The Unsolved Case of the "Lost Cyclist"

Author David V. Herlihy discusses his book about Frank Lenz's tragic failed attempt to travel the world by bicycle

In his new book, The Lost Cyclist, bike historian David V. Herlihy tells the story of Frank Lenz, an accountant turned long-distance cyclist. (Courtesy of David V. Herlihy)

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As he was approaching Turkey, he basically had two options. He could go to Europe the direct way, across Turkey. Or he could heed the advice of missionaries and get to Europe through Russia, which was certainly more roundabout but considerably safer. I don’t think he was being deliberately reckless when he decided to go through Turkey, but he may have been a little bit overconfident at that point having survived China. For Sachtleben, Lenz’s fatal mistake was to travel alone.

What do you think really happened?
What we can rule out, in my opinion, is any notion that he went undercover and lived out his years in Turkey or Persia. I have no doubt that he died in 1894. And it’s almost certain that he did die in Turkey. Now, specifically where and how did he die? If he was killed, who killed him? Those are the questions that are still unanswered.

Lenz may have died an accidental death. We know that he had to ford a number of rivers after he entered Turkey and was heading to Erzurum, and we know that at this time of year the currents were at their strongest. It also appears that he might have been in a weakened state because he had gone through several long bouts [of sickness].

But my gut feeling is that Lenz was killed. There’s a good chance that if he was killed, he was killed by the Kurds. They did have a reputation for being a tough lot that would attack foreigners along the caravan road. Was it the Kurd [Moostoe Niseh] that Sachtleben figured? There certainly was some evidence that Lenz was attacked just outside the town where Moostoe lived, where bits and pieces of Lenz’s camera and gear were found. But one of the problems I had with that evidence is, well OK, maybe that’s evidence of an assault, but does that really show that he was murdered there? Without the body, without knowing the location of the grave, without finding the bicycle, it seems to me that you can’t completely rule out the possibility that Lenz may have been attacked there, but that he was allowed to proceed. In fact, the early reports had Lenz further up the road about 30 miles into the foothills of Erzurum, where he was allegedly killed by a different set of Kurds. Moostoe was a dastardly character who was certainly capable of killing Lenz. But then again, you can argue that maybe that was the reason that the Armenians were so keen on pinning a murder on him—to get him out of town. Bottom line is I just don’t know that Sachtleben really got to the truth. I don’t think that we can say who exactly killed Lenz or why. Maybe he was just attacked because they thought he had valuables. I certainly would have loved to solve the case, but it’s still a mystery.

Why do you think Lenz has been forgotten?
There was a lot of sympathy for Lenz and his family and friends when he was first reported missing. But over time I think the consensus arose that Lenz had been foolhardy and reckless; that he had effectively brought about his own death. In addition, the public soured very quickly on globe-girdling by bicycle. By the early 20th century, you started to see people circling the globe by motorbikes and then cars. Bicycles began to look like a very quaint and outdated mode of transportation. At the peak of the 1890s boom, prominent citizens like John Rockefeller had been riding bikes. But a decade later it was strictly a poor man’s vehicle. It was not really until the ’50s and ’60s when Americans began to see the bicycle once again as a serious adult vehicle, and by that time Lenz was long forgotten.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I do think there’s something admirable, youthful—some would say “American”—about the spirit of Lenz’s and Sachtleben’s adventures. Their stories resonate with our notions of plucky Americans and their can-do attitudes. Despite the personal tragedies here, there is something uplifting about their willingness to see the world and their fundamental optimism. They really did have to have basic faith in humanity to think that they would return home alive. I’m hoping that readers take away a fair impression of these two young men. I didn’t try to conceal their rough edges, their recklessness, their lack of cultural sensitivity, or exaggerate what they actually accomplished. Still, on a physical level, their bicycle journeys were indisputably amazing feats. And these two truly were pioneers, in that they helped to introduce the bicycle as we know it to the general public. Their stories should be told.


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