Book Review: The Lost Cyclist

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

I picked up this book by David Herlihy at the library walking by the new non-fiction display. Something about it caught my eye and although I know very little about bicycling or about this particular time in history, I thought it looked interesting.

It tells the story of Frank Lenz, who in 1892 set out to circle the globe by bicycle. This was at a time when bicycling was a relatively new and exciting mode of transportation. On his journey, he mysteriously disappeared in Turkey. About a year later, a second famous cyclist William Sachtleben set out on an attempt to discover what had happened to him.

The book is meticulously researched and well-written. It also has some compelling photographs showing Lenz, Sachtleben and other cyclists in the 1890s. Lenz himself was an accomplished amateur photographer and devised a way to take photos of himself on his trips. Something about his expression in the photos is quite modern,  and he appeared to me more like someone dressed in old-fashioned clothes than someone who lived 125 years ago.

Herlihy does a great job of bringing the time period and the subject to life. There are three main parts to the book. The first sets the stage by giving some background on Lenz and on the culture of cycling. The second alternates between telling about Sachtleben and Thomas Allen on their own round-the-world bicycle journey and about Lenz’s journey (which was in the opposite direction). The last part details Sachtleben’s investigation into what happened to Lenz. I found the stories about the bicycle trips the most compelling. The book bogs down a bit in the tale of the investigation, which was ultimately a failure and therefore somewhat unsatisfying.

To me, the most interesting thing about this book was the view it gave into a completely different world. The idea of a round the world bike trip sounds amazing to me, but even more so as I realized the differences in things like road conditions 125 years ago. It’s also fascinating to realize that Lenz was a celebrity in his time but virtually unknown today.

A side story that isn’t really told is the number of missionaries that the cyclists encounter. Much is made of the horrible conditions and often very dangerous political situations in some of the countries through which they travel. The safest places for them to stay are often with missionaries who are already in these dangerous locations living in the difficult conditions all the time. In particular, as Lenz traveled through China, he went along a route known to be particularly hostile to foreigners. He meets and stays with many missionaries from the China Inland Mission, which was started by Hudson Taylor, one of my own personal heroes of the faith.

All in all, this is a good read that opens up a window onto a time and culture that have disappeared.

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