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Why good athletes are good-looking, too

Feb. 4, 2014 at 7:12 PM ET

CHORGES, FRANCE - JULY 17:  Amael Moinard of France and BMC Racing Team rides during stage seventeen of the 2013 Tour de France, a 32KM Individual Tim...
Bryn Lennon / Getty Images
Amael Moinard of France was rated the No. 1 best-looking racer in the 2012 Tour de France by one survey. The study found the more attractive athletes performed better.

Good-looking athletes seem to have it all — fame, money and often plenty of admiring women. And there may be a good reason for it, a new study finds. It seems better-looking men also perform better athletically.

In fact, good looks might be a “shortcut” signal so that women can choose the most physically fit mate, says Erik Postma, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

His somewhat casual survey finds women and men alike tend to agree on which men are the most attractive — and this tends to correlate with their athletic performance, at least when it comes to cycling.

Postma, himself a keen cyclist, ran an online survey using competitors from the 2012 Tour de France.

“The fastest cyclists are more attractive,” Postma told NBC News.

He ended up surveying 816 people, chosen using the un-scientific method of emailing the survey link to everyone he knew, with a request to forward it to more people. “I got lots of emails from men that were almost offended,” Postma said. “They said ‘No way I can judge the attractiveness of other men’,” he added.

But he got a few hundred to try, anyway. “It turned out they know very well what women find attractive,” he said. “If you think about it, it is probably not so surprising.” Men, after all, need to know their competition.

For the survey, Postma chose 80 photographs of Tour de France participants, cropped to show their faces. If people recognized any of the athletes, their answers were thrown out. That way, Postma said, people would choose men they truly found attractive and not just go for the known winners.

“All they saw was the face. They didn’t have any data on how old they were, how bold they were,” he said.

Quick Step riders Michal Kwiatowksi, Peter Velits, Sylvain Chavannel, Tony Martin, Kristof Vandewalle and Niki Terpstra celebrate winning the Elite Men's Team Time Trial on day one of the UCI Road World Championships on Sept. 22, 2013.
Bryn Lennon / Getty Images
Quick Step riders Michal Kwiatowksi, Peter Velits, Sylvain Chavannel, Tony Martin, Kristof Vandewalle and Niki Terpstra celebrate winning the Elite Men's Team Time Trial on day one of the UCI Road World Championships on Sept. 22, 2013.

He didn’t get a score for the winner of the 2012 Tour de France, Britain’s Bradley Wiggin. Postma used photographs taken the day before the competition, but Wiggin and his teammates almost all wore sunglasses, so he tossed them out.

But the correlation was clear. The top 10 percent of cyclists in terms of performance in the race were rated at 25 percent more attractive than the bottom 10 percent, Postma reports in the journal Biology Letters.

This seems logical to Postma. “In a lot of animal species, they prefer the males with the longest tails and the brightest plumage,” he said. And studies show these attractive mates father fitter offspring.

“What does a woman gain from choosing a man with high endurance?” Postma asked. A better provider, if the Tour de France is anything to go by. “He would bring home the most food in the evening,” Postma said.

People have spent a lot of time studying attractiveness, looking at finger length, facial hair, general manliness, chin shape and even penis size.

Postma felt the Tour de France — a grueling, month-long event covering 2,000 miles or more — was a good way to measure strength and endurance. “Why is there an association between a rider’s attractiveness and his performance during the Tour de France?” he asked in his report.

Australian cyclist Adam Hansen of the Lotto-Belisol team receives the jersey for the King of the Mountain after stage one of the Tour Down Under on Jan. 21, 2014. A new study shows ladies love the best performing cyclists.
Morne de Klerk / Getty Images
Australian cyclist Adam Hansen of the Lotto-Belisol team receives the jersey for the King of the Mountain after stage one of the Tour Down Under on Jan. 21, 2014. A new study shows ladies love the best performing cyclists.

“First, performance may be positively correlated with general health, vigor or strength, or certain personality characteristics (competitiveness), which in their turn may be associated with attractiveness. Alternatively, facial attractiveness may signal endurance performance in particular.”

The relationship between looks and winning wasn’t a straight line. “The most attractive rider finished somewhere in the middle of the pack,” Postma said. Who was that No. 1 hottie? France’s Amael Moinard, Postma said.

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