An exclusive interview with David Herlihy – Author of ‘The Lost Cyclist’

Hi David – Your book (“The Lost Cyclist”) is full of historic details, and clearly you must have spent a long time researching old magazines and books. What were your main sources? And did you manage to track down any remote family members of the books characters?

David Herlihy: “Yes, I first thought about writing a book on Lenz a dozen years ago. But, following the advice of an editor, I wrote a general history of the bicycle first and I really didn’t get started with the Lenz research until after my first book came out, around 2005. So in the end I did a solid five years of research for the second book.

In some ways the delay paid off, though, because I had access to numerous and helpful internet-based tools that weren’t available a decade ago. What I had to start with were Lenz’s original articles from Outing magazine. Plus I had connected with an individual who owns a scrapbook filled with Lenz’s photographs from his world tour. After
I got started with the research, I tracked down John Lenz (a descendant of the Lenz family) who had another collection of photographs by Lenz, mostly taken before his world tour, when he rode a high wheeler. That individual also had several hand written letters from Lenz to his step-uncle, which Lenz wrote after staring his world tour. These are the only original letters I was able to find, although I got the texts of a few more that were published in newspapers.
Newspapers, US and foreign, in fact, proved to be very helpful as supplementary sources, especially since Lenz was often interviewed by local reporters when he passed through town. Some of this material I got from digitized databases and research requests by email, but most of it I had to get the old-fashioned way: identifying promising issues then scanning microfilm copies for helpful material. It was a slow process that required a significant amount of travel.

 To research the second part of the book, the investigation, I also consulted newspapers. But the State Department files at our national archives were especially helpful. Some interesting material turned up at the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, thanks to a local researcher I hired. I also found several collections of papers relating to the investigator, William Sachtleben, including several diaries from 1891 (when he was doing his own world tour by bicycle, with Thomas G. Allen, Jr.).

Curiously, none of the main characters (Lenz, his buddy Petticord,  Sacthleben) had direct descendants. Nevertheless, with the help of the internet, I was able to track down a few more individuals who had materials of interest to me. John Lenz was the only one related to Frank (though not by blood, since Lenz was adopted). The son of a nephew of Petticord had a few photos of interest. And though I initially failed to find anyone related to Sachtleben, I did hear from a relative after the book came out who had some interesting material I wish I had been able to include. Others who had helpful information include the granddaughter of the missionary William Chambers, who hosted Sachtleben in Turkey.

In sum, yes, the research was extensive, especially since I was essentially starting from scratch. I was amazed, and very pleased, by how much new information actually turned up. I’m quite sure that no one could have written his book in such detail ten, or maybe even five, years ago, without recourse to the present internet.”

Part of the fascination of Lenz’s journey around the world is clearly that he was one of the very first who made this attempt, and that he was facing uncertainties that we, in the year 2011, can only try to imagine. Since those days, many more adventurers have cycled around the world, and many have also written books about it. From the more recent adventures, were there any others that also sparked your interest?

David Herlihy: “Thomas Stevens, the first “globe girdler,” who went around the world on a high-wheeler 1884-87, was Lenz’s inspiration, so naturally I did a fair amount of research into that pioneer journey for context. And of course, for the book I spent about as much time and effort researching the Allen-Sachleben tour as I did Lenz’s.

I have not closely examined other bicycle world tours post-Lenz, though I am familiar with a few. I was recently contacted by a relative of Willy Schwiegerhausen, who did a tour around 1902. And I have heard from several individuals who have made world tours in the last decade or so.

The post-Lenz tour that I am best acquainted with was that accomplished by Fred Birchmore of Athens, Georgia, in 1935-36. Not only did I read his book, but I have also had the pleasure of meeting him on several occasions. I will see him again in two weeks, when he turns 100. You might want to read an article I wrote about his journey:

The circumstances Birchmore faced have much in common with Lenz’s adventures, unlike more recent tours.”

I am assuming that you yourself also enjoy cycle touring. For those of us who would consider touring & exploring the US (such as myself), are there any tips for classic or particularly scenic routes that you can recommend?

David Herlihy: “I have done some cycling here and there across the US, but not many long distance tours. I would refer you to Adventure Cycling in Missoula, Montana. They evolved out of the original Bike Centennial of 1976, and offer a great deal of resources for the cycle tourist.”

And finally: I am really curious what your very own bike collection looks like? Am I right in that there might be one or the other security bike in your shed? But also, in how far do you embrace the most recent developments around the bicycle?

David Herlihy: “I have about ten Italian racing bicycles from the 1960s through 1980s. Nothing earlier than that, I’m afraid, though I know plenty of people who have extensive bike collections going back to boneshakers.

I’d be happy to get an up-to-date non-steel bicycle with all the latest gadgetry but that will have to wait for funding. In the meantime, I mostly use a BikeFriday folding bicycle, which I find very handy getting around town.”

Thanks a lot for your time, David!

The London Cycling Bookclub will meet again in mid-December 2011. Time enough to get the book and start reading before the meeting … watch this space for more information on the date & location.

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