They blazed the trail

“I shall shed blood of some sort yet before I leave Nevada! There isn’t a day that I don’t shoot at something or other …”
Thomas Stevens, Around the World on a Bicycle, Vol. 1 (San Francisco to Teheran)

There seems to be a welcome resurgence of interest in the pioneers of long-distance bicycling — those intrepid souls of the late 19th century who set out on primitive bikes to ride across America or girdle the globe.
They demand the respect of today’s bicycle tourists, whose journeys, as arduous as they might seem, pale in comparison to the travels of these early two-wheeled adventurers.
The first of that breed was Thomas Stevens, subject of the cover story by Geof Koss in the May issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine, “The Fearless Traveler: Around the World with Thomas Stevens.”
Koss, who is writing a book on Stevens, is a staff writer for the CQ-Roll Call Group, a news service that covers Congress.
At age 29, Stevens set out from San Francisco on April 22, 1884, astride a 50-inch Columbia Standard high-wheel bicycle, called a “penny farthing” in his native England.
“Leaving San Francisco with little more than a spare shirt and pair of socks, a thin, waterproof coat that doubled as a tent, and a revolver,” Koss wrote, Stevens rode, pushed and pulled his bicycle across the Sierra Nevada, the Great Desert Basin, the Rocky Mountains and the Nebraska plains as he made his way to Chicago for a week’s rest and then on to Boston and New York.
Stevens’ round-the-world journey — traveling by ship when necessary — took him to Liverpool, London, Paris, Vienna, Constantinople, Tehran, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo. Several times along the way — in Nevada, Turkey and China — Stevens’ Smith & Wesson revolver proved to be more useful than the spare tire for his small rear wheel.
“Finally, on December 17, 1886,” Koss wrote, “Stevens rolled into the eastern port of Yokohama, having ridden roughly 13,500 miles in his around-the-world trip. The next month, he sailed into San Francisco Bay and into the history books.”
Stevens wrote his own two-volume account of his epic trip, Around the World on a Bicycle. You can buy the book on or download it as an e-book free from the Project Gutenberg website.

An early catalog of the company that helped finance Stevens' ride

The story about Stevens was Koss’s second about a pioneering touring cyclist for Adventure Cyclist. For the January 2009 issue, he wrote a piece called “The Last Ride of Frank Lenz.”
Lenz set out from Pittsburgh, his hometown, on May 15, 1892, traveling east to west, on an Overman Victor “safety” bicycle — a bike with wheels of equal size similar to those ridden today. He disappeared in eastern Turkey in early May 1894 and was never found.
A book due out in June by David V. Herlihy, called The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and his Mysterious Disappearance, pieces together the story of Lenz’s journey and the mission to find him, led by another round-the-world cyclist named William Sachtleben. (See March 26 blog post, “The search for the lost cyclist.”)
Another book of this genre worthy of a read is Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride by Peter Zheutlin, published in 2007. (See blog posts of May 26, 2009, “Journeys worth writing about,” and April 29, “Books about biking.”)
Anyone considering a long-distance trip by bicycle would do well to read of the journeys of the hardy adventurers in whose tracks they follow. They’d probably learn a few things about perseverance and resourcefulness. And these books would certainly put their own journeys in perspective.



Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels

3 responses to “They blazed the trail

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention They blazed the trail « Jim’s Bike Blog --

  2. Jack Schwarte

    HI Jim,
    Thank you for the informational blog about the bike trip across the Southern route. My best friend Laurie and I leave two months from today for San Diego to start Adventure Cycles supported southern tier trip. We have learned much from your postings. I too was raised in Alton, IL. but now reside in Oregon. I enjoyed a training ride on the Great River road to Elasa while visiting my parents in May. I was sad reading about your being struck by a nun at St Ambrose. I went to St Peter and Paul school and being shy and introverted avoided physical contact from the nuns. I am glad the nun you met on your trip was into dancing and not boxing. Will look forward to more of your postings.
    Happy cycling, Jack Schwarte

    • Jack,
      Many thanks for reading my blog and for the kind words. I hope that the postings about the Southern Tier route will be of some use to you. Please accept my apologies for the late reply. We’ve been on the go much of the summer, and when I’m at home, I haven’t paid much attention to the blog. It’s good to hear from a fellow Altonian. I, of course, am very familiar with Sts. Peter and Paul’s Church. My late mother used to attend Mass there. When I was a kid, we lived in north Alton and I went to St. Ambrose in Godfrey. I’ll be going back to Alton later this summer for a 50th Marquette High School reunion over Labor Day weekend. During the week before the reunion, I plan to ride the Katy Trail across Missouri from Clinton to St. Charles and then across the river to Alton. I’ve done that ride a couple times before, but this time I’m planning to camp along the way. Best of luck on your cross-country trip. My experience was fantastic and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Take care.

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