Friday, July 18, 2014

Making Faces When Pedaling Places

Brompton Blur
Last week some bicycle bloggers and forumites were passing around a link to a funny post on Vox.com. Entitled The 19th-century health scare that told women to worry about "bicycle face," it brings to light an article circa 1897 written by a medical doctor that warns ladies who pedal against producing a "wearied and exhausted" facial expression. So unattractive! 

Of course the title and content of the article immediately made me think of the popular online comic Bikeyface, whose author sees the matter differently. To her, a "bikeyface" is an expression of unbridled joy, rather than a pained grimace.

But despite their polarised definitions, both parties do agree on the underlying notion: that there is such a thing as a facial expression specific to bicycling. As someone whose former career included research in nonverbal behaviour, I find the idea irresistible. Could there really be a set of facial expressions specific to bicycling? 

It's a cool idea, though anecdotal evidence gleaned from my own experience gives me pause. 

Thinking back to the days before I began to ride a bike myself, my impressions of transportation cyclists fluctuated depending on what country I was in. I remember observing cyclists in English cities and finding their demeanor alarmingly aggressive. And I remember thinking that people on bikes on the East Coast of the US looked huffy-puffy and stern - as if what they were doing was both very difficult and very important. On the other hand, watching cyclists in Austria, Holland, Belgium and France, I  do not recall finding their facial expressions remarkable in any way. Some people looked happy, some looked sad, some annoyed, bored or lost in their thoughts - but none of these states seemed to have anything to do with them being on a bicycle. Cycling in its own right was matter of fact, causing neither bliss nor wearied exertion. 

Interestingly, I first noticed the "bikeyface" - in the joy/bliss sense of the word - in myself, catching my grinning reflection in a storefront as I cycled shakily past. And with the rise of the city/transport/ cute bike movement, I did begin to spot other cyclists in the Boston area with this stamp of bliss on their physiognomies. Increasingly, that, as well as the continental European indifference, are if not replacing then at least generously supplementing the super-serious look that first dominated in those parts. 

What this extremely unscientific sampler of impressions tells me, is that the faces we make while pedaling may depend less on cycling in itself than on our attitudes toward it - which can vary tremendously. Today, cycling can be perceived as a risky athletic activity, a fashion statement, a political act, a way to relax and have fun, an independent means of travel, or as any combination thereof. Unsurprisingly, the facial expressions these attitudes yield will differ. And in cultures where transportation cycling is so normalised and easy as to be unremarkable, we are as unlikely to see the bicycle face against which Victorian doctors admonished as we are to see the bikeyface which pedaling enthusiasts promise.

By now, cycling really should be normalised for me. After all, I do it in some form or other nearly every single day. But even when riding my bike in entirely mundane circumstances, on occasion I still catch myself grinning. What can I say? I love it.

Stranger though is the habit I apparently have of smiling even when I am not having fun on the bike. Several friends have now pointed this out to me, but it seems that when I am having a particularly difficult time on a roadbike I tend to smile in leu of displaying the "pain face." This gives the impression that I am far hardier than I actually am and that I am enjoying myself, creating genuine puzzlement among my companions when I later tell them I was struggling or suffering. "But you seemed so happy! - see?" And sure enough, a snapshot will be produced showing my red face distorted by a mad grin. As I never remember doing this, all I can say for myself is that smiling must be a coping mechanism - à la the facial feedback theory: Research has shown that if our muscles contort in a way consistent with a specific emotion, we can genuinely feel some dose of that emotion regardless of whether it is situationally appropriate. So the smile must be my way of saying "I will not surrender to the pain face! If I smile, then I won't be miserable…" 

Thankfully most of my time on a bike gives me no cause to employ this technique and my grins on two wheels are, for the most part, quite genuine. Is there such a thing as a bikeyface? Perhaps not once we control for other factors. Nonetheless in me it is alive and well. When I catch myself doing it, it feels silly and embarrassing - though I am hardly complaining that cycling makes me happy!

24 comments:

  1. I smile often whether I am on the bike or not. Part of it is from my culture (out of being polite). The other part is because I wear my heart on my sleeve and I am almost always happy and in a good mood (because I get to ride my bike every day). It gets worse when I'm on the bike. To the point where people must think I'm missing a few marbles because I am always grinning. And I like to great people I pass with a 'hello!' or 'good morning!' Other times I'm gasping for air from sprinting because I still like to challenge myself and I don't care the bikeyface I am making. Like you said, it means I am alive and well.

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  2. We had some fun with that article here in Pittsburgh -- see http://bikepgh.org/mb/topic/bicycle-face-threat-or-menace.
    But the best thing was this quote someone dug up from Cosmopolitan (!) magazine, 1895:
    The woman who dons her knicker­bockers and her gaiters and spins out into the open country, will find her mind opening to the wonders of sky and air, the beauties of the fields and streams; she will learn to take comfort in the world about her, will find her mind soothed and her spirits uplifted; she will forget troubles and anxieties, real or imaginary; she will become mistress of herself, as of her wheel, no longer a victim to hysterics, no longer seeking for unhealthy excitement, a rational, useful being restored to health and sanity.

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  3. The woman that came on the wed night ride this week riding a Huffy Mountainbike and wearing basketball gear was smiling the whole time, even when she must have been feeling less than sparkly. Maybe she knew about the Facial Feedback Theory. She made it to the end and was asking where the Tuesday ride met so apparently it worked for her.

    My personal "Bikeyface" is sort of a "just got a bug in my eye and am trying not to cry" kind of expression, I try not to look at myself when passing store windows.

    Spindizzy

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  4. I was once told that my bikey face recalls a saint being tortured to death for the faith, eyes wincing on the prize, half smile.

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    1. Having met you in person, I can readily imagine this!

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  5. I, too, smile to hide the pain (or difficulty) when riding, and actually smile probably 99% of the time when on a bicycle (whether I'm actually having a good time or not). I've had others comment on this, but I think for me I must've picked it up as a means of attempting to counterbalance a lot of grimaces I see out on the roads. I suppose I couldn't understand why people were so serious and/or angry all the time on a bike, so initially I made very purposeful effort to smile at everyone. Now, I don't think I can stop. I have also found that I smile often times because I'm having conversations with myself... and apparently, I find myself very amusing. :O)

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  6. I know I feel 'smiley' on my bike - ride bike get happy. I observe motorists at intersections waiting for the green light - for the most part they appear either miserable, bored or tense. The promises made in commercials for cars never seem to translate to the reality of the average motorist. Bikes are different - on a bike you make the experience, you make the promise manifest just by pushing those pedals - and then some of us smile.

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  7. Riding a bike makes me go through the whole range of facial expressions. Much like making love…Or talking with a friend/stranger….Or walking my dog in the snow…. Or reading this blog…Or simply moving about throughout the routines of the day. Brilliant.

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  8. Don't know, never looked at myself while cycling. Nor taken a selfie.

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  9. I'm usually grinning like an idiot on the mtn bike as it's an absolute blast to ride it in the woods (Surly Ogre with a 3" wide low pressure front tire, nothing is impossible on that beast). On the road, it's usually a neutral look unless engaged in a town line sprint with the local shop guys. Then it's a "pained" look as I try to mix it up with guys fitter and on bikes 10-15 lbs lighter than mine (beat em' at least half the time though :) )

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  10. It's the whole rapha thing where riders look miserable and snotty and weatherbeaten, when generally people look pretty content and ecstatic even if on a gruelling ride. Some people tell me I look serious and stern riding, but that is on the highway which is busy, scary, yucky, not enjoyable, so I might look serious because I have to pay more attention and block out the scariness. Usually I'm pretty overjoyed, happy, even in the rain, lashing wind or snow. I will yelp 'wheeee' down hills and fun bits.
    The neuroscience would be interesting, as cycling uses different parts of the brain, but I find I can totally drift off into day dream land, ponder problems, mull over work stuff etc and still be totally in control, aware of where I am going, surrounding cars etc.. If you do that while driving a vehicle, an accident or at least some serious wobbling and forgetting to signal will occur. The entire body is being used to make you move through space, pretty thrilling stuff. I do see some people yapping on their hand free cell phone devices while cycling, but I notice they become very distracted just like vehicle drivers. They slow right down, swerve and are oblivious to their surroundings.
    There is something in the brain that knows the difference between talking to someone present with you, and talking to a disembodied voice on a cell phone, headset etc. It requires alot of band width to talk to the not present voice, which is why banning hand held cell phones while driving is not enough.

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    1. Well said - the bike rider is totally engaged yet free to day dream - meditation on wheels - as for the cell phone, the use of these should be banned while driving, riding and walking in town; a hideous invention that makes us 'reachable' 24/7. Leave them at home under a cushion :)

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    2. What Chris Underwood called 'i-phone zombies'. There was a lot of discussion about that in the UK media last week. The proposal is to increase the penalties for mobile phone usage while driving from 3 penalty points to 6 – half way to losing your driver's licence and enough to send recently qualified drivers (within their first 2 years) back to L-plates.

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    3. Smiling is sometimes a way of controlling aggression. When a politician or heavy weight pro boxer smiles, beware.

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    4. And in Japan people smile when they are embarrassed. That and your example are both consistent with the facial feedback hypothesis, which is culture sensitive.

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  11. The night after David Coulthard held off Michael Schumacher, barely, to win the 2002 Monaco Grand Prix, I witnessed a spectacular re-run around the streets of the village where I live. I'd let Joey the whippet out for a pee at 3 o'clock in the morning and he took off after a hare which had strayed into the street. You can hear a pin drop at that time in the morning, and I could follow their progress around the avenues by the sound of their claws. I was standing out in the street when they suddenly reappeared, careering around the corner, going like gangbusters, the hare flying past to one side of me, the whippet to the other. What struck me was the expression on their faces. If an artist was to portray the scene, the hare's eyes would have been bulging with fear, the whippet's face contorted into a predatory, vicious, evil snarl. The reality was nothing like that; their faces were like pictures of ecstasy; bliss, even. It was a matter of life or death, no question – if Joey had caught the hare he'd have killed it – but they were doing what they did: not just running but racing, absolutely flat out, and they were loving it. Joey never cared whether he was chasing or being chased – he would play tag with other dogs; when he caught them, as he invariably did, he would run on ahead, jinking and looking over his shoulder, baiting them to chase him back. Mercifully the hare escaped, although Joey was limping for days afterwards; he'd broken all his claws on the pavement. I never saw him so breathless; he was hyperventilating, like you at the end of that momentous leg of the 300K brevet in New England. When he eventually got his breath back, I asked him what he'd have done if he'd caught the hare – it was a big beast, and Joey only weighed 10 kilos, even though he was the same height as a Labrador – but he just rolled his eyes and explained, "I wasn't trying to catch it, I was trying to pass it." :)

    "Racing is life. Everything else is just waiting." We could say the same about cycling.

    Yeah, well, I suppose that was a romanticized version of events. Joey caught three leverets in his life, not just babies but young, and only about the same size as a rabbit. Terribly distressing when it happened, and strictly illegal, but unintentional of course, and short of keeping him on a lead all his life, which would have been cruel, where I live it was unavoidable. I ate them, though.

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  12. I've never seen myself while cycling -- window reflections or photographs -- though I imagine my face looks like a grimace even though I'm never happier than while on a bike. So, yes, I make a face and no, I worry about it in the least.

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  13. From the look on your face in the photo I would guess you were singing!

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    1. Screaming (triumphantly after winning the race).

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  14. I don't have many facial expressions, thanks to my ASD, so people think I am always calm, cool and collected. Even when I feel hot, miserable and falling apart as I slog my may up the climbs or full of glee bombing down the descents.

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  15. Your photo shows one of many possible facial expressions while riding. Looks are deceiving and who cares anyway?

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  16. I see many oncoming riders on road bikes with, on their faces, what looks like grins but may be sneers or simply grimaces of pain. It's funny, but often my first reaction is to think, "Is he/er/she laughing at me?" Shamefully insecure reaction, I know, when they may well be smiling in pleasant companionship or simply, again, grimacing with effort. Or again, merely straining the gnats out of the air.

    I fear I may wear an off-putting scowl, but I've never carried a mirror on a ride. (A ruler, yes, but not a mirror.)

    Just a little more seriously: do y'all (that's "all y'all") see this sort of tooth-baring very commonly among riders with drop bars? Tooth-baring it is objectively; what I want to know is, **what does it mean???**

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  17. Smilin' George Mount? Perhaps before the time of most here but you can search under just that name and see that smiles live on.

    There is a long tradition of sketch artists/journalists doing line drawing portraits of racers. Nearly all these portraits show bikeyfaces rather than ride position. Lots of those portraits show grins and smiles. Even for riders I knew personally the journo portraits (and smile) are often the first image that comes to mind when I think of the old crowd.

    Advice to current pros: Helments are bad enough. Do not wear wraparound Terminator shades. The brand is you. If you feel you need eye protection get granny glasses. Sunglass contracts can be very sweet but before you sell glasses you must create your own image. Glasses and helments make zombies not personalities.

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