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

August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?


August 15 • 8:32 AM

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.”


Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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