A certain air of romance surrounds early American adventurers. Call it manifest destiny or whatever you will, but these rugged individualists of the 1800s embodied the can-do-spirit of the Americas — where everyone was a pioneer, master of his own fortune and outlandishly in love with the heartland.
This is where the bicycle finds its origins. The high-wheeler, nowadays known as a penny-farthing, was the only model on the market prior to the 1880s. Its enormous front high wheel and small back wheel were efficient despite the machine’s lack of brakes and gears. Sportsmen and wheelers (cyclists) were nonetheless elated.
David V. Herlihy’s The Lost Cyclist claims that the invention of the bicycle “was a modern mechanical miracle on par with the telephone, the typewriter and the elevator.” It was also incredibly dangerous. It maimed many, and killed many others — until the fancy new “safety bicycle” hit the stores with its two similar-sized wheels, a mechanical chain and sprocket, and pneumatic tires.
The days of solid iron frames (versus today’s hollow tubing), wooden wheels (in some cases) and solid rubber tires were over. And that’s where the book stops getting interesting.
Instead of a riveting tale about globetrotter Frank Lenz, a cherub-faced high-wheel racer from Pittsburgh, the book is plagued with dry details, too many firsthand accounts from gazettes of the time, and amateurish writing. Herlihy’s research and annoying love of trivia ruin the story of a mediocre 24-year-old racer in 1892 who set out to tour all of North America, Asia and Europe, strictly by foot and bicycle. (The trip was estimated to cover 20,000 miles in only two years.) But Herlihy’s title spoils the story. Even his conclusion is boring.
So if you’re jonesing for a little two-wheeled adventure, read about Lenz’s predecessors. Thomas Stevens traveled the world by bicycle from 1884 to 1887, and Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben embarked on their global adventure from 1890 to 1892. The Lost Cyclist is simply too gentlemanly. Its descriptions lack romantic flair — and without sex, The Lost Cyclist takes the zest out of adventurism.