The Soulless Horse

There is a scene in the movie “24Solo” in which champion mountain biker Chris Eatough is surrounded by excited and curious Chinese children, as he paused while mountain biking through their town in China. The mob which encircles him and his colleague, although short, must have been a bit claustrophobic, no matter the emotion.

It is a scene that reminded me of descriptions by German-American Frank Lenz as he rode his bicycle through China in the early 1890s. In Lenz’s notes home, he described aggressive local mobs (some carrying pitchforks!), suspicious of his “soulless horse,” the likes of which had never been seen in many parts of the world through which he traveled. Lenz quickly learned to defuse these dangerous situations with humor and stunts on his bicycle. “Instinct told me I must make these people laugh,” he wrote, “I began fooling around and falling off the bicycle…. The wrath disappeared from their faces like magic.”

Lenz and friends near Pittsburg 1890 (Image taken from the book)

The thought of Frank Lenz falling off his bike is humorous, given his prowess on 19th century bicycles. Born in Pittsburgh to German parents, Lenz was aware of the new sport from an early age, and quickly focused all of his spare time and money on racing and long-distance trips. The book The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and his Mysterious Disappearance, by David V. Herlihy, is delightful not only for the author’s meticulous research about the adventures of Frank Lenz, but it’s history of bicycle development, and inadvertently, about Armenian-Turkish struggles in the mid-1890s. 

After an early career of racing on “bone shaker” penny farthing bicycles, Lenz undertook long-distance rides, first across the United States, then with the support of Outing magazine, around the world.

Lenz in front of the Royal Palace in Honolulu (image taken from book)

His goal was to cycle 20,000 miles over three continents, exploring Japan, China, Burma, India, Afghanistan, what is now Pakistan, Persia, and ending in Europe before his triumphant return to the US. Sadly, his dreams were lost along with him when he vanished in Turkey after two years of hard traveling.

Hauling Lenz’s bicycle over mountain passes in Japan, 1892 (image taken from book)

What happened after he vanished takes up half the book, as Herlihy explores the efforts to find Lenz. Unfortunately, the Outing editor did not take action soon enough, and when friend and colleague William Sachtleben eventually volunteered to travel to the Middle East to find Lenz, alive or dead, he was resisted at every step along the way, by politicians of every nationality.

Lenz on his way to Allahabad

The tragic story of Lenz and his around the world bicycling adventure over a century ago is captivating, as is the story of the attempt to find his remains. I was entranced by the notes Lenz sent to his editor and friends describing his travels through regions seldom traveled by Westerners. It fired my imagaination and wanderlust as well – although I like the idea of bicycle travel, reading his story made me consider it as a real possibility some day. (Perhaps not in China or Afghanistan though…)

The second half of the book, in which Sachtleben hunts for Lenz’s killers, is a first-hand look at the ethnic troubles that were stirring in pre-World War I Turkey, as the “sick man of Europe” was beginning to falter. Sachtleben on more than one occasion was caught in the crossfire, when Kurds rolled into Armenian towns and slaughtered everyone. On October 30, 1895, Sachtleben recounted the massacre of Armeniansin the town of Erzurum. Hearing noise, he and others rushed to the rooftop of the American mission where they were staying, and watched in horror as Kurds and Turks shot and mutilated the Armenian residents. Realizing they too were targets, they spent several hours holed up inside the mission while bullets flew in all directions. Sachtleben eventually returned to the United States and toured extensively to publicize what he had witnessed, showing graphic photographs he himself had taken in the immediate aftermath.

One of Sachtleben’s photos of the 1895 Erzurum massacre (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The juxtaposition of of adventure cycling and world events makes this book a fascinating read, with something for everyone. What I thought was going to be a fun read about the history of cycling ended up being much more serious, and that is the reason why I enjoyed it as much as I did. I definitely recommend it.

(I also recommend the Chris Eatough movie, 24Solo – Chris is a colleague and I am in awe of his skills on a bike, and his passion for his work with BikeArlington.)



One thought on “The Soulless Horse

  1. Great review! I too read this book and enjoyed the history lesson on the early days of cycling. The second half of the book was exciting but certainly hit a downward slope with the frustrations on how long communication took at the red tape that surrounded Sachtleben. It’s refreshing to hear other cyclists thoughts on this wonderful read. Thanks for sharing!

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