Book of the Week: The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy

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The Independent Online

Frank Lenz was a rising star on the burgeoning cycle-racing scene in late-1880s America, but yearned for grander challenges. On 15 May 1892, having secured magazine sponsorship and exchanged his penny-farthing for a new-fangled "safety" bicycle with pneumatic tyres, the 25-year-old set off to circumnavigate the globe.

Waved off by a huge crowd in Manhattan, he journeyed across North America, Japan, China and India, not always receiving a hero's welcome from locals, most of whom had never seen a bicycle before – "Twice I have used my revolver to frighten off Chinese who stoned me," he wrote in a dispatch home.

Then, after two years and 14,000 miles, he disappeared. What happened next forms the core of this book. Despite warnings, Lenz had resolved to ride through Turkey, a country in turmoil as the decline of the Ottoman Empire led to open warfare between Turks, Kurds and Armenians.

Foul play was suspected, and another intrepid American wheelman, Will Sachtleben, who completed a round-the-world ride of his own, arrived in Turkey to discover more. David Herlihy, drawing on a wealth of original documents, has explored Lenz's fate in forensic detail, and what emerges is a sad tale of corrupt officials and predatory warlords.

It became clear that Lenz had been murdered but the culprits weren't brought to book and his body was never found. In the new century, enthusiasm for cycling waned with the advent of the automobile and pioneers such as Lenz were lost in every sense. The wealth of detail is overwhelming but this book gives a fascinating snapshot of a forgotten era, enhanced by Lenz's photos of his journey. Whatever his fate, he now lives on in print.

Published by Mainstream in hardback, £12.99