Interview: David V. Herlihy – Author of The Lost Cyclist

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By Eli Powell — David Herlihy is the author of Bicycle: the History and more recently, The Lost Cyclist.He is a well-regarded historian of cycling, and his writing has appeared in numerous bicycle related publications.

EP: Both of your books, Bicycle: the History, and The Lost Cyclist demonstrate such a well-researched and comprehensive knowledge of the story of the bicycle and of cycling. How and when did you first get interested in this subject?

DH: I started to look into bicycle history back in the mid-1980s when I was contributing to Bicycle Guide. My first project, undertaken at the suggestion of the editor Chris Koch, was to investigate the European origins of the derailleur. I consulted with a French bicycle historian, Jacques Seray, who, when he found out that I was from Boston, told be about Pierre Lallement, the original bicycle patentee (1866) who is buried in my city. I was intrigued; I had never heard of Lallement, and I couldn’t understand why someone of such evident importance could be so forgotten. Jacques explained that Lallement’s role was disputed in France. I began to plunge into the origins of the bicycle and have been immersed in bicycle history every since. I attended the first international cycle history conference in Glasgow in 1989 and have been a regular participant ever since, even hosting the 4th conference in Boston. I plan to attend the 22nd conference in Paris this May, the focus being on velocipedes.

David Herlihy
EP: There are a lot of cyclists who would love to have a job writing and talking about bikes. What made you decide to become a writer about the subject and how did you turn that decision into a reality?

DH: Well, it hasn’t been easy I have to say. It’s hard to make a living at this, and I can’t claim that I’ve fully succeeded either. But I was definitely taken by the subject, which I found both fascinating and significant. It was also clear to me that the field was under-researched and the history clouded by myths, especially in the early period. I knew I had strong research skills (including fluency in Italian and French, which comes in handy in this line of inquiry). So I continued to amass research on bicycle history, even after Bicycle Guide folded in the early 1990s. I occasionally wrote bike-history related articles for magazines such as Delta Sky and American Heritage Invention and Technology. Still, it was slow going and not remunerative.  I realized somewhere along the line that if I really wanted some return on all my efforts I needed to write a book or two. I approached Lara Heimert, an editor at Yale, around 2000. I had a few ideas but she suggested that I write a general history of the bicycle to establish myself. So that’s what I did, and I think it was good advice.

EP: I don’t want to give too much away about the story and outcome of “the Lost Cyclist”, but how did you come across the story of these remarkable nineteenth century global bicycle adventurers?

DH: Frank Lenz was one of those names that I kept coming across when reading late 19th century cycling literature. He was well known to the American cycling community in the late 1880s, thanks to his long-distance tours on his high-wheeler with his pal Charles Petticord. Lenz became a national celebrity in the spring of 1892, when he left his home in Pittsburgh to circle the globe on a new-fangled “safety” bicycle with inflatable tires (the modern prototype). He became an international figure when he disappeared in Turkey two years into his epic journey. William Sachtleben, the cyclist who went to Turkey to find Lenz, was also a prominent figure during the bicycle boom, having completed his own round-the-world bicycle journey with a college chum, Thomas G. Allen, Jr., in 1893.

I already had an idea back to write about Frank Lenz when I approached the Yale editor, but I put that idea on the back burner and didn’t get back to it until after Bicycle: the History was published in 2004.

EP: How were you able to piece together their stories and lay hands on so much supporting material?

DH: When I finally began the project in earnest, I knew I wanted to integrate Lenz’s story with that of Sachtleben. Both were evidently interesting, and somewhat contrasting, characters. And I knew that there was some material out there to draw upon, in particular Lenz’s travel accounts in Outing magazine and Sachtleben’s book Across Asia on a Bicycle. Still, I was not initially sure that I could find enough supplementary material to carry a book. There was only one way to find out. I began to sniff around in libraries and archives, using all the latest internet tools. Fortunately, it soon became apparent that I would have ample material to work with. In particular, I came across two privately held collections of Lenz’s photographs, taken before and during his world trip. I also discovered a collection of Sachtleben papers which included a diary. I collected quite a few newspaper articles generated by both men after they passed through a given town or city on their wheels. Some of these contained helpful information. Still, it took a great deal of time to follow and exploit all the leads I was developing. (I spent several weeks at the National Archives II, just to collect all the information on the Lenz case in the State Department files). Altogether, I spent four years gathering information about both men. The last two of those years I was under contract with my publisher Houghton Mifflin, so I was simultaneously writing the book. No doubt I could have completed the project after that first year, which was in fact the anticipated due date, but I was still digging up new and interesting material. So I kept at it. I honestly feel the book would not have been as good as it is if I had not devoted that second year to it.

EP: What about this story made it so appealing to you to write a book about?

DH: The interesting personalities, the critical time in bicycle history (transition from the fleet but precarious high-wheeler to the safety bicycle), and the fascinating historical backdrop (Sachtleben’s search in a turbulent Turkey teetering on collapse). The fact that the story was so fresh (both men had been almost entirely forgotten, and very little had been written about them since the 1890s) and at the same time ripe for research.

EP: You have been instrumental in commemorating the pioneers of bicycling. Most notably, you worked very hard to get a plaque installed in New Haven, Connecticut to memorialize Pierre Lallement, the inventor of the modern bicycle. Could you tell us a little about him and that project?

DH: Well, as I mentioned, I was immediately intrigued by Lallement when I first came across his story. The idea that a poor, teenaged mechanic could spark a true worldwide revolution by his own ingenuity and grit—and still die in poverty and obscurity—fascinated and appalled me. I wanted to find out more about his story. I also felt that he had been unfairly maligned and written out of history, so I did what I could to rectify the situation. In 1991, on the centennial of his death in Boston, I helped to organize a tribute. A few years later, I succeeded in getting the city to name a bicycle path after Lallement, the one that passes through the Southwest Corridor Park, right in front of Lallement’s last residence in Roxbury. In 1998, I also got the city of New Haven to install a plaque at the green, to commemorate Lallement’s cycling demonstration there. One of the first significant items I came across in my research was a blurb in a New Haven paper from April 1866 describing Lallement’s gyrations atop his strange two-wheeled contraption powered by foot cranks. It remains the earliest known description of a bicycle in action. The original plaque was damaged and removed a few years back, but a replacement marker was installed just this summer. I’m also pleased to learn that the town of Ansonia, where Lallement lived, will be naming its new greenway after Lallement sometime this year. And there are plans afoot to stage a bicycle ride this June in conjunction with New Haven’s annual Festival of Arts and Idea, which will retrace Lallement’s 12-mile from Ansonia to New Haven. So, it’s gratifying to see that Lallement is finally beginning to get his due.

EP: Which other pioneers of cycling do you believe deserve modern recognition?

DH: On a technical level, there are plenty of unsung heroes. Eugene Meyer, for example, is thought to have built the first practical wire suspension wheels–a huge leap forward in bicycle design. There are also plenty of promoters who have been largely forgotten. Thomas Stevens, the first bicycle “globe girdler,” come to mind. Even some once-famous racers are fairly obscure today. Major Taylor was all but forgotten before Andrew Ritchie wrote a biography a few years back, and even today Taylor arguably doesn’t get the attention he deserves not only for this athletic prowess but also for his constant fight against racism.

EP: What is your next project?

DH: I’m really not certain. I expect to do another bicycle-related book but I haven’t quite figured out the theme. I’m thinking, perhaps, about exploring the pre-World War I cycling era in France, but I’m not committed to that just yet. Check back in a few months and maybe I can be more definitive!

 

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