Seeing red: Can the colour of your clothing make you a winner?

Look back over the recent victories of Cadel Evans, Thor Hushovd and Fabian Cancellara, and the team performances of the likes of CSC, Saeco and BMC Racing, seems to suggest that they have little in common.

However, if you were to compile photographs of each of these successes, the link between them would become immediately obvious. Whether it is Cancellara’s Swiss champion’s jersey or Cipollini’s striking Saeco outfits; every photo would show a rider wearing red.

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Ask many cyclists and they will agree that red bikes go faster. This perception seems to have permeated the marketing mindsets of some of the largest manufacturers in cycling, with red a consistent third choice colour for shoes, jerseys and components after black and white.

The colour is found at the heart of cycling iconography; Cervélo, Specialized and Trek all have red logos, SRAM has gone as far as to name its top-level groupset after it, and even the ubiquitous Cycling Weekly header is emblazoned on a red background.

Scientific basis
Ongoing research into humans’ perception of colour has recently suggested that there may be even more justification for this use of red than was first thought.

A 2005 study looked at the performance of athletes competing in four different combat sports at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where competitors are assigned either red or blue outfits, and found some interesting results.

Authors Russell Hill and Robert Barton found that athletes wearing red won their fights 55 per cent of the time. What’s more, in contests judged as evenly matched before commencing, red won 60 per cent of the time.

Further research has shown a similar effect in football. Red teams have historically performed best in the top division of the English leagues, especially when compared to their rivals from the same city who wear a different strip. Liverpool, for example, have won more than Everton, and Manchester United more than Man City. Furthermore, over the course of Euro 2004, teams with two kits won more of their matches when in red than in their alternative.

This is all very interesting but what could it mean for cycling? To investigate this we need to take a look at how colour perception actually works.

Physical and psychological
Researchers believe seeing the colour red impacts an athlete’s sporting ability in two ways. The first and best understood of these is a psychological response where the viewer responds submissively to red; mental capacity and responsiveness are reduced as feelings of anxiety and intimidation are raised. Studies have shown that this reduces reaction times and the ability to make quick decisions under pressure.

This mechanism is found in nature too; many primates use the colour red to signal confidence and dominance, in particular through displaying red facial features, and fitting certain birds with red tags has been found to artificially promote them to the top of the mating hierarchy.

Humans, then, may have evolved to be instinctively anxious of any opposition that appears red, preferring to avoid any contests since the colour indicates they are likely to be coming up against a superior opponent. Dr Ian Greenlees, sports psychologist from the University of Chichester, believes there might be a corollary to this effect.

Speaking to CW, he said: “It could be that wearing red enhances the feelings of dominance and status and confidence of the wearer… but the evidence base for colour influencing the mood of the wearer is limited.”

Hormonal effects
Much less understood, and the topic of ongoing research, is the hormonal response of the viewer to the wearing of red. Indications suggest that seeing red could have an effect on the body’s production of key performance-affecting hormones.

Although not yet backed up by substantial scientific evidence, preliminary results suggest that wearing red raises cortisol levels in the body of the opponent and increases levels of stress and anxiety. Professor Robert Barton from Durham University is at the forefront of current research into this area.

“Although results are highly preliminary, if our hunch is right that the impact of the colour red works through hormones then we might expect the perception of red to affect performance over a longer duration,” he told CW.

Over a long-term competition such as a Grand Tour, colour may actually be quite important. Continual exposure to red might affect hormone levels over a period of weeks, and this underlying hormonal impact could perhaps inhibit a rider’s ability to perform at key, decisive moments in the race.

How could this be used in cycling?
Although the current research has not focused on cycling, and arguably has raised more questions than provided answers, the simplicity of colour means that there is the potential for any number of applications in cycling, many of which could be deployed at very little extra cost.

Simply applying colour strategically to certain parts of the bike or the rider’s kit might provide very marginal gains. Yet the quest for precisely these gains is what encourages numerous manufacturers of aerodynamic equipment and nutritional products to pour money into the research, development and modification of their products.

Potential use in cycling manufacturing
Even a cursory glance at websites and marketing material shows that a seemingly disproportionate number of the biggest cycling companies of recent years use red as a central colour in their brand.

Emily Hamilton from Specialized told CW that red has always been associated with her company’s public image.

“We have been using our red ‘S’ and word mark ‘Specialized’ logos since the late Eighties/early Nineties. It is also the colour used by our MTB team… and was often used on many bikes and equipment items over the years. Through the S logo, the teams and products, our brand has been associated with the colour red, making it our corporate colour.”

Yet for Paul White, co-founder and CEO of Cervélo, the choice of red in his company’s logo and bikes wasn’t down to tradition.

“Red looks fast! Even before we were a company we were thinking of new ways to help riders go fast and at some point, the colour red just started to fit in with that nicely. Fortunately our bikes could be any colour and still go fast.”

So it seems red does have a natural association with speed and superiority. But, at least for Specialized and Cervélo, the idea that this perception could affect performance was intuitive rather than based on research.

Psychological warfare
As an indispensable piece of sporting equipment, in particular for cyclists, Dr Greenlees tentatively suggested that colouring eyewear could also have an important role.

“In principle, we could predict that the same effects would be seen – wearing red glasses may enhance feelings of dominance. However, if the wearer is using a red tint then this may could have the opposite effect, as seeing red may lead to feelings of anxiety and avoidance.”
This is something to think about next time you purchase new sunglasses or lenses. Although red tints may make everything ‘look rosy,’ they may not be doing your chances of winning the bunch sprint any good.

Before you go ditching the red lenses and stocking up on red jerseys, however, there are still some considerable scientific creases that need ironing out before any impact in cycling can be conclusively proved.

Most notably, the research to date has only investigated the effect in male participants, so the extent to which red colouration impacts female athletes is largely unknown. Given the role of colour as a strong signal in nature, it seems likely that there should be an impact for women as there is for men. However, we can’t just assume this impact will translate directly across the sexes; displays of aggression and dominance in other species, for example, tend to be much less common in females than they are in males.

We also need to consider the extent to which colour perception is something instinctive and how this contrasts with the culturally-mediated experiences we have of colour due to associations formed during childhood.

Growing up in Europe, children learn to associate red with a hazard or a mistake. “As we see red at traffic lights or red pen on a marked piece of homework at school, it builds up a similar effect to natural colour associations,” added Professor Barton.

The mixture of ‘nature v nurture’ in perceiving colour is yet to be explored, and Prof Barton believes cross-cultural research is needed to fully understand its dynamics. In various different places across the world, linguistic and conceptual definitions of colour vary considerably; assessing the impact of red on performance in these locations could prove immensely useful.

This is an interesting prospect for Dr Greenlees too. “We may just associate red with dominance in English football due to the success of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal. If this is the case, would different colour associations (eg yellow) operate in cycling?” he ponders. “We are a long way from knowing the answer.”

With so many questions remaining unanswered, it could be a while before research conclusively identifies the precise mechanisms of any effects of colour. But in a sport where performance is intimately tied to technology, and where margins of victory are becoming ever smaller, it might not be too long before we see strategic use of colour making its way into the peloton.

How colour may help
The implications of this research into colour for the sport of cycling represent unexplored territory, since the sports examined thus far are ones characterised by a direct, face to face contest over a short timescale. Cycling and its various disciplines offer a very different type of competition; they typically involve contests of longer duration, with less need to focus specifically on one opponent and with no intervention from a referee.

Downhill mountain biking
Skill and technical ability are very important for performance. However there is very little contact with an opponent, so an exposure to red that might inhibit technique is unlikely.

Time trialling
Since the competitor again seldom comes into contact with any opposition, and concentration and the ability to stay ‘in the zone’ are more important than technical skill, any red colouring is likely to have little impact on performance.

Track sprinting
Technical ability is important, but decision-making and judgement are critical in assessing your opponent and choosing when to launch your sprint. What’s more, victory or defeat can be decided by a matter of centimetres or even less, making any tiny percentage advantage gained through colour perception potentially crucial.

Cross does present riders with numerous and repeated instances where they are in direct contact with opponents, such as at the start or when overtaking, and are also required to exercise technical ability, as when overcoming obstacles. Colour could have an impact here.

Road racing
With so many varying situations and skills required in road racing, it would be difficult to use red strategically. Exposing opponents to red during a sprint finish or when attacking on a climb would seem to be most beneficial, yet continual exposure to red during the course of long stage races of over a week in length could have a cumulative impact. This would see opponents less able to perform at the decisive moments in the race.

This article originally appeared in the November 3 2011 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine