David Healihy is the author of The Lost Cyclist, a newly-published book about early 19th century round-the-world cyclist Frank Lenz. He shared with us some details on the book—and the research process that took him across the world and became a journey in its own right.
Herlihy will be reading in Spokane at Auntie’s Book Store on July 17th at 2:00 pm.
OTM: Tell us a little about the book.
David Herlihy: It’s about Frank Lenz, a young man who left his home in Pittsburgh in the spring of 1892 to cycle around the world on a new-fangled “pneumatic safety,” the prototype of the modern bicycle. That fall, he passed through Spokane and was much impressed by its development and surrounding beauty. Sadly, two years into his epic journey, just as he was nearing Europe, Lenz disappeared mysteriously.
OTM: How did you come upon the subject of this book?
DH: While researching my first book, Bicycle: The History, I read a lot of late 19th century cycling literature, and Lenz’s name came up frequently. At a certain point, I became aware of a photo album in private hands containing many photos Lenz had taken on his world tour—so I knew there was good book material to start with.
In fact, I was going to write the Lenz book first, but my editor at Yale at the time convinced me to write a general history book first, in order to establish myself as an authority on bicycles, so I did.
OTM: You write about Lenz’s experience in great detail, including his emotional responses to the situations he encountered. How in-depth are his journal entries and letters?
DH: His reports published in Outing [a travel magazine] are very detailed, and I was able to gather a fair amount of supplementary material from newspapers. Unfortunately, I was not privy to Lenz’s notebooks or diaries—though I know he kept them, they have been lost. I identified only two original letters Lenz wrote en route, though I did glean the substance of a few more from newspaper accounts.
OTM: You write about William Sachtleben, who cycled around the world around the same time Lenz did and later investigated Lenz’s disappearance. Do you believe Sachtleben solved the mystery of Lenz’s disappearance?
DH: I’m not convinced that he did. There clearly was some evidence to implicate the Kurd he fingered, but not conclusive evidence of murder. Nor was that Kurd the only one found with elements of Lenz’s gear.
OTM: How did politics in the region at the time impact his ability to do so?
DH: I think Sachtelben’s investigation was hampered first by a very late arrival at the scene of the alleged crime—about a year after Lenz’s disappearance—and, second, by Turkey’s extremely difficult political climate in the aftermath of a wave of Armenian massacres.
OTM: Did you do any traveling in your research? Are your descriptions of the locations based primarily on the cyclists’ journals?
DH: Lots. I wanted to gather all the newspapers articles I could along his route, in the U.S. and abroad. Sometimes I queried libraries via email, but in many cases I went myself to the depositories, like state libraries, that had lots of promising source material.
I thought it was important to supplement Lenz’s own writings with newspaper reports. Occasionally they included interviews with Lenz that yielded good information not available elsewhere. I did rely primarily on their own descriptions of the places they visited.
It was nonetheless helpful for me to visit Istanbul, Turkey to see for myself certain sites of interest still intact, like the American Bible House and the then-new train station. I was also able to travel by car up the Bosporus, which gave me a better idea of the scenery Sachtleben described.
OTM: How do the bikes Lenz, Sachtleben and Allen, Sachtleben’s partner, rode compare in comfort and efficiency to a modern touring bike?
DH: Not very well. Lenz’s bike was no doubt better suited for a world tour than the first two pairs purchased by Allen and Sachtleben, if not also the last two. But it was a very heavy bike (57 pounds); about twice the weight of a bike one might chose today, which of course would also have a selection of “on the fly” gears not present on Lenz’s bike.
OTM: Sachtelben argued that traveling in comfort “is like staying in your own country,” and that biking offered a more authentic travel experience. Do you think that remains true?
DH: I think that was essentially true and remains so today. I’m sure Sachtleben met and conversed with quite a few people on the road (including, in some parts, other cyclists). He might have been less likely to stop and chat had he been riding on horseback.
It’s true he might still have met locals had he traveled by rail or boat instead over the same terrain, but that might have largely confined his encounters to the “upper class” rather than a broad cross-section of the local population—that is, the kind of people one would tend to meet in public arenas. And he may have had less inclination to carry on conversations under such “detached” circumstances.
Pedestrians, of course, were probably equally inclined to chat with passersby, but they can’t cover nearly as much ground in a given period. In sum, the bicycle remains one of the best ways to cover diverse territory while still enjoying an intimacy with one’s surroundings.
OTM: Did these cyclists’ contribute to bicycles becoming popular as a form of transportation, not just a leisure sport?
DH: In my estimation, both Lenz and Sachtleben were true champions of the new bicycle. In a sense, they also helped to underscore its practical value, even if their missions were primarily educational or recreational in nature.
OTM: Have you been inspired to take any distance bike treks of your own?
DH: I could be inspired to take a reasonably long bike tour. Always wanted to cross the U.S. but never got around to it. I have done some cycling in different parts of the U.S. and in Europe—U.K., France and Italy.
When I was Lenz’s age, I took a few trips by bike—one along Germany’s Romantic Road and another in Greece’s Peloponnese. I would have been happy to spend much more time in the saddle, covering much more territory, had someone like Worman [Lenz’s sponsor] been willing to finance me.