The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance Summary

David Herlihy


The Lost Cyclist tells the stories of the independent cyclist Frank Lenz as well as cycling partners William Lewis Sachtleben and Thomas Gaskell Allen Jr. All three took advantage of the popularity of emerging bicycle designs to cycle around the world. Herlihy explores change, how foreign cultures are understood, and adventure.

The bicycles that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century would seem quite foreign to contemporary eyes. Initially called “velocipedes,” these bicycles had two tires: a small rear wheel and a very large front wheel. Cyclists would vault onto these bicycles, which were so tall that riders could gaze at their surroundings as though they were riding horses. Riding these “regular” bicycles was considered an adventurous pastime for strong and reckless young men, particularly because it was common for the riders to tumble.

By the 1890s, a new bicycle, known as the “safety,” was gaining popularity. Its design, which featured two tires of equal size, is what contemporary cyclists would imagine when they think of bicycles. The safety allowed women and older men to ride without taking the risk of tumbling dangerously into the ground. Many traditionalists viewed the safety with scorn and thought that its design threatened the adventure that gave bicycling on the ordinary its “zeal.”

Frank Lenz was in his early twenties when he started cycling, but he quickly proved himself a hardy wheelman. When he started racing on his ordinary, he immediately proved himself capable of challenging the fastest men that Pittsburgh could offer. However, Lenz did not feel that racing was the best way to profit from cycling. Taking his cue from Thomas Stevens, a man who had gained fame for cycling around the world, Lenz began trying to find someone to sponsor him to adventure around the world on a safety. He would take Stevens’s trip to the next level by carrying a camera with him. Lenz’s contemporaries, Sachtleben and Allen, had a similar trip in mind. They left London in 1892 and set out to reach Beijing, then known as Peking.

Herlihy notes that, heretofore, international travel had primarily been reserved for the “idle rich.” Otherwise, travel was a part of one’s vocation; at this time, most Westerners in Asia were either diplomats or missionaries. Still, by keeping in touch with this network of Westerners abroad, Sachtleben and Allen were able to successfully travel through Asia, even its most unstable areas including Turkey and China. Sachtleben and Allen cycled through the Gobi Desert, a route that their companions felt was madness. However, though they had little access to food, they made it to Peking and then took a steamer...

(The entire section is 1100 words.)