There’s a popular expression among cyclists who compete in the Tour de France: “The yellow jersey gives you wings.”

The yellow jersey is, of course, the yellow shirt customarily worn by the cyclist who is currently leading the “general classification” of the three-week-long bike race. It goes without saying that a cyclist needs to be riding well in order to earn the yellow jersey in the first place. But riders often find that once they have the jersey, they ride even better, and that’s where the expression comes from.

There are many great examples of the yellow jersey giving a rider wings in the 110-year history of the Tour de France. Some of the best examples are cases where a rider sort of stumbled into the jersey unexpectedly. In the 2004 Tour, an unheralded young French cyclist named Thomas Voeckler took the overall lead in stage 5 of the 20-stage event when the peloton (or the main pack of riders) allowed him to escape in a daring breakaway group that wound up finishing several minutes ahead of the larger group that contained all of the real contenders for the general classification.

Everyone—including Voeckler himself—knew that he was not capable of retaining the yellow jersey all the way to Paris. But the young racer was determined to hang onto it as long as he could, and he shocked the cycling world by retaining it for 10 straight days. Not known as a climber, Voeckler even managed to keep his lead through some of the Tour’s most brutal mountain stages, turning himself inside out and suffering heroically to cling to every precious second of his dwindling advantage. Exhausted, Voeckler wound up fading to 18th place by the end of the Tour, but by then he was a worldwide hero in the sport of cycling.

There’s nothing magical about the yellow jersey. It’s just a piece of laundry, and the “wings” that it gives to its wearer are nothing more than extra motivation.

What’s interesting about the yellow jersey phenomenon is how it reveals the untapped potential that must exist inside of riders before they claim the leader’s shirt. The yellow jersey doesn’t increase the physical powers of bike racers; rather, it inspires them to use the latent physical capacity that they are normally unwilling to tap into because of the effort it requires.

All of us need extraordinary motivation to give a truly maximal effort in any endeavor. You can’t ride like you’re wearing the yellow jersey unless you’re actually wearing it.

Only when everything is on the line, and you’re under a spotlight, and you’re a little scared, can you achieve things nobody thought you ever could.

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