SOURCES POUR OUT of David Herlihy's The Lost Cyclist, a nonfiction tale of 1890s bike-based "globe-girdlers," as though somebody accused Herlihy of making the whole thing up. Armed with more research than he knows what to do with, Herlihy weaves together two separate missions to loop the Earth on a bicycle—the successful tour of duo William Sachtleben and Thomas Allen, and the doomed one of Pittsburgher Frank Lenz. Somewhere in Turkey, Lenz disappeared, and the second half of the book details Sachtleben's frustrating mission to find what's left of him.

The most intriguing parts of The Lost Cyclist come before the supposed "adventure" begins. In fully developed accounts of early bike races, hard-wheeled "ordinaries" (with a big front wheel) tangle with "safeties" (two equal-sized wheels), and Power Bars are a basket of broiled chicken with stale bread.

But Herlihy—the celebrated author of the comprehensive Bicycle: The History—fails hard to trim down this history into a story. The narrative blindly follows the path of his travelers, dragging us through surface impressions one after the other. Interludes that could be neatly summarized are supported by block quotes roaming free on the page. Some people eat up this kind of writing, in which even the details have names. They are the kind of people who enjoy the minutiae of military history and British train schedules and I am not one of them.

For all his passion for completeness, though, Herlihy skimps on Lenz's background. We learn that he had a strained relationship with his stepdad, and was "bent on making something of himself" from early on. What seems to excite him most about his epic journey is that it gives him something noteworthy to do—not exactly a heroic cause to root for. As Herlihy points out, "If the main purpose of this trip was to prove the practicality of the safety bicycle, what was the point of hiring young men to carry his vehicle over mountains and streams [as he did in Asia], where one slip could have meant disaster?" Obstacles Lenz faces along the way turn him increasingly inward, sour on exploration, and focused on his goal despite its danger. But thanks to Herlihy's over-detailed writing, by the time Lenz goes missing, I was already eager for his disappearance.