Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies

Bike

(Photo: joménager/Flickr)

Do Sexy Cyclists Have the Best Endurance?

• February 07, 2014 • 12:44 PM

(Photo: joménager/Flickr)

A new study finds a correlation between good looks and achievement at the Tour de France.

In endurance sports, the term “speed goggles” is thrown around a lot to describe a basic rule of attractiveness for athletes: Fast is hot. A competitor who bikes, runs, or swims smoking times is going to look smoking, too—and more so than if you weren’t familiar with his or her accomplishments.

This relation isn’t very surprising. Success is attractive, after all.

In a recent study, though, Erik Postma, a biologist at the University of Zurich, decided to see what would happen if he flipped the old adage on its head: Faster may make you hotter, but does hotter make you faster? What if attractiveness itself somehow signals an innately superior ability to excel in endurance races?

To test the idea, Postma gathered stock portraits of 80 of the world’s top male cyclists taken on the day before they began 2012′s Tour de France. In an an online survey, he asked 816 participants—roughly three-fourths women and one-fourth men, all heterosexual—to rate each competitor’s attractiveness. He gave no information on how each competitor fared in the race.

It’s not being hot that makes someone fast, but the physical signs of someone’s endurance ability that attract us to them in the first place.

On average, the men who were rated as more attractive had also raced better.

At first, this correlation sounds crazy. The notion that having a pretty face somehow, on a physical level, makes a competitor faster is absurd. (You’d see a lot more top athletes with plastic surgery by now if it did, right?) So how is it possible that hotness could predict some kind of physical advantage, even among an almost uniform group of some of the world’s fittest athletes?

Postma suggests the answer may be evolutionary. “Facial attractiveness may signal endurance performance in particular,” he writes. “Indeed, high endurance performance is thought to have been the target of selection in early hominids, as being able to efficiently cover large distances allowed for more efficient hunting, gathering and scavenging, resulting in a number of uniquely human adaptations.”

Because endurance was a valuable trait for hunting and gathering, he explains, it also would have made it a valuable trait for reproduction. As a result, our very notion of what we find attractive may depend more than we think on someone’s ability to go the distance—and our looks could have evolved accordingly.

In this case, it’s not being hot that makes someone fast, then, but the physical signs of someone’s endurance ability that attract us to them in the first place. In other words, we’re always wearing speed goggles, but the lenses work even when we haven’t seen the performance.

There are a few heavy caveats, of course. The correlation doesn’t rule out the idea that an unattractive guy could be the next cycling champion. The cultural benefits of being attractive could play a role alongside the biological ones. And there are other positive physical abilities, besides endurance, that might correlate with attractiveness, as well.

But what the study does suggest is that if everyone says you’re the best looking swimmer on your team, it may be time to practice harder if you keep coming in last.

Paul Bisceglio
Editorial Fellow Paul Bisceglio was previously an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine and a staff reporter at Manhattan Media. He is a graduate of Haverford College and completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio.

More From Paul Bisceglio

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.