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The Disappearance of Cyclist Frank G. Lenz


Bicycle lane sign.

[amnachphoto] / [iStock] / Thinkstock

In May of 1892, 27-year old Frank G. Lenz quit his day job as abookkeeper and announced his plan to cycle around the world. With the sport in its infancy and an American public thirsty for vicarious adventure, Lenz became an instant national hero. He packed his things, landed a sponsorship from Outing magazine and set off. Two years later, nearly to the date, Lenz mailed out his last piece of correspondence – and vanished.

The Early Years
Lenz was no stranger to long haul bike touring. He rode atop a “safety” bicycle – a newly introduced design with equally sized wheels and inflatable tires – which had taken North America and Europe by storm because of it’s smoother and more balanced ride. With a constant case of wanderlust, he’d already ridden from his native Pittsburgh to New York City, later to St. Louis, then Chicago, and along with a friend on the older style “Penny-farthings” (high-wheeled bikes), to the Deep South and New Orleans. By the time he announced his intention to circumnavigate the globe, he wrote that he had become so familiar with his bike, “that to ride it, laden like a packhorse, had become second nature.”

The Journey
Lenz left New York City with a roaring farewell. The first 3,000 miles were North American Continental: He went up through Minneapolis and across Canada where he followed the Northern Pacific Railroad to Washington. From there he rode the telegraph route down to San Francisco, boarded a steamship and traversed Japan without a hitch.

China was a different story, however. The bicycle was a new instrument, never seen before by many of the “superstitious” locals. Unruly mobs formed from Lenz’s presence, rocks were thrown at him, and in one attack he lost part of an ear. Lenz traveled by night after that. Crossing British-controlled Burma he battled Malaria and nearly impassable jungle roads. The torrential downpours halted his progress frequently.

With the Indian subcontinent came some 1,300 miles of easier riding and pleasant surprises: clear weather and smooth roads with monkeys and camels as frequent visitors. Next on the horizon was Persia, which he came to after 800 miles of miserable desert travel and a 600-mile steamer ride. It wasn’t long after his arrival to Bushire, Persia when Lenz’s reportage grew silent. His last letter, sent toOuting magazine on May 2, 1894, stated that his next destination was to be Erzeroum in Eastern Turkey. It was the last anyone would ever hear from him.

The Disappearance and Investigation
The public was so accustomed to Lenz’s infrequent correspondence, that for a while no one suspected anything was wrong. Then months went by without word. First came reports that he was simply “delayed,” or “obstructed” near the Turkish border. But it was becoming clear that something was wrong. The rumors started to brew.

Cyclist William Sachtleben, who had previously cycled through the region, was sent to investigate Lenz’s disappearance. It wasn’t long before he pieced together the ominous nature of the last days of Lenz’s life. He stated: “As near as I can learn, [Lenz] disappeared in the Delibaba Pass between Erzurum and Bayezid…. This Delibaba Pass is one of the worst places in Asiatic Turkey, and it is my belief that Lenz was murdered.”

Sachtleben eventually found confirmation. Apparently, after having unintentionally insulted a Kurdish chief in a small town, the chief ordered Lenz be robbed and murdered. The morning following the encounter was a grizzly one. At the crossing of a nearby river, Lenz was slashed by a sword and in the midst of bleeding and begging for his life, he was killed.

The “Lenz affair” sparked fierce debate among the cycling community, calling into question the value of round-the-world tours and the merit of those who embark on them. But the adventurous remain exactly that, and knowingly or not, round-the-worlders have been following in his footsteps ever since.

By Bryan Schatz


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