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Vanished cyclist, adventurer Frank Lenz is subject of a new book

Michael Panopoulos, an old friend and bicyclist, flagged me down last weekend at the farm stand on Ruxton Road to tell me about a most extraordinary book he had read during his recent New England vacation.

He brought up the name of Frank Lenz, a noted Pittsburgh high-wheel racer and bicyclist who decided in 1892 to ride his bike across the world and during the early days of his wheeled perambulations traveled through Maryland.

Two years later while in eastern Turkey, Panopoulos said, Lenz suddenly vanished without a trace, and a search failed to turn up his remains.

I was hooked and picked up a copy of David V. Herlihy's recently published book, "The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance," which recounts in great detail Lenz's ill-fated final journey, which has remained shrouded in mystery for more than 100 years.

"I think you'll like it," Panopoulos said.

He was right.

In an interview last month with Smithsonian Magazine, Herlihy, a bicycle enthusiast and author whose earlier book is "Bicycle: The History," explained he was drawn to Lenz, who was a huge figure in the bicycling world of the 1890s, because of the fame he had gained riding from Pittsburgh to St. Louis and an 1891 ride from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.

Then came Lenz's ambitious plan to ride across the world in 1892, an undertaking still not for the faint of heart in 2010.

"When he disappeared in Turkey a few years later, he became even more famous," Herlihy told the Smithsonian's Megan Gambino.

"I knew there was a mystery surrounding him and found him an intriguing character. But I also knew, as well-known as he was in the 1890s, he was completely forgotten afterwards," he said.

Lenz, who was an accountant, was also a master photographer. He had managed to turn his wanderlust as experienced from a bicycle into a deal with Outing, a monthly sports and travel magazine. He persuaded the magazine to sponsor his proposed 20,000-mile ride over three continents while he furnished illustrated dispatches en route.

While he was not the first bicyclist to circle the globe (that distinction was earned by Thomas Stevens), what made Lenz's journey possibly more epic-making and interesting was his decision to ride solo from east to west.

By selecting this path, it meant more accumulated actual road mileage, rather than taking shorter routes that incorporated more river crossings and travel by train.

Lenz had also successfully gotten the Overman Wheel Co. of Chicopee, Mass., to donate a nickel-plated Victory "safety" bicycle with inflatable rubber tires.

By May 15, 1892, Lenz, 25, was ready to go. Hundreds of spectators gathered at the post office in downtown Pittsburgh to wish the wheelman a safe journey.

"Mr. Lenz's trip is of interest to everybody who admires courage and manly strength. When he gets home two years hence, provided he survives, he will no doubt have plenty of marvelous traveler's stories to tell, and he should have a rousing welcome," noted the Pittsburgh Bulletin.

"When we reflect that a very few years ago many parts of the globe over which he will travel were terra incognita to white people, the contrast between then and now will strike us with irresistible force. Truly, the world moves, and the bicycle is responsible of that motion," observed the newspaper.

Lenz's initial route took him across the Alleghenies as he headed for Washington, where he was to collect his passport and other letters of introduction from Secretary of State James G. Blaine.

At Hagerstown, writes Herlihy, Lenz was met by the local bicycle club, which feted him at a luncheon and then escorted him as far as Frederick, where he paused to visit and photograph the grave of Francis Scott Key.

After concluding his business in Washington, Lenz began pedaling northward and paused on May 26 in Baltimore. The Sun reported that the "amateur cycler who is making a trip around the world" arrived in the city at 10:30 a.m.

Lenz wrote that as he entered Baltimore, he rode past "hundreds of negroes building cable lines who shouted with delight."

"He visited the public buildings and made a short trip down the harbor," reported the newspaper. "He took several photographic views of the most notable buildings. Mr. Lenz went by way of the Harford Road to Philadelphia, where he is expected to arrive tonight."

On his journey out of Baltimore, Lenz was accompanied for a while by A.L. Cline of the Baltimore Cycle Club, reported The Sun.

His journey across the country began when he departed from New York's City Hall on June 4, again cheered on by a large crowd that had gathered.

By the time he had reached San Francisco on Oct. 20, he had traveled 4,587 miles in 107 days, averaging 45 miles a day.

He sailed from San Francisco, arrived Nov. 18 in Yokohama and commenced a three- week ride across Japan.

China proved to be a difficult passage complicated by bad weather and substandard roads, which forced him to walk and push his bike great distances.

He was greeted with an open hostility that forced Lenz to reach for his revolver several times, while being called a "foreign devil."

"Twice I have used my revolver to frighten off Chinese who stoned me. … I expected beastly accommodations, words cannot describe the filth that abounds here," he wrote. "The Chinese have stolen my tripod, tool bag, opera glasses and spool of film. I am compelled to watch my wheel and camera like a hawk."

Lenz steadily pedaled on across Burma and India, enduring jungles and monsoons, until reaching Tehran in early February 1894.

He then began a journey from Tabriz to Erzurum in eastern Turkey or Kurdistan, where he was advised not to go, because the Kurds and Turks were locked in warfare that would eventually kill 10,000 Armenians.

"I leave today," he wrote in a letter, "on my way to Constantinople, now only 900 miles distant."

In another letter to his bicycle club friends back home in Pittsburgh, Lenz wrote, "Maybe you fellows think I am tired of this kind of life. Well, I am not. I enjoy it hugely."

Those were the last words anyone would ever hear from Lenz, who seemingly vanished into thin air.

By Oct. 12, newspapers were breaking the news that Lenz was lost and offering a variety of bizarre theories as to his disappearance.

While diplomats and missionaries were pressed to determine the fate of the young cyclist, Outing Magazine, which had been criticized for his death, asked William Sachtleben, another noted American cyclist who was familiar with the area where Lenz was thought to have perished, to return and launch an investigation.

Sachtleben was told that after Lenz had insulted a Kurdish chief, he ordered him robbed and murdered. He was unsuccessful in locating the bicyclist's remains, which he had planned to return to his family in Pittsburgh.

Back in Pittsburgh, Sachtleben gave a lecture about his search for Lenz at Alton's Temple Theater before a packed audience. "He projected the photograph he had taken of the barren spot near the Hopuz River where he believed Lenz had been killed," wrote Herlihy. "He noted that the body had not been found and suggested that it never would be. He speculated that Lenz's bones were resting at the bottom of the river into which his mutilated body had been thrown."

Diplomatic and judicial wrangling continued for years — the Kurdish chief was convicted of murder and later fled from prison — while several Armenians also charged in the case died in prison or escaped after posting bail.

In 1901, the Turkish government finally settled $7,500 with Lenz's heartbroken mother, who had warned her son not to embark on the journey of his dreams in the first place.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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