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April 10, 2010

Pittsburgh Cyclist Killed in Kurdistan

Dateline: 1894. (What, did you expect timely reporting? )

Frank Lenz was a Pittsburgh bookkeeper and amateur photographer who became a cyclist during a boom period in which the new "safety bicycle" (with two wheels of the same size) replaced the "standard" penny-farthing, causing a huge rise in the popularity of cycling in America. He enjoyed riding his bicycle so much that he decided to ride around the world.

Three other riders had already circled the globe: Thomas Stevens on a high-wheeler, and Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben on safeties. Lenz made his trip unique by choosing to be the first to ride around the globe using pneumatic tires, which was another groundbreaking technical development of his day.

This is a photo of Frank Lenz and his bicycle, from Adventure Cycling:
Frank Lenz, Pittsburgh bicyclist

His bike was state of the art at the time, and it's interesting to see what he's using. It's a safety bicycle, both wheels the same size; it has a front suspension, a springed saddle, a single fixed-gear, a chain drive, and a skirt guard covering the rear wheel. Those are all items that remain in use today. His backpack contains his camera equipment, his bags carry his effects, and the leggings keep his trousers out of the chain. (Parenthically, I'm pleased to find somebody with more stuff on his bike than I have on mine.)

In 1892 Frank Lenz proposed to Outing Magazine (it meant something else back then) that if they'd sponsor his around-the-world bike ride, he would provide dispatches and photographs for the magazine. He was surprised when Outing accepted his proposal, and in May 1982 Lenz quit his job in Pittsburgh to commence his grand adventure.

"Mr. Lenz will have a long but pleasant trip, and will doubtless have some interesting stories to tell the boys upon his return home,” wrote the Pittsburgh Dispatch on May 15, 1892. (He would have fit in nicely at Pittsburgh's Tweed Ride.)

Here's what Sports Illustrated has to say about his first segment, New York to California: Although only 25 at the time, Frank Lenz had been cycling long distances for nearly a decade. The first 3,000 miles, therefore, were no problem. Heading north to Albany, Lenz swung west to Buffalo, following the line of the Erie Canal "up the valley of the Mohawk, the cradle of the military forces of the Revolution and the grave of the military hopes of the British." From Buffalo to Minneapolis he traveled across Canada, then followed the track of the Northern Pacific Railroad to Spokane Falls and the telegraph route to San Francisco, which he reached on Oct. 20, 1892. Along the way, delegates of every cycling club within 20 miles of his route turned out to wine him and dine him. His trans-continental ride took from June 4th through October 20th.

He enjoyed Japan tremendously, although he wasn't crazy about the food. His trip across China did not go as well, and at times he relied on his revolver to protect himself and his bicycle. He was happy to reach Burma in India.

He explained his touring philosophy in Outing: “I have found it better not to ride more than 50 to 65 miles a day, if stopping places can be procured at those distances. Riding from 70 to 100 miles day after day is fatiguing and would soon wear out the strongest of riders.” His comments still ring true today for Pittsburghers planning a trip on the Great Allegheny Passage. It took Lenz one month to ride the 1,303 miles from Calcutta to Lahore, including ten days of rest.

He took a ferry to Persia, and found Tehran so pleasant that he was not eager to leave. From Adventure Cycling: ... he was anxious to cross Turkey before the heat of summer, so he reluctantly departed on April 1 for the Persian city of Tabreez, 375 miles away. Later that month from Tabreez, Lenz confessed to being profoundly homesick. “I long for the day which will see me again on my native hearthstone and my wanderings at an end,” he wrote to Outing, just shy of the two-year anniversary of his departure from Pittsburgh. He identified his next destination as Erzeroum in eastern Turkey, a distance of almost 300 miles. It was the last that Outing or anyone else would hear from Frank Lenz.

On May 2, 1894 his last piece of correspondence was dispatched from Tabriz, Persia. "I leave today," he wrote, "on my way to Constantinople, now only 900 miles distant." And with those words, Frank Lenz disappeared for all time.

Stung by criticism that it had sent Lenz on a death mission, Outing sent another cyclist (Sachtleben, one of the three previous globe-peddlers) to Kurdistan to determine Lenz's fate. He learned that a notorious Kurdish chief had ordered Lenz robbed and murdered after the cyclist had inadvertently insulted him during a chance encounter in a small village. The bandits ambushed Lenz the following morning as he crossed a river several miles outside of town. According to Sachtleben’s account, one of the Kurds slashed Lenz on the hand with a sword. Bleeding, Lenz begged for his life, even offering to convert to Islam, but he was killed and buried in the riverbank. (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)

I had never heard of the story of Frank Lenz, a Pittsburgher who dominated world news for a bit in 1894, until just this week when bloggers mentioned a new book coming out with his story (The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance); it's available in June and I'm eager to read it.


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