A century before Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France, even before the Tour's first running, a young American named Frank Lenz emerged as a national hero as he set out to ride his bicycle around the world.
After making his mark by racing high-wheel bikes, Lenz quit his job as a bookkeeper in Pittsburgh to pursue his dream of pedaling 20,000 miles across North America, Asia and Europe. With a 20-pound camera box strapped to his back, he sent stories and photos to the monthly magazine Outing, which sponsored the solo trip that began in 1892.
The first half of David Herlihy's book, The Lost Cyclist , focuses on Lenz's two-year adventure, which ended in tragedy when he disappeared in eastern Turkey, never to be seen again. But equally fascinating is the ensuing investigation of his tragic fate by a fellow cyclist who set out for the lawless region and doggedly struggled to bring Lenz's killers to justice.
Herlihy's book is set amid the bicycle boom of the late 19th century that captured the imagination of millions of Americans who would later embrace the automobile with even greater fervor. The author is on familiar turf, having written a comprehensive history of bicycles devoted largely to the vehicle's early years.
Lenz, who was in his mid-20s at the time of his great adventure, may have preferred high-wheelers, but he rode the newly introduced "safety" bicycle, which had wheels of equal size and was equipped with inflatable tires that made for more comfortable travel.
He began his rugged journey by crossing the U.S., where he often rode on rail beds, encountered stray cactus needles that punctured his tires and had to walk his bike for much of the way while ascending the Rockies in Montana.
He spent nearly three weeks touring Japan before crossing to Shanghai, beginning what he believed would be the most dangerous part of his trip. He received a hostile reception from some of the Chinese, who regarded him as a foreign devil on a hellish mechanical contrivance and would hurl rocks at him as he rode past.
He traveled nearly 2,900 miles across China, often staying with missionaries or at telegraph stations along the route. But after passing through Burma, where monsoon floods forced him to travel much of the way on foot, it looked as though the worst of the journey was behind him. Lenz made it to Tabriz, Persia, in April 1894 and was crossing into Turkey with plans to link up with fellow cyclists in Europe when he vanished without a trace.
As weeks and months passed with no word from Lenz, there was mounting concern at home about his fate. Fueling the worries were reports of widespread massacres of Armenians in the Turkish region where he was believed to have been riding.
There was a public outcry to dispatch a search party to try to find him, much as Stanley discovered Livingston in Africa a generation earlier. But 10 months passed before William Sachtleben began his heroic search.
Sachtleben, who had biked across Asia with a companion around the time Lenz began his trip, had no illusions about finding his friend alive, but he hoped at least to find Lenz's remains so he could have a proper burial and, if he was murdered, to seek prosecution of the killers.
Herlihy's gripping, fast-paced tale of larger-than-life cyclists and the era in which the bicycle came into its own as a means of transportation and recreation should appeal to a broad range of readers. Illustrated with 16 pages of photographs documenting Lenz's saga, the book combines elements of a mystery thriller with those of a fascinating travel tale set in the historical context of a fast-changing world on the brink of the 20th century.