Did “Bicycle Face” Really Stop Women from Cycling?

Slowly but surely the number of people – both men and women – riding bikes to get around is increasing. Hurrah. But did you know that cycling was actually one of the most popular methods of transport around the turn of the 20th century? So, what happened? Was it just the introduction of cars that drove people away from two wheels?

Well one theory that is rumoured to have damaged the appeal of cycling – especially to women – involves “Bicycle Face”, a dangerous medical condition that doctors of the late 19th century warned about.

What Was “Bicycle Face”?

To the beauty-conscious back in the 19th century, contracting said Bicycle Face was a genuine, scary-sounding medical ailment and not the attempted slayings of an uninventive playground bully.

According to the Literary Digest in 1895:

“Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face’”.

Symptoms were supposed to include a flushed, pale-looking face, lips that are permanently firmly drawn, dark shadows beneath the eyes and a constant expression of weariness – akin to the sort of withering description my mum once gave me when she picked me up after an exuberant first year at university. Indeed, looking back at the pictures, I’m inclined to agree with her and have little inclination to have them printed at Photo Wall and displayed to anyone… ever.

Anyway, this was clearly all nonsense, so why did the Bicycle Face phenomenon surface?

What might the arguments against women’s bicycle riding have been?

There are many theories, but a compelling one could lie behind the opposition to the early feminist movement in Europe and America in the 1890s. Bicycles were seen as an instrument of feminism, given that they increased mobility, challenged Victorian perceptions of what it was to be a woman and reduced restrictions on clothes and undergarments – freeing them up to engage in various physical activities.

The opposition to women cycling was so stiff that other health related reasons cited included exhaustion, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches and depression.

Of course, there were some brave women who were willing to risk contract Bicycle Face, but they, still, were subject to a number of rules and guidelines that they should follow. Examples of such advice included “Don’t emulate your brother’s attitude if he rides parallel toward the ground” and, obviously, “Don’t refuse assistance up a hill”.

Bicycle Face was later dismissed, with Chicago doctor, Sarah Hackett Stevenson, quoted in the Phrenological Journal of 1897 as saying “[Cycling] is not injurious to any part of the anatomy, as it improves the general health… The painfully anxious facial expression is seen only among beginners, and is due to the uncertainty of amateurs. As soon as a rider becomes proficient, can gauge her muscular strength, and acquires perfect confidence in her ability to balance herself and in her power of locomotion, this look passes away.”

Unfortunately, by this point, much of the damage was done and appeal of cycling had diminished.

Does the fear of Bicycle Face still plague your daily ride? If so, send us in your pictures on Twitter and Facebook and we’ll evaluate the severity of your condition.

Pete Reynolds

Pete is the co-founder and editor of Discerning Cyclist. He commutes by bike daily from his home to his co-working space. Originally from Wirral, UK, Pete now lives in Spain. When visiting a new city, Pete loves nothing more than to explore it on two wheels. See Pete's Muck Rack profile

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