I learned about a fascinating new topic this week thanks to Vox. Apparently, when women started riding bicycles en masse in the 19th century, doctors coined a fictitious disease called bicycle face in an effort to scare then off from cycling. From the Vox article:
“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,’” noted the Literary Digest in 1895. It went on to describe the condition: “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” Elsewhere, others said the condition was “characterized by a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes.”
It was unclear at the time what exactly caused bicycle face. One of the leading arguments was that the effort expended to keep a bicycle upright caused people, but mainly women, to make horrible faces. There were stories that bicycle face was a permanent condition, while others suggested that it might fade over time if the bicycle was avoided.
And bicycle face wasn’t the only concern for 19th century women. Here’s an extensive list of “don’ts” for women riding bikes at the time.
Now, the Vox article goes on to explain how bicycle face was entirely made up, in part due to fear that the bicycle, which was seen as “an instrument of feminism“, would give women freedom, mobility, and even minds of their own! Bicycle face was an effort to dissuade women from riding bikes and generally wrecking havoc on society. Fortunately, women did go on to wreck havoc by riding their bicycles and fighting for women’s rights.
Although, we unfortunately still have a long way to go in both women’s rights and women riding bicycles, but that’s a story for another day.
What I want to tell you today is that bicycle face does in fact exist! I should know, since I’ve spent a good portion of my life on a bicycle and have many photographs to prove it. Yes, gasp, I raced bikes for many years and proudly donned my spandex on a daily basis. Now, I’m just happy to be a bike commuter and an occasional donner of spandex.
But yes, bicycle face exists, and it’s AWESOME.
However, I would like to clarify a few points about bicycle face with you and show you some examples of my own bicycle face, which will now be archived in a Google image search for that term. Hm…I’ll keep them little and not share too many. I must maintain some sense of dignity!
First of all, bicycle face is very dynamic and diverse. It comes in many forms and takes many variations. It’s like the chameleon of faces, ever changing and totally unpredictable. But you can learn a lot from a person’s bicycle face.
For example, there’s the fly catcher bicycle face. This occurs when one really needs a lot of oxygen, and maybe an insect snack, and needs it NOW. It’s slightly reminiscent of a certain famous painting. Yes, bicycle face is an art.
Next, there’s the gaunt cheeks bicycle face, which occurs after 5 long days of racing during which time said person can’t consume enough calories to sustain their cheek fat. This also doubles as the ever expectant, “Where the hell is the finish line?” bicycle face.
Next, is the “I’m going to cry or throw up soon” bicycle face. It’s up to you to decide. I can’t remember which was the case.
Next, there’s the hard to tell if I’m smiling or suffering bicycle face. It was suffering, if you must know, but one must master the, “Hey, climbing up this same stupid climb for the 9th time with all these really strong women is no big deal” face in order to survive.
And finally, there’s the, “Wow, I really love to ride my bike” bicycle face. This is the most common form of bicycle face, and the feelings it produces are most definitely permanent. Fortunately, I’m living proof that the goofy look is not.
As these images demonstrate, bicycle face is most certainly real and entirely fabulous. I am really proud to say that I mastered the art of bicycle face quite well over my many years of bicycle racing, but I don’t want to give the mighty Google any more images of myself for that particular search term. You’re welcome for these.
And although, I don’t have any pictures of myself bike commuting, I think most of the bicycle faces that produces are of the goofy, happy kind.
So welcome to the wonderful world of bicycle face! I think we should all strive to have a little bicycle face in our lives. It means you are having a fun, or at least memorable, time on your bike. What does your bicycle face look like?