Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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