“Bicycle Face” — A 19th-Century Health Problem Made Up To Scare Women Away From Cycling

Once upon a time, the main danger associated with cycling had nothing to do with being hit by a car. Instead, some 19th-century doctors warned that using the newfangled contraption could lead to a terrifying medical condition — “bicycle face” — especially for women. The Literary Digest in 1895 said: "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.” It went on to describe the condition as “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, always with an expression of weariness.” Others said the condition was characterized by “a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes.” Some implied that bicycle face was a permanent condition, while others maintained that given enough time away from cycling, a person’s face would return to normal. Some publications felt that violating the Sabbath by riding bicycles on a Sunday was ultimately to blame. Obviously, bicycle face isn’t a real thing, so why were doctors so worried about it? In the 1890s, bicycles were seen by many as an instrument of feminism. They gave women a measure of increased mobility and began to define Victorian ideas about femininity. Bikes helped stoke dress reform movements, which aimed to reduce Victorian restrictions on clothing and undergarments so women could wear clothes that allowed them to engage in physical activities. Doctors cited all sorts of reasons to dissuade women from riding bikes, arguing that they were unsuitable for women and could lead to exhaustion, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches and depression. n 1897, the Phrenological Journal quoted Chicago Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson putting the issue to rest: "Cycling is not injurious to any part of the anatomy, as it improves the general health.”