An interesting article published in 1897 in London’s National Review was originally intended to dissuade women from pursuing cycling as it was considered unbecoming for them to do so. Some doctors argued that bicycling was an excessively taxing activity, unsuitable for women, telling that it could induce exhaustion, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches, and depression.

“The unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tends to produce a wearied and exhausted Bicycle Face.”

Descriptions of “bicycle face” varied with some implying that it was a temporary condition. Others however insisted that it likely was a permanent result of the “excessive indulgence of wheeling.” The symptoms were as follows: “skin unusually 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.” Other experts included that the condition was “characterized by a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes.”

The hidden dangers of cycling

by A. Shadwell, M.D.

The cycling season will be coming on soon, and there is every reason to suppose that more people than ever will take advantage of it—women especially. The first blush of fashion has already passed away from the bicycle, and with it the principal attraction for very smart folks, but that is more than counter-balanced by the wider popularity of an established practice. The correct instincts of English (and I believe American) women having relegated all unfeminine costumes to the limbo of bad style, and resolutely vindicated the supremacy of the skirt, there is no longer anything for nice scruples to boggle at. Riding has acquired an irreproachable title to respectability. The matron in her most desperate mood would scarcely venture to snort at it now; she could not do so without making herself ridiculous—a thing inconceivable. To do her justice, she does not attempt it. She may shake her head at some of the uses to which the British maid puts her machine—as at everything else that misguided young person does—but speaking in a general way, instead of condemning, she is much more likely to get astride of one herself, if only to show how it should be done. Her conversion has been gradual, but is pretty complete. In short, the bicycle has established itself as a family institution, like sea-bathing in summer and pantomimes in winter. Nothing need prevent any one from enjoying it save want of means, and it is safe to say that an increasing number of people will manage to find the means with the assistance of a market rendered pliant by competition.

The one consideration that might induce cautious individuals to hesitate before attempting a novel and peculiar experiment with their precious persons—the doubt whether it is good for them—has hitherto been ignored or stifled. Everybody sees swarms of men and women like unto themselves skimming gaily along. Everybody hears daily of friends who have gone the same road, while to authoritative warnings have been uttered, and whispers of ill-effects are lost upon the wind, like idle gossip that doth not happen to jump with inclination. Accidents, of course, are not to be denied, and if totted up they would probably cause some consternation for a day or two; but accidents happen everywhere, even in bed—earthquakes for instance—and if one begins worrying about them life becomes impossible. No one allows gloomy anticipation of broken bones and sudden death to interfere with pleasure; they are wisely put aside with the genial conviction that, if come they must, someone else will be the victim. That cycling may possible entail other untoward consequences is a proposition out of harmony with current ideas. It is not associated with any particular microbe, and is, therefore, necessarily harmless. On the other hand, it means exercise and fresh air (all out-door air is fresh by courtesy) and, therefore, it is necessarily beneficial, provided that two or three simple rules are kept. Such is the orthodox teaching of the day, as every board-school infant knows, or should know, if it listens to its accomplished teachers, who are always in the van of intellectual progress. But, in spite of the orthodox teaching, I will venture to say that in the course of the next year or two we shall hear quite a different story. That little has hitherto been heard to the disadvantage of cycling is natural enough. Sufficient time has not elapsed since it became a general practice to bring the disadvantages to light—to the light, that is to say, of public recognition. Medical men have been kept studiously in the dark on the subject. They always are in like cases. It is the old story of the bone-setter’s art and similar popular fancies. The successes are blazoned abroad, the failures concealed. So with bicycling. The fortunate persons who have derived benefit as well as pleasure from it volubly recount their experiences to the experiences to the largest audience they can command, and the chorus of praise waxes louder by reiteration. Those who have suffered conceal the fact as far as possible, and especially from the doctor, for fear of being forbidden their “beloved bikes.” That is noticeably the habit of young women, who are the chief sufferers. They have a double reason for silence. They set exceptional store by the amusement, and they are by nature shy of saying anything about their health. They will often go nigh to death rather than confide in a mother or sister, lest haply the doctor, whom they dread, should be consulted.

The medical profession generally has thus, I believe, been misled into an over-favourable or overconfident view of cycling, and has a medical man I know their attitude pretty well. They are naturally and quite rightly inclined to approve of anything which takes people into the open air and gives them occupation and exercise, and since all that they hear of the bicycle is in its favour, they readily commend it to all and sundry, unless some serious and definite reason exists to the contrary. If any suspicion of ill-effects does happen to be confided to their ear, it is lightly dismissed as due to “overtaxing the strength.” The world feeds on phrases, and they are nowhere swallowed more greedily than in the sick-room. The patient and the patient’s friends (happily) never ask what they mean, whether much or little or nothing at all; and the doctor very seldom asks himself. Mathews Duncan used to tell a story about that in his dry way, which derived much of its effect from the broad Scotch accent, not reproducible unfortunately on paper. A lady came to him complaining of a pain in the face, and wanted to know what it was. It is tic-douloureux,” said the eminent physician. “Oh, really! Tic-douloureux,” said the lady, quite satisfied. “But if,” he used to add, she had asked me what tic-douloureux was I should have had to say, It’s just a pain in the face.” “Overtaxing the strength,” “overfatigue,” and similar expressions may mean a little more than “tic-douloureux,” which is nothing but a label, but they conveniently mask an indefinite amount of ignorance. I shall return to this point later, merely observing here that the easy-going use of such wide and superficial formulas leads to self-deception and error. Doctors put off their guard by a phrase, may miss the real bearing of facts before them, and give disastrous advice when consulted. I have known serious and long-continued mischief caused by riding, as the subsequent course of the case proved; but a doctor, to whom it was suggested that the machine might be to blame, pooh-poohed the idea, because the amount of riding was so very moderate as to preclude “over-fatigue,” and he had never heard that it could do harm in any other way. He confidently recommended the patient to continue riding “in moderation,” with the result that she has never been able to ride since. So far as can be judged from public utterances that is the general view of the profession and of the public alike. Observe moderation and you are perfectly safe. Perhaps one ought to add, “Wear flannel next the skin,” a time-honored shibboleth, which derives its only authority from constant repetition, but is received by this enlightened age with as much respect as a formula for exorcizing the devil used to inspire in our benighted forefathers.

I ought, perhaps, to mention the late Sir Benjamin Richardson here as otherwise some one is sure to throw him at my head. I knew him, and desire to speak of him with all respect. He was undoubtedly responsible for much of the general confidence in the hygienic virtues of cycling. But at the time he devoted attention to it comparatively few people rode: he had not had the opportunity of observing its effects, by which alone it can be judged, when practiced in the indiscriminate manner that now prevails. Latterly he did, I believe, considerably modify the views he once held, but naturally he attracted less notice as a wet blanket than as an enthusiastic advocate. In that capacity his ardour was somewhat apt to outrun his judgment. Moreover, his own experiences, on which his favourable opinion was mainly based, were, if I remember right, confined to a tricycle, which is by no means the same thing as a bicycle. On all these grounds the favourable opinions associated with his name require to be discounted when applied to the question as it stands to-day. He was quite right in drawing attention to the value of this form of exercise—it is good for many people. My point is that among the enormous numbers who have taken to it within the last two years, there are many others for whom it is not good, but distinctly hurtful, and that in ways and for reasons which are not yet generally recognized.

In spite of the tendency of riders to conceal untoward results and of doctors to minimize or misinterpret them when discovered, the facts come gradually to light, and from what I have observed I cannot but think that before long they will attract serious and general attention. Since last summer, wherever I have been I have heard of persons who are unpleasantly disappointed by the effect of riding on themselves, and of others who have been completely “jacked up” by it, to an expressive piece of schoolboy slang. At the same time I have heard of others again—including women—who do their thirty, fifty, or seventy miles and “never felt better in their lives.” I do not happen to have met any of those who are said to have been restored by the curative bicycle to perfect health from a condition reminding one of the testimonials to somebody’s pills, but I am quite willing to believe that they exist. It would not affect my argument in the least if swarms of them had been rescued from the grave and could ride a thousand miles without turning a hair. It is of those who cannot that I speak; of those who cannot ride even a moderate distance without unpleasant or serious consequences. They may not be so numerous as I suppose but they exist, and there is nothing on the face of it to distinguish them from the rest. That is where the danger lies. Here is a case. A girl, healthy, rather stronger than the average, able to take her part with the rest in other things, learns to cycle. She rides with her friends and rather enjoys it. To all appearances she can do as much as anybody in short flights. One day they go farther, nothing much, perhaps ten miles: the result, utter collapse, with bed for several days. And the same thing happens whenever she ventures beyond the merest potter. Her friends, no stronger, no more experienced, are not affected in the same way at all. She “overtaxed her strength.” Of course she did: but she did not know she was doing it, and had no reason to suppose it. That was just the mischief. Sometimes the consequences are much more serious. In case within my knowledge a girl developed exophthalmic goitre as the result of a rather long ride, which she supposed herself able to accomplish without difficulty. Her throat swelled at the time, never went down, and quickly developed into a well-marked case. This obscure but serious affection is said to be chiefly caused by “mental excitement.” Another form of organic injury that I have come across is internal inflammation, of which the symptoms are much pain and a kind of chronic dysentery, extremely obstinate, and of the most lowering character.” The first case that I noticed was that of a lady, of good constitution, active and able to hold her own at other forms of exercise. She mastered the machine with exceptional facility, almost at the first essay, and was an easy and graceful rider. But being rather timid she never rode more than a mile or two at a time, and that at the most moderate pace. Nevertheless, this trouble developed itself, and did not subside for months, to the great detriment of her health, which has not yet recovered. At first I was not sure about the cause, but the recurrence of acute symptoms so long as the bicycle was used, and their gradual subsidence when it was completely laid aside, left no doubt. Since then, other precisely similar cases have occurred within my knowledge. And I notice that quite recently one of the medical journals has called attention to the occurrence of appendicitis caused by bicycle riding. A definite anatomical explanation is suggested, into which I need not enter, as this is not a medical review, and I am not a New Woman. Suffice it to say that internal inflammation is not only a conceivable, but a likely consequence of the motions involved. I submit that its occurrence without any excessive indulgence in riding is one of the hidden dangers against which people should be on their guard. The cases I have mentioned were greatly aggravated by want of early recognition. How many other women have spent the major part of the winter in bed or on the sofa from the same cause?

But more important, perhaps, because more common and more easily overlooked, than such decided injuries, are the various forms of ill defined nervous effects to which attention is at length being called. The Standard has lately given hospitality to a voluminous correspondence on the subject, which merits more notice than popular newspaper controversies usually get—or deserve. It began with reference to the six days’ race that took place at New York a little before Christmas with such disastrous results to the competitors. They broke the record decisively, and their own health still more so. The account which reached this country is worth quoting:

Several of the competitors were seized with a species of dementia. Taylor was quite out of his mind for nearly two days, refusing to touch food or drink and charging his attendants with attempts to poison him. Hale showed slight symptoms of delusion of Saturday, when he dismounted and declared excitedly that there was a scheme to run him down. Rice threw himself down by the side of the track, declaring that one-half of his head had been carried away, and that he would be killed if he remounted his machine. On Saturday afternoon he addressed the audience, saying they were throwing stones and brickbats at him. Another rider dismounted, turned his wheel about, and started at a lively pace in the opposite direction. Few of the other contestants were able to stand without support when they retired.

The account may be exaggerated, but is too circumstantial to have been invented, and at any rate Hale (the winner) was too ill to enter for another race about three weeks afterwards. After allowing a liberal discount for the well known propensities of the Transatlantic cable, one must admit that the details are rather striking. In commenting on the occurrence it was suggested that in addition to the want of sleep, to which the conditions of the riders was no doubt partly due, bicycling in itself puts a peculiar strain upon the nervous system, not shared by other forms of athletic exercise. The suggestion drew two corroborative letters and then the flood-gates opened, pouring forth columns of opinions and experiences and theories, many emanating from medical men, and all from obviously intelligent persons. There were sixty-six letters in all, and they may be analyzed thus: Thirteen roundly maintained that cycling is absolutely beneficial on the strength of the writers’ experience. Thirteen testified to bad effects of the kind suggested; eighteen more or less admitted them by implication; twelve denied bad effects except from “over-exertion;” and the remainder dealt with matters irrelevant to the question. Practically there were twenty-five against the theory of special damage, and about thirty either in favor of it or not against it. Of course these may not in the least represent the relative proportions of the letters received on each side; probably a selection was made to represent all opinions fairly. And therefore no conclusion ought to be drawn as to the verdict of the majority, or anything of that kind. The evidence must be weighed, not counted. And, first, the fortunate persons who take their stand upon the virtues of bicycling may be dismissed with congratulations and a gentle reminder that what is sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander, that one man’s meat in another man’s poison, and so forth and so forth. Their testimony is an interesting proof that cycling is very good for some people, but it is no evidence at all that it may not be bad for others, which is the point at issue. Cold baths, strong ale, and very light clothing conduce greatly to my health, but I should be sorry to assert that they must suit everybody. On the other hand, the testimony of those who have suffered must be accepted as proof positive that bicycling may be bad for some people. That, indeed, cannot be seriously denied. The only question is, How and why is it bad? The stock answer, sufficiently exemplified in the Standard correspondence, is that it has been “carried to excess,” and that if practiced “in moderation” it would have no such results. Really one cannot help sympathizing with a writer who called himself “Common Sense,” and described this dictum as a “meaningless platitude,” to the great wrath of some others. It is not meaningless, because the nature of a platitude is to have some meaning, but so elementary as to be useless. A platitude it undoubtedly is—one of the oldest and widest of all platitudes—and therefore useless for particular application: it is too wide. “May I cycle, doctor?” “Certainly, but remember that excess is bad. You must be careful to observe moderation.” Observe moderation! You might as well say, “Look before you leap,” or “Pride goes before a fall.” What the intending cyclist wants to know is, What are excess and moderation for him or for her?

The implied answer is that they are to be measured, just as in other forms of exercise, by the amount of muscular effort expended by the individual. In short, stop when you feel tired. Now, I am not constrained to deny that neglect of this rule is responsible for a good deal of the mischief. There are several reasons why it is neglected. To begin with, cycling as a fashionable craze has been attempted by people unfit for any exertion. Then there is emulation, which stimulates to ride as far and as fast as someone else; and as regards women, there is the ardour that characterizes the sex in all it does, even—and most particularly—in the act of unsexing itself. But these things are general; they apply to every form of active occupation. A vice—from another point of view a virtue—peculiar to the bicycle, that I do not remember having seen noticed, is that the ease and rapidity of the locomotion tempt to over-long rides by bringing some desirable objective within apparent reach. Going to nowhere and back is dull, going to somewhere (only a few miles farther) is attractive; and thus many are lured to attempt a task beyond their physical powers. “Expeditions” have much to answer for. But mischief is often done, I maintain, without going to such lengths or consciously exceeding the limits of strength at all. It is a fallacy to make muscular effort the measure of excess and moderation in this form of exercise. Some people contend that cycling is very hard work, and if that expression is used in the sense of general strain upon the organism I have no objection to it; but if it mean severe muscular effort I deny it altogether. Putting aside racing, which always entails great effort, the ordinary propulsion of the machine demands amazingly little exertion, compared with most other forms of exercise. Therein lies its greatest attraction and its greatest hidden danger. Children, fragile women, and old men, who would be quite incapable of really hard work, find that they can do it with ease. It may be said that for them it is hard work, and that accounts for the complaints. If they alone suffered the contention might stand, but that is not the case. Men of more than average vigor, and accustomed to far harder work, complain of the peculiar effects, nor are the symptoms those of over-exertion. They are essentially nervous, not muscular—headache, insomnia, lassitude, nervous depression, and prostration. “The after effects of cycling,” says an experienced rider and one accustomed to far more violent forms of exercise, “are quite different from those of any other outdoor exercise with which I am acquainted, and less pleasant. Even a short ride leaves me with a pallid face, a palpitating heart, the beginnings of a headache, and a tendency to insomnia.” Another speaks of the “peculiar form of nervous exhaustion,” and “that strained feeling which led to insomnia and headache.” A third, the “holder of many cups won on the running path and river,” declares himself “quite unable to cycle, as even a short run on a machine at the easiest of paces gives me a severe headache.” A fourth, sufficiently robust to have covered one hundred and fifty miles of hilly road in a day, confesses to “having experienced the unpleasant sensations described.” A fifth, who has ridden every sort of machine from the bone-shaker onwards, testifies to having experienced “great nervous exhaustion,” loss of appetite, restlessness at night, and, the next day, a “very low, irritable, and depressed feeling.” A sixth “victim to the errors of cycling” suffered a complete break-down after twelve years’ riding, during which “nervous symptoms and weakness of the heart’s action gradually grew upon him;” after going abroad to regain his health he took it up again, “with the result that my heart and nerves have suffered perhaps beyond repair this time.” A seventh assures us that the “symptoms complained of—headache, insomnia, etc.—were known and recognized as an evil sixteen or eighteen years ago.”

Now I submit that the theory of over-exertion is quite inadequate to explain the kinds of effects here described. To my mind they point distinctly to a cerebral, and not a muscular, origin. They are not associated with other far more severe forms of exercise, such as football, rowing, running, swimming, gymnastics. They rather resemble the effects of overindulgence in tobacco or alcohol, and are nearly allied to that affection of nervous origin which is called sick-headache. Their independence of muscular effort is further demonstrated by the fact, testified by several sufferers, that they do not follow on the use of the tricycle, which, undeniably, entails much harder work. It is therefore fallacious to make bodily strength the measure of indulgence in bicycling and to rely on the sense of effort to indicate when to stop, as in lawn-tennis or walking, for instance, when the arm or the leg gives timely warning that the limit of ‘moderation’ has been reached. In bicycle riding it is the very absence of conscious effort, in the ordinary sense, that misleads the susceptible into “excess”, unless they are warned to look out for a different kind of fatigue.

Various causes are assigned for these nervous troubles. Some blame the saddle, others the vibration or the mechanical defects of the machine; and no doubt anything which increases discomfort tends to aggravate the mischief. But all these factors are common to the tricycle, which has been found void of offense. The vera causa seems to lie in the extreme instability of the two-wheeled machine, which can never be left to itself for a single moment without dismounting. In this respect bicycling differs from any other occupation whatever. The strain of attending to it may not be very great in itself—sometimes it is and sometimes it is not—but it never ceases, and this incessant tension is the thing which tells upon the nerves. How incessant it is, the demeanor of most riders declares with an emphasis which still excites ridicule, familiar as the sight has become. Some time ago I drew attention to the peculiar strained, set look so often associated with this pastime and called it the ‘bicycle face’; the general adoption of the phrase since then indicates a general recognition of its justice. Some wear the “face” more and some less marked, but nearly all have it, except the small boys who care little for croppers. Has anybody ever seen persons on bicycles talking and laughing and looking jolly, like persons engaged in any other amusement? Never, I swear. Doubtless they can at a pinch, but in practice they don’t. All their attention is given up to the road and the machine. With set faces, eyes fixed before them, and an expression either anxious, irritable, or at best stony, they pedal away, looking neither to the right nor to the left, save for an instantaneous flash, and speaking not at all, except a word flung gasping over the shoulder at most. It is this strange and unhuman gravity which excites the ridicule and hostility of the street cad and of the dull-witted rustic alike. The enthusiast will indignantly deny the description, but I ask him to look at his fellow. Did ever pastime wear a mien so sombre? The bicyclist has reason, for let the attention wander for more than an instant, an the odds are heavy on a spill. The machine is so excessively crank; it cannot stand the slightest shock. To ride it safely entails a double strain—a general one on the nerves and a particular one on the balancing centre. The latter does not affect everybody, but I am certain that it affects some very seriously. People differ in balancing capacity as much as in an ear for music or a gift for speech; and it costs some riders real and constant effort to keep their equilibrium. They show it by suffering from headache at the back of the head, where the balancing centre is situated. The general strain on the nerves affects everybody, but some people “have no nerves,” and therefore do not suffer. The naturally timid and anxious feel it very acutely. Apprehension works their senses up to a high pitch of tension, and puts a severe nervous strain upon them. Then certain persons are specially susceptible to the work thrown upon the optic nerve by the rapid succession of impressions received when moving quickly. Hence the headache commonly caused by looking out of the window on a long journey—“sick headache” or migraine. That is exactly the sort of headache many bicyclists complain of.

I do not want to labour the point too much. Surely the foregoing considerations are enough to explain the nervous exhaustion caused by bicycling, wholly apart from over-exertion. The close and incessant application of mind and brain and senses is the root of it. Riding this fascinating contrivance demands much the same sort of attention as crossing a crowded thoroughfare; and if any one will spend an hour or so straight on end in that amusement, say at Blackfriars or Charing Cross or Piccadilly Circus. I will wager that he will experience something of the symptoms we have been discussing, although his physical exertions have been inconsiderable.

The foregoing observations by no means pretend to exhaust the subject; they merely aim at elucidating, however roughly and tentatively, some of its obscurities. That bicycling is attended with serious evils which do not appear on the surface and have received too little attention cannot well be denied. I have endeavored to explain their why and wherefore, and to show that very much greater caution is necessary than has generally been supposed. My arguments will doubtless meet with criticism and opposition, but it is only by the accumulation of experiences and the clash of discussion that the truth is ultimately reached.

List of rules for women bicyclists in 1895

This list published by the New York World magazine was also based on the wisdom of the day. Many of these are appalling by todays standards but others may still be valid today. You be the judge!

  • Don’t be a fright.
  • Don’t faint on the road.
  • Don’t wear a man’s cap.
  • Don’t wear tight garters.
  • Don’t forget your toolbag
  • Don’t attempt a “century.”
  • Don’t coast. It is dangerous.
  • Don’t boast of your long rides.
  • Don’t criticize people’s “legs.”
  • Don’t wear loud hued leggings.
  • Don’t cultivate a “bicycle face.”
  • Don’t refuse assistance up a hill.
  • Don’t wear clothes that don’t fit.
  • Don’t neglect a “light’s out” cry.
  • Don’t wear jewelry while on a tour.
  • Don’t race. Leave that to the scorchers.
  • Don’t wear laced boots. They are tiresome.
  • Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.
  • Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.
  • Don’t wear a garden party hat with bloomers.
  • Don’t contest the right of way with cable cars.
  • Don’t chew gum. Exercise your jaws in private.
  • Don’t wear white kid gloves. Silk is the thing.
  • Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
  • Don’t use bicycle slang. Leave that to the boys.
  • Don’t go out after dark without a male escort.
  • Don’t go without a needle, thread and thimble.
  • Don’t try to have every article of your attire “match.”
  • Don’t let your golden hair be hanging down your back.
  • Don’t allow dear little Fido to accompany you
  • Don’t scratch a match on the seat of your bloomers.
  • Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know.
  • Don’t appear in public until you have learned to ride well.
  • Don’t overdo things. Let cycling be a recreation, not a labor.
  • Don’t ignore the laws of the road because you are a woman.
  • Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels.”
  • Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.
  • Don’t cultivate everything that is up to date because yon ride a wheel.
  • Don’t emulate your brother’s attitude if he rides parallel with the ground.
  • Don’t undertake a long ride if you are not confident of performing it easily.
  • Don’t appear to be up on “records” and “record smashing.” That is sporty.