
Lenz’s accounts of his pedal across North America and Asia, published by his sponsor Outing magazine, had, as you say in the book, “an intimacy only a cyclist could enjoy.” So what intimacies did bike touring allow that other travel up until that point hadn’t?  Sachtleben talked about how there is such a thing as too much comfort in traveling. In his time, only the wealthy took European tours. Typically, they traveled by luxury steamer and coach, with servants and trunks in tow. You don’t have any of that when you’re traveling by bike. You are not insulated. You’re there. You’re vulnerable. The bicycle really brings you to the people. You can’t help but interact with them. Lenz, too, recognized that travel by bicycle was a very intimate way to experience a culture. Both men became magnets for unwanted attention, not just because they were Westerners in foreign lands, but also because their vehicles were new and wondrous to the locals, who often demanded riding demonstrations.

Upon their return to the United States in the spring of 1893, Allen and Sachtleben are celebrated in the pages of Bearings magazine

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