Book Review: The Lost Cyclist
One of the newest voices in cycling, and easily the funniest to come along since we realized that Fox News wasn’t ironic, is Seth Davidson, better known as the Wankmeister, the foul-fingered proprietor of the blog Cycling in the South Bay. The Wankmeister has undertaken the gargantuan task of properly mythologizing the epic epicness of Southern California group rides and the culture therein. Initially, his traffic was composed entirely of fellow wankers (like me) who lived to see their names pixilated. Eventually, word got around that he was writing about people who’d beaten you at your last industrial park crit and the resulting bump in traffic required a new term to explain it: narcissism by proxy. But now he has decided to tackle the world around him. This, then, is your warning. He’s known to offend some sensibilities, but if you’re not easily miffed, settle in for a rare combination of wit and insight.—Padraig
Please don’t target practice on the golf course, Sir
You know what an adventure is? It’s a trip where things went dreadfully wrong but you lived to tell about it more or less unscathed. Lop of that
“more or less unscathed” part and instead of adventure you’ve got a plain old catastrophe, or disaster, or tragedy.
No matter what they say, no one goes looking for adventure. They go looking for fame and fortune, or they go looking to get their name in the paper, or
they go looking to get away from the old lady with the droopy bosom and squalling kids, but nobody ever, ever, ever went looking for an adventure.
Why? Because to really have an adventure you have to be scared for your life. “Hey, Dwanda, is that engine falling off the wing?”
“I don’t speak their language, sahib, but that gesture means ‘Remove the white man’s genitals slowly.’”
“Now what was it the diving instructor told me to do when tank shows ’empty’?”
The time I conquered the Pacific Crest Trail
I’ve had lots of adventures in my life, but they were only adventures after I got home and recovered. At the time they were horrific mistakes compounded
by bad luck and made worse by awful judgment that almost cost me my life, like the time I decided to hike from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest
That year, the statistics show, only five people made the 2,600-mile hike successfully. I, of course, wasn’t daunted by a six month hike in the
wilderness. Sure, the books all said to send food drops in advance and to carefully plot out the course because otherwise you would starve to death, but what did they know?
Buying and shipping all that food was too troublesome and expensive, so why not just live off the land? I went down to a sporting goods store and bought
a bow and some arrows and a target. “If the Indians could live with one of these, so can I.”
Recognizing that I might need a day or two of practice to master a skill that the Indians mastered over a lifetime, I went down to the public golf
course off of Red River in Austin and set up my target in front of some bushes. The first few arrows, tipped with deadly aluminum points “guaranteed to pierce the heart of a grizzly,” went whizzing off onto the course.
“Wow, these things are hard to shoot straight.”
After a while I heard some voices and peered over my impromptu target range. Along came a squadron of elementary school kids, taking a shortcut home
across the course. The thought of piercing the heart of a few golfers hadn’t bothered me much, but killing a third grader with an arrow to the chest made
“Fuck it. I’ll just learn how to hunt once I get to the mountains.”
The story goes downhill from there, with each terrible decision followed by a much worse one, until I found myself starving in the mountains in Oregon,
unable to walk, my feet swollen and bleeding as I crawled through the snow on my hands and knees. Death didn’t find me that time, but it scored a mark
on my forehead to let me know that it was keeping an eye on me for potential early enrollment. The whole thing was so horrible and frightening and
painful and wretched that it didn’t really become an adventure until many years later, after the PTSD wore off.
Yeah, I always thought that was a big adventure. But when I compare it to the task that James Lenz set for himself in 1892, I realize it for what it really was: a lark, and nothing more.
One of cycling’s greatest attempted adventures that ended in tragedy
David Herlihy has written a book called “The Lost Cyclist.” It’s not on Cycle Sport’s list of the fifty greatest cycling books, perhaps because
it’s not the fanboy pabulum slurp of some great champion of the Tour or the classics. Nor is it likely to ever make a “great books about cycling” list, simply because the writing is labored, dull, and uninspired.
Notwithstanding, the tale of the lost cyclist, and the descriptions of what it meant to ride a bike in the late 1800′s make for gripping reading. The
drawback to the “highwheeler,” or old-timey bike with a 53-inche front wheel, was its “Propensity to hurl … the pilot … over the handlebars. This
all-too-common occurrence, known as a ‘header’ could inflict serious injury and death.”
In one instance, the protagonist of this history, Frank Lenz, endured a ten-hour, 100-mile race on his highwheeler over roads that consisted of
nothing but mud and clay. At the finish, the riders had to be removed on cots with blankets tossed over them, so destroyed were they from the effort,
even to the extent that their clothes had been reduced to rags barely covering their bodies.
Lenz eventually decided to circle the globe on his bike, a feat that had been done once before on a highwheeler, although the cyclist, Tom Stevens,
had done much of the trip by boat due to the impassability of much of the route. Lenz’s plan was to cross the U.S., from New York to California, take
a ship to Japan, cross Japan, take a boat to China, cross southern China to Burma, cross Burma to India, cross India, then Afghanistan, Iran, and
Turkey, from whence he would cross Europe and take a final trip by boat back to New York.
The ultimate travel book, except for that one, uh, whatchamacallit thingy….
With such an incredible itinerary, and moreover one that crossed huge swaths of the world that are now called different countries (Persia/Iran,
Burma/Myanmar, etc.), you’d have thought that the author would have included a map of Lenz’s journey. No such luck. Apparently it was more important to show him dressed in native Chinese garb as a Mandarin than to provide a detailed map so that you could better grasp the enormity of his undertaking.
Lenz’s travels included carrying his bicycle for hundreds of miles, lugging it over narrow mountain paths where a slip meant certain death, moving it
over treacherous rivers, and … oh, wait a minute … that was all done by Lenz’s servants, or “coolies” as the author calls them. One of them was even
swept away and drowned trying to ford a river. The porter’s death shook Lenz mightily, but he recovered enough by evening to enjoy a hearty meal with his evening host.
None of this detracts from the brutal toil and frequent dangers that Lenz encountered. His bike weighed 57 pounds, and with it he carried a camera,
wooden tripod, and other gear totaling 38 pounds. His total cycle traveling weight exceeded ninety pounds, even though he was using the new “safety”
bicycle with two equally sized wheels and that radical new invention, the pneumatic, or inflatable tire. Of course he had neither derailleurs or
modern brakes, and his gearing was limited to the two cogs placed on either side of the rear wheel, which had to be taken off and flipped to change
Lenz was ultimately murdered in Turkey; this was during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and coincided with the Turkish massacre of Armenians. Lenz was foolhardy, refused to travel with a guide, and made a beeline for the most dangerous place on the globe. He died for his foolhardiness.
Just the facts, ma’am
Once news of Lenz’s death filtered back to the U.S., another globe-girdling cyclist traveled to Turkey to try and unravel the circumstances of his
death. The mission is only partial successful, and through the bungling of the investigator, an American named Sachtleben, the lives of five innocent Armenians are ruined, all wrongfully accused of Lenz’s death.
What’s excellent about this book is that it places cycling in the midst of great world events, and makes the cycling part of a greater whole, unlike
Lanceographies that force the motion of everything in the universe to rotate around the life of a person whose claim to fame is quickly pedaling a bike.
The snapshot of the world in the late 1800′s is vivid, complex, and fascinating when viewed through the life of a globetrotting biker dude with ninety pounds of gear and balls of steel.
What’s awful about this book is the author’s inability to do anything other than recite the facts. There’s no interpretation, no analysis, no
opinionizing, no fuck bombs, and no writer’s slant to turn this incredible journey into a tale. If the idea of riding your bike ten miles an hour
through impenetrable mud is appealing to you, this book will be right down your alley, because that’s often exactly how it feels.
Herlihy recognizes at the end that he’s recited a bunch of facts but has told no story, so he tries to epilogue us with some sharp observations. But
it’s too late. We’re desperate to put the goddamned thing down and slam a few cold beers. You should have romanced us before we passed out, buddy.
Better luck next time. What’s that you say? Your other book is called ”Bicycle: The History”? Well … maybe not.