Friday, 7 February 2014

Faster cyclists are better looking say scientists. Nonsense say I!

A recent study claims to have uncovered a link between attractiveness and performance in professional cyclists. For the research published in the Royal Society journal 800 women were asked to rate the facial attractiveness of riders in the 2012 Tour de France. The top rated riders were found to have performed significantly better than their less comely colleagues with the top 10% of riders rated 25% better looking than the slowest.

Mark Cavendish

From these findings the author of the paper concludes that facial attractiveness could be an indicator of physical fitness, and specifically physical endurance. This he argues implies that a capacity for physical endurance has been subject to sexual selection in our evolutionary past. 'Indeed', the paper suggests, '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'.

It goes without saying that the conclusions drawn are complete hokum. The author does not need to roll up his trouserlegs for me to know that his calves are skinny and hairy; he has never pushed a pedal in anger. Because of this he has failed to understand the data and drawn dubious conclusions from it.

The first and most obvious point to make is that professional cyclists are by and large a pretty rum looking bunch; supreme endurance athletes yes, pinnacles of masculine beauty no. The life of a racing cyclist is tough. Snow, hail, driving rain and baking sun weathers and ages them, and the struggle of a thousand superhuman efforts etches itself as deep fissures and wrinkles in the skin of hoary old professional riders. Crashes can regularly fracture cheekbones and jaws and twist septums out of true. Every one of them looks significantly older than they actually are. Cadel Evans is still in his thirties. Honestly. If  you still doubt me then take a look at Tim Kölln's excellent pictures of the peleton. If amateur riders were included in the survey I suspect that all correlation between athleticism and good looks would be lost.

Secondly, and more importantly there is a fundamental assumption underpinning the research that the fittest cyclists will be at the top of the rankings and the weakest athletes at the bottom. This would be an entirely fair assumption if the peleton consisted of 219 individual riders. It doesn't; The Tour is contested by 22 teams of riders and because of the tactics involved, once you get past the top 10% of the classification a rider's ranking does not necessarily bear any relation to their individual ability.

Each rider in the team has a job to do and for the vast majority that job is not to appear as high as possible in the overall classification. At the very most there will be about twenty riders with hopes of finishing in the top three at the start of the race; by the half way mark that number will have dwindled to a mere handful. The other riders will be chasing individual targets; the king of the mountains or points jerseys, stage wins, long breakaways (which increase the airtime for the sponsors who's logos are emblazoned across the riders' backs) or helping their team leaders in the battle for the overall win.

Most riders can be classified as domestiques, although in practice this term covers a multitude of specialisms. Domestiques tend to share many of the same physical characteristics as the team leaders; they are excellent endurance athletes with the power to ride strongly at the front of the peleton, battling into headwinds and suffering their way over mountain passes. All cycle racing tactics are determined by slipstreaming. The rider at the front of a group will be using about a third more energy than the ones behind him. All teams with a contender for the general classification will therefore spend the bulk of the race protecting their lead rider so that he will be fresh for the decisive moments in the race; the timetrials and specific mountain passes. All of the grunt work; riding quickly at the front to prevent breakaways, launching breakaways, chasing down breakaways, pacing the team leader up mountain passes etc will be carried out by the domestiques. They will ride until they can ride no more at which point they will be left to struggle to the end of the stage in any way they can, often losing large amounts of time after a particularly big effort.

Because of this it is entirely possible that the strongest rider in the tour (measured by some objective scale) was in fact buried somewhere further down the general classification. Tejay Van Garderen finished below his team leader Cadel Evans in 2012 despite clearly being the stronger rider. David Millar finished in 113th place that year; this is in no way representative of his strength and class.

This brings us back to the question of why the riders at the top of the classification are better looking than those at the bottom. One obvious factor is age. The riders chasing the general classification will be at the peak of their careers, which for a cyclist means that they will be in their late 20s or early 30s. The lowlier riders will include amongst their number callow youths in their early twenties and washed-up old pro's in their late thirties and early forties. Female participants in the survey with their decision making ovaries keenly attuned to the needs of the next generation are likely to favour riders in their virile pomp. This suggestion is supported by the detailed data analysis which indicates that the mean most attractive age is 29.6.

A second factor may be good grooming. Whilst not on the level of professional footballers, the most successful cyclists earn a fair amount of money these days, much of which comes from advertising and personal endorsements. Appearance matters to advertisers, and so anyone with sponsors will probably run into a personal stylist at some point. The general dogsbodies on the other hand make all of their money from cycling and care less about their personal image.

Thirdly there is the question of how the leaders are selected. In the modern era it might be assumed that this is decided by science; that the team leader will be the rider with the highest VO2 max threshold, or the rider who can generate the most power over a sustained period. Much as Team Sky might wish this to be the case it cannot be, or at least this cannot be the only factor. In order to win the Tour simply being the strongest rider isn't enough; you need a strong team, good tactics, a slice of good luck and an overwhelming will to win. Winning is therefore about personality as well as physicality and choice of leader must be a subjective matter.

Perhaps the conclusions of the paper are therefore correct, albeit for the wrong reasons. Men were surveyed along with women for the study, and while there was a weaker correlation between the men's ratings of good looks and a rider's position in the overall classification, there was nonetheless a marked pattern. Perhaps we have therefore evolved to display and be able to read signifiers of physical fitness in peoples' faces and this informs the process of selecting a team leader.

There are other possibilities. At the professional level the difference between winning and being an also-ran are marginal. As I have outlined above there are many other factors, particularly tactical nouce that will determine who wins the Tour de France. Better looking team leaders may be selected because their looks are a signifier of intelligence rather than because of a link between facial appearance and athleticism.

On the other hand, as Dave Brailsford has recognised, winning at the elite level is as much about psychology as innate physical ability. It could be that good looks are a driver for physical excellence rather than an indicator of good quality genes. Handsome people may be more arrogant than their less prepossessing peers and consequently may pursue team leadership and overall victory more aggressively.

Obviously there is a lot more work that needs to be done before anyone can truly say whether good looking cyclists really are quicker. If anyone would like to provide me with a substantial grant to watch cycling for the next couple of years I would be prepared to undertake this arduous work. Please contact me via the comments section...

No comments:

Post a Comment