Book review: The Lost Cyclist by David V. Herlihy

Published by Lyn on 22 October 2015

A long overdue review of The Lost Cyclist, one of the most fascinating books you'll ever read about bicycle touring. 

The Lost CyclistIn The Lost Cyclist, David V. Herlihy traces the birth of round-the-world cycling, and the early adventurers who set forth to conquer the globe on two wheels. In doing so, they undertook at times perilous journeys across unknown lands and encountering cultures that were – certainly in today's high-tech, connected world – unimaginably foreign.

Herlihy bases his book on the doomed adventure of Frank Lenz, an early advocate of the 'safety bicycle' in an era when high-wheelers were still dominating the bike scene in the United States. 

I'm not giving anything away by telling you that Lenz goes missing part-way through his round-the-world adventure, mysteriously disappearing in the wilds of eastern Turkey. It's this disappearance that forms the catalyst for the book as Herlihy meticulously pieces together the last movements of the lost cyclist and traces the rescue efforts that followed. 

The search for Lenz is taken up by fellow adventurer William Sachtleben, himself an early round-the-world record-holder with Thomas Allen.   

Writing about someone else's adventures is challenge enough – ask any biographer about capturing moments and emotions second-hand – but taking on this same challenge when your subject set out on his adventures in 1872 is an altogether more complex scenario.

Yet bike historian Herlihy has done an incredibly thorough job in charting Lenz's early, ill-fated role in the development of bicycle touring. 

"Yes, it was a huge undertaking, especially when I decided to track Allen and Sachtleben's journey as well," he told me via email, "but I felt their story belonged with Lenz's.

"I had the idea to write the book a good 12 years ago, but I didn't really delve into the research until 2005, after my first book came out. Even then it was a solid four years of intense research. I have even found a few more things since the book was published, but nothing too dramatic."

Here's David Herlihy talking more about the book and the early bicycle tourists.

This is a truly fascinating book and one I still dip back into from time to time to marvel at the courage (or was it stupidity?) of these early adventurers. 

But it's not just a wonderful historical account of cycle touring, but also one of early reportage. Today, when just about every cyclist has a blog or a Facebook page (this is me), it's any media junkee's dream to read about people pioneering Kodak cameras on the road, sending reports back by telegram, or planning to collect post a few months up the road on the outskirts of some random city in Iran/China/India.

The Lost Cyclist is an original and mind-bogglingly detailed read – just check out the references at the back of the book and imagine how many hours Herlihy must have spent with his head stuck in a microfiche machine (do they even still exist??) at libraries and other centres of research. 

A must-read for anyone with a love of two wheels and a hint of adventure tucked away in their pannier. 

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance by David V. Herlihy is published by Houghton Mifflin (UK link, US link).

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