Book Review: The Lost Cyclist

The ill-fated Frank Lenz, photographed in Missoula, Mont., in 1892

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?”

Adventure!

“I don’t speak their language, sahib, but that gesture means ‘Remove the white man’s genitals slowly.’”

Adventure!

“Now what was it the diving instructor told me to do when tank shows ’empty’?”

Adventure!

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
Trail.

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
me queasy.

“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
ratios.

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.

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19 comments

  1. Rick

    “What’s awful about this book is the author’s inability to do anything other than recite the facts.”

    Exactly. I wanted to like this book so badly, could not get through it.

  2. Rod Diaz

    I got this book as a Christmas present from my wife.

    I couldn’t finish it. I am stuck at the part where Lenz is in Turkey, just after some dalliance with an American ex-pat. I put down very few books, but my time is more restricted now since I have a 1 y old. I feel bad about putting down this book since it’s well written, just a bit too dry for my taste: I fully concur on “what is awful about this book”. The descriptions of the historical setting are great, but not enough to hold my interest.

    At some points if feels like “around the world in 80 days” but without the plot. I found myself unsympathetic to Lenz – and I didn’t even get to the part about the dying porter.

    For what is worth, I am a fairly reasonable reader usually reading 20+ books a year. These range from horror fiction through philosophy, and of course are supplemented by a healthy dose of cycling literature (Peloton is the current favourite). I did enjoy “Bicycle…”, by the same author.

  3. John in Miami

    I also received this book as a gift from my daughter. I enjoyed reading the book. Funny tho, I have a hard time reading this book review, especially since the rider in question was named Frank Lenz, not James Lenz.

    Not a great start in my “book”, Wankmeister.

    1. Padraig

      John in Miami: Thanks for pointing out the error; I have corrected it. It’s a small one, but one that can easily irritate a reader, I grant. Ultimately the blame falls with me, as I am the editor. It is my job to catch errors of all varieties and I plainly missed that. Initially I tagged the post with “Frank Lenz” based on my memory and then double-checked Seth’s post and erroneously corrected my tag, and then furthered the error when I captioned the photo. Not among my better efforts.

  4. Justin

    John,
    I thought the same thing. The reviewer got the dude’s name wrong. Not cool.
    I read the book. It isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s a good read. It was interesting to read about the races that were put on during the 1800s and about Lenz’s fascination with biking (I could relate).
    Was it dry? Yes. But it wasn’t poorly written and certainly kept my attention enough to remember the protagonist’s name.

  5. Rich

    I made it through the book and it was worth it. But I have to agree the book was uninspired. A map with references to points in the story would have helped.

  6. John in Miami

    Wsquared,

    The book briefly discusses the bike manufacturers of the day and how Lenz gave input into design the bike he used. Lenz was also a photography buff and I think I remember that he had a contraption that would allow him to take his own pictures on the bike. The photos in the book were nice and it was funny to see how freaked the Chinese looked at this stranger on a strange machine.

    Rich,

    Yeah, a reference point map would have helped follow the story.

  7. david herlihy

    Hi, author speaking here. I have to say that I agree with the sentiments expressed by several readers above. While it’s big of you, Padraig, to take the heat for your rookie reviewer’s mangling of the central character’s name, I would not lightly dismiss that appalling lapse as a “small error” (Frank to James? That’s not even close, dude, if you pardon the “opinionizing.”) Since Seth (I almost wrote Fred) is rather free about dispensing writing tips, let me offer him one of my own. Get the main character’s name right the first time around and your readers will better appreciate your remarkable “wit and insights.”

  8. scaredskinnydog

    I rode a p-far for a lap on a crit course once. It was crazy fun but also crazy scary. Anyone who rides one of those things more then a couple miles is my hero.

  9. SWells

    I, too, received the book as a Christmas present from my wife. It took me 2 attempts to get through it. Although I don’t possess the reviewer’s skills or eloquence (and, fortunately, the foul language), I do happen to agree about it being a rather uninspiring review of the facts. That being said, I did kinda enjoy it. And, Mr. Herhily, a detailed timeline map would’ve been much appreciated.

  10. Full Monte

    That’s one heck of a chamois in his trousers. And his cycling computer is a pocket watch, while his multi-tool appears to be a knife on his hip.

    How the heck could Herlihy not make this adventure/tragedy interesting? Heck, even the picture is interesting.

  11. Jim

    What is awful about this book, is that this book is awful.

    How Mr. Herlihy managed to murder what should have been a ridiculously engaging story, is a bigger mystery than how some Turks managed to murder Mr. Lenz.

  12. Harris

    To David: I loved the book. Digesting the historical context of the book certainly takes some time and effort, but it is certainly well-written and researched.

    The thing is, with the advent of the internet, things like the National Geographic and the historical explorer/adventurer have been increasingly marginalized. I read this about the same time as I read Rob Lilwall’s book and Marc Beaumont’s books. Without disparaging any of their incredible accomplishments, which are staggering to the mind, I would prefer the Lilwall/Beaumont circumnavigation to Lentz’; notwithstanding the availability of Coolies, which I am pretty sure can’t be PC.

  13. Mike R.

    I just finished the book and enjoyed it. I teach history and love to ride, so I guess I’m the perfect audience. A couple of observations: The book is written pretty well in comparison to a lot of the nonfiction I read. The author’s weaving together of the stories of Lenz and Sachtleben & Allen was quite creative and the research Herlihy put into this project is remarkable. I doubt if the reviewer reads much history or nonfiction and I have serious doubts about whether he actually read this book. The review reads like a goofy hack job by someone who skimmed the book. I agree a better map would have been nice (there is a small reproduction of a promotional map), but I bet the publisher nixed that.

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