The Amateur Cyclist Who Biked Around the World

Early on in this millennium, when I was researching my book, Bicycle: The History, I borrowed an original copy of Fred Birchmore’s book, Around the World on a Bicycle, from my local library in downtown Boston. Published in 1939 by the University of Georgia Press, it included numerous grainy black and white photos taken in distant lands with a small Agfa Memo camera. 

I learned the basic story by heart. After graduating from the University of Georgia in the mid-1930s, young Fred set off to Cologne, Germany, to study international law. He bought a hefty, locally-made one-speed bicycle and he used that to tour Europe during his university breaks. When the theft of his passport in Egypt prolonged his absence beyond the start of the new semester, he decided to head East—“perhaps to China.”

That trip progressed into what would become essentially a global circuit. Two years later, after numerous perilous adventures and countless fascinating encounters with peoples, landmarks, and nature, Fred made his triumphant return to his home in Athens, Georgia. 

Shortly after my book came out, in 2005, having heard that Fred, then in his mid-90s, was still thriving in his hometown of Athens, I resolved to meet this living legend in person. After all, he was a prominent member of an exclusive club of “globe girdling” cyclists that included the high-wheel rider Thomas Stevens and Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben, two graduates of Washington University in Saint Louis who had helped to spark the great bicycle boom of the mid-1890s. Fred also represented an extremely rare breed: a 20th-century cycling celebrity whose fame did not stem from professional racing. 

Knowing that Fred had a daughter working in Boston, a distinguished Harvard dermatologist, I approached Dr. Rebecca Birchmore Campen to make arrangements for my visit. Becky, as she insisted I call her, kindly complied. Before long, I made my way to the leafy and secluded Birchmore homestead in Athens, known to locals as “Happy Hollow.” 

Needless to say, I did not return to Boston disappointed. Fred was every bit the character I had expected him to be—and much more. He was extremely affable, entertaining, and eager to talk about every detail of that epic ride, as if he had just returned home. And I was interested to learn that, in contrast to some “round the world” cyclists, who rarely, if ever cycled once their tour ended, Fred went on to complete several more significant bicycle tours.

These included a romp around North America and a 4,500-mile honeymoon ride with his bride Willa Deane (an unseasoned, but certainly game cyclist) on a tandem bike through Florida, Jamaica, Cuba, and Panama. Later in life he made return trips through the British Isles and western Europe; as well as another cycling foray into the Canadian Rockies. 

And yet, cycling was only one of many athletic activities that Fred would practice virtually his entire life. The long list included regular workouts at the gym, marathon hiking expeditions, and performing handstands to amuse the public. In his mid-life, he was in many respects decades ahead of his time when he went on five-mile dawn runs, before many of his cohorts had even lit their morning cigarettes. While in his seventies Fred virtually hand-built a massive stone wall enclosing several acres of his residential property. 

Professionally, Fred practiced real estate law. But first and foremost, he was a family man who, along with the charming Willa Deane, raised four athletic and intellectually curious children. He also devoted himself generously and enthusiastically to community service, for which he would receive many awards and honors.

A bird lover, he organized the Athens Bird Club (along with renowned ecologist Eugene Odum), and helped to designate Athens as a bird sanctuary. He sang in his church’s choir and he taught folk dancing at community centers. He did volunteer work for both the Boy and Girl Scouts organizations, and for the North Georgia Methodist Conference, at Camp Glisson near Dahlonega. A dynamic member of the Athens Kiwanis Club, he was elected to serve as its statewide Lieutenant Governor. He frequently gave popular lectures not only on his travels, but also on many topics related to his profound love of nature and his advocacy of a healthy lifestyle. 

Fred Birchmore traveled over unpaved roads to parts of the world where the bicycle was as yet unknown.

As the years rolled by, I would occasionally think of my visit with Fred and his long-ago adventures on his 42-pound Reinhardt bicycle which he lovingly nicknamed Bucephalus after Alexander the Great’s horse (it now resides at the Smithsonian Institution). Those recollections intensified once I got to writing a book about Frank Lenz, another young American who—some 40 years before Fred’s adventure—had likewise set out to circle the globe on his wheels.

In the Lenz case, however, there would be no happy ending. In May 1894, two years into his journey, with only Europe left to cross, the German-American from Pittsburgh disappeared in Turkey under mysterious circumstances. Neither his remains nor his bicycle were ever found. Had Fred ever heard of the Lenz tragedy, I wondered, when he gleefully threw caution to the winds and set off to pedal around the globe? 

After the Lost Cyclist came out in 2010, I finally resolved that I should pay Fred another visit and prepare an article on his epic ride for Adventure Cyclist. Only this time I planned to record our conversation for posterity. After all, an amazing thought had crossed my mind. It was now some 75 years since Fred had set out on his great adventure. And yet the bicycle itself was not even 150 years old! In other words, Bucephalus was now chronologically (and perhaps even technologically) closer to the original bicycle of Pierre Lallement (patented in 1866) than it was to the bicycle of Lance Armstrong (the reigning Tour de France champion at that time). 

Moreover, it dawned on me that the extreme hardships that Fred had endured during his long ride were far more similar to those faced by the 19th-century pioneers than they were to the relatively minor inconveniences that challenge a present-day cycle tourist. After all, neither those pioneers nor Fred benefited from multiple speeds, cell phones with GPS apps, or credit cards and ATMs. And like those pioneers, Fred traveled over unpaved roads to parts of the world where the bicycle was as yet unknown. At times, the locals even perceived the moving two-wheeler as something supernatural and possibly even diabolical. 

But would Fred be willing and able to sit for another interview? As far as I knew, he was still alive and alert. Yet given that he was rapidly approaching the century mark perhaps even he was finally beginning to show his age? I called Becky to gingerly inquire if I could arrange for another visit with her father, bracing myself for disappointment. Sure enough, I could sense some hesitation in her voice. Then she explained an essential caveat: I would have to schedule my visit around Fred’s daily workouts at the YMCA! 

Elated that I would be seeing Fred again, I decided to take another look at his book. What struck me the second time around, was how close he had been to one Harry Espenscheid, Dartmouth graduate and a Harvard Business School student whom he had met in February 1936, at the Winter Olympics in Garmisch, Germany.

After the closing ceremonies, the two young Americans bicycled together over the snowy Alps into Italy, where they were detained and grilled by the local Fascist authorities. On they went, down the picturesque Yugoslavian coast. Then they intermittently traveled together all the way to Egypt. Even after they finally parted, they kept in touch by mail for several years. 

I figured that I could easily find out Harry’s fate, given his distinctive last name and the emerging powers of the internet. Then I would have something of interest to tell Fred. And sure enough, I was quickly on Harry’s trail. Yet I did not find the one thing that I expected would jump right out at me: his obituary. On Facebook, I found a man whom I suspected was Harry’s son, and I sent him a delicately worded inquiry. “Dad is still alive,” he replied to my astonishment.

Unfortunately, however, Harry had dementia and his family felt that he would not be able to do a video chat with Fred during my upcoming visit to Athens, as I had proposed. Still, I could at least let Fred know that Harry was alive and fill him in on what Harry had been up to during the three quarters of a century since the two of them had parted ways in Cairo.

Fred, like his 19th-century predecessors Stevens and Lenz, and even the non solo riders Allen and Sachtleben, frequently flirted with danger, if not outright disaster.

Once the details of my visit to Athens were set, I flew to Atlanta where I met up with my good friends Buck and Judy Peacock, who reside there. Buck has an amazing collection of historic cycling ephemera, and Judy is a proud Bulldog just as Fred was. Both Peacocks were keen to meet Fred and his family. They kindly drove me to Athens, and after a satisfying lunch at the landmark Varsity drive-in, we called on Fred. Buck brought along his digital camera to record my interview. 

There is so much that I cherish about that sunny, magical day, but of course seeing Fred for the second time was its highlight. I quickly confirmed that he had not heard of Lenz, though I knew that even if he had, Fred would have set off on his journey all the same. And he was delighted to hear my news about Harry, whom he remembered well, though he was sorry to hear about his failing health. 

But what I remember most about our conversation that day was Fred’s vivid recounting of the time that he came face-to-face with Adolf Hitler at a massive outdoor Nazi rally in Cologne. His university buddies induced him to go along with them that evening. In the middle of one of his infamous rants, Hitler asked if there were any Americans in the crowd. Fred’s pals promptly pushed their reluctant comrade on stage.

While thousands looked on, Hitler then badgered Fred with rhetorical questions designed to expose how much Americans—in supposed contrast to Germans—were suffering on account of the Great Depression. I knew that Fred (who had been an outstanding lightweight boxer in college) was not exaggerating a bit when he told me that he would have happily decked “the little twerp” had it not been for the intimidating presence of a swarm of armed men in brown shirts. 

My third and final visit with Fred took place a few months later, in November 2011. The Birchmores had invited the Peacocks and myself to a dinner in celebration of Fred’s 100th birthday. We joined dozens of Fred’s admirers in the packed hotel ballroom where the event was to take place, only to learn that it would be postponed because Fred had fallen ill that very evening. 

Still, not even pneumonia could do much to slow down Fred. The next day the mayor of Athens and other dignitaries crowded his hospital room to present him with the “Key to the City” in recognition of his years of service to the community. And Becky kindly allowed the Peacocks and myself to hold our own bedside chat with Fred. 

Fred was still so full of life, and so sharp of mind, that his condition seemed to me but a temporary setback. This, after all, was a man who had playfully injected “if I die” into one of our conversations, knowing full well that I would need a moment’s reflection before chuckling. And true to everyone’s expectations, within a few weeks Fred was back to driving himself daily to the local “Y” for workouts, a routine he would continue until only a few weeks before the Grim Reaper finally claimed him on April 15th, 2012. 

Naturally, I was terribly saddened when I got the jolting news from Michael Deme, my editor at Adventure Cyclist who had just filed my article on Fred’s historic ride. It was deeply disappointing to think that there would be no 101st birthday for Fred, and that he would not be able to read my article. Still, I was extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to meet such a remarkable and admirable individual.

I thought back to the “spot on” words that Harry had written to his old friend in a letter that I had found in the Georgia Historical Society archives. At that time, both were actively engaged in the terrible global conflict that they had seen coming during their blissful days touring Europe together. “I have often thought, Fred,” Harry wrote in his closing, “that if anyone has lots of zip and zest for life, you sure have it. And I know darn well that you are going to get the most out of life.” 

Even after Fred passed, I found it impossible not to think back fondly on my visits to Athens and the time that I had spent in his company. So when the University of Georgia Press asked if I would be willing to write a foreword to this reissued edition of his book, I eagerly accepted. I am delighted to know that Fred’s round-the-world narrative will now be available to new generations in print format. 

Readers will not fail to notice, however, that Fred, like his 19th-century predecessors Stevens and Lenz, and even the non solo riders Allen and Sachtleben, frequently flirted with danger, if not outright disaster. When we hear the frequent reports of present-day extreme adventures that go terribly wrong, such as climbs up Mount Everest, it is tempting to conclude that the victims had taken foolish and reckless risks. Might not the same be said of Fred and his fellow “round the world” cyclists? And, if so, does that tarnish their respective stories in any way? 

I certainly would not want to pass judgment on those who seek adventure in any age. At the same time, however, I would not want to have to defend the wisdom of every tactical decision that these cyclists made en route. What I would suggest, though, is that these adventures offered a distinct and overarching benefit that went far beyond mere thrill-seeking or self-gratification: the experiencing of diverse cultures and climates in an intimate way that only a cyclist enjoys. 

Two admirable traits that all these cyclists had in common were, first, a willingness to live like the locals and, second, an implicit trust in the fundamental goodness of humanity. Their lives, after all, were essentially in the hands of their hosts, even if they chose to carry a weapon (Fred, alone among the aforementioned cyclists, did not).

In the times and places they traveled, they could hardly expect a timely intervention from home whenever a crisis developed. Indeed, it is interesting to note that both Lenz and Birchmore, in their darkest moments, came to similar uplifting conclusions about the universality of human empathy. 

Fred’s story reminds us that we gain a deeper appreciation of this often-troubled world when we tour it by bicycle.

For Lenz, his epiphany came in Yichang, in the heart of China, in the spring of 1893. He had been chased and cornered in a field by hostile peasants, armed with pitchforks. It suddenly occurred to him that his only hope for survival was to create an amusing distraction by performing tricks on his bicycle. The ruse worked brilliantly. At first, a few of his persecutors erupted in laughter, and soon the mob’s menacing mood mellowed.

Lenz was allowed to continue his journey unmolested. He told a journalist afterward that he hoped his trip would prove “that there is a fraternal feeling among the human race, besides the natural love of self, [and] that with civilizations comes tolerance, and a more sympathetic appreciation of fellow men of all nations.” 

Fred reached a similar conclusion in Egypt, on a Cairo-bound train, in the spring of 1936. Some days before, while he slept on a beach near the Red Sea, a thief had discreetly slit open his backpack to steal his passport, $300 in cash, and traveler’s checks. Desperate and penniless, he boarded a crowded train to head back to Cairo where he could apply for a new passport and await the reimbursement of his checks at the American Express Company office.

“When word passed around that I was not one of those brain-cracked millionaires ‘roughing it’ for the novelty, but broke like the rest of them,” Fred recounted in his book, “I was immediately showered with sincere sympathies and offers of material gifts.” 

Still, one might fairly ask, why is the tale of Fred’s long-ago lark a compelling read today? I would submit that, first, it is a fascinating period piece set in a unique and tumultuous time in world history; one that is rapidly fading from living memory. And second, perhaps even more importantly, while the narrative describes what was no doubt a life-altering experience for Fred as an individual, it also gives inspiring and timeless testimony to the eternal valor of youth. Indeed, it affirms that some of life’s greatest rewards are attained only through aspirations, sweat, and perseverance. 

Fred’s story also reminds us that we gain a deeper appreciation of this often-troubled world when we tour it by bicycle. As Fred himself put it: “the best things in life are free—a bed in God’s great out-of-doors, fresh air, sunshine, moonlight raining down from a cloudless sky, wind rustling in the palms, waters lapping the river banks, frogs croaking, birds singing, the laughter and gaiety of children, [and] the joyous companionship of Bucephalus!”


Adapted from the introduction to Around the World on a Bicycle. Used with the permission of the publisher, University of Georgia Press. Copyright © 2020 by David V. Herlihy.

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