Monday, December 26, 2011

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

I received an awesome present from my roommate this year. She bought me The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy, and even had it signed by the author. I know, I'm so special.

Anyway, this book offers and interesting perspective on the bicycle in the years before the mass production of automobiles. Bicycles filled that spot, for a time, in the American psyche that calls for adventure and the thrill of the open road. They also provided a relatively cheap transportation option to the working class, as well as gave a push for women's liberation. Herlihy spends considerably less time on these consequences, but it is understandable given his subject.

Frank Lenz wanted to travel the world to make a name for himself and thereby leave his dull bookkeeping job. He planned a route through China up through Turkey to Europe, needless to say very dangerous. The newly perfected safety bicycle provided the best means, it would be a feat of strength and daring, as well as demonstrate the usefulness of this new product. Other men had traveled long distances on the ordinary, those ones that have a large front wheel, now mostly seen as a decorative motif at Hobby Lobby.

Lenz left at the beginning of the cycling craze in America, and it is amazing to read about his journey through the U.S. Cycling clubs all across the country extended him great hospitality and it is evident Lenz was at least a minor celebrity, if not more.The club membership Herlihy describes reinforces the early characterization of cycling as a middle class white man's sport. But Herlihy gives small examples that over time women, the working class, and minorities also took to it, especially when the safety bicycle made its debut, much to the dismay of the early adopters.

He is eventually lost somewhere in modern day Turkey. A man named Schatlebehn is sent after him some months later, but is mired down with delays and lies by the corrupt Ottoman Empire. Schatlebehn deduces some Kurds killed Lenz for his valuables. So he never accomplishes his task, and his legacy is one of foolishness and regret among his old friends. Eventually, the bicycle craze ends, and his name is lost to history, giving Herlihy's title a double meaning.

This book demonstrates several different things.

1. Bicycles were wildly popular at one point in American history

People tend to characterize the bicycle as never being a popular choice for the American people. It is treated as the red headed step child in U.S. transportation. This gives ammunition for people now who pooh-pooh efforts to popularize the bicycle. It was popular, and for the same reasons people now like to ride. (Convenience, cheapness, exercise...)

2. The rift between cycle for transportation and cycle for sport was evident even back then.

Many of the early adopters abandoned it when ladies and the working class turned the bicycle into a tool rather than a sport. Some even held out in favor of the ordinary because of the danger and athleticism it took to ride. This divide is clear to anyone who lives in a city with a vibrant cycle culture in the U.S. Whole blog articles have been devoted to why everyone should wear lycra while riding.

3. People loved to Photobomb, even back then.

Herlihy dropped in an interesting tidbit. While Lehy was trying to take a picture somewhere in Georgia, some "colored youths" kept getting in his frame and messing up the picture. Annoyed Lehy had to scare them off. I found this hilarious. Things change immensely while some things don't change at all.

I'll probably add to this as I go back and reread it. But go read for yourself!

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