Daniel Coyle wrote my favorite cycling book: “Tour de Force,” which for some reason was published in America under the more bellicose title “Lance Armstrong’s War.” His latest book is called “The Talent Code.” It features all the things I loved about “Tour de Force”: bright, lively, descriptive writing loaded with interesting anecdotes and personalities.
“Talent Code” (Bantam Books, 246 pages) doesn’t deal much with cycling. The sport is only mentioned in a footnote on page 34. Still, the book is a great read for sports-minded folks and anyone who’s interested in how we can better use our brains. Like me, Coyle is curious about how certain people got so good at various things. Why are Brazilians so great at soccer? How did South Korean women become so dominant in golf and the Russians take over tennis? Coyle argues that the athletes and, most important, their coaches do things in the same way. They do what Coyle calls “deep practice.”
The central character in the book is myelin, a substance made of dense fat that wraps around our nerve fibers like electrical tape, preventing electrical impulses from leaking out. Coyle explains, “Basically, our brains are bundles of wires – 100 billion wires called neurons, connected to each other by synapses. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a signal through those chains of nerve fibers to your muscles. Each time you practice anything – sing a tune, swing a club, read this sentence – a different highly specific circuit lights up in your mind, sort of like a string of Christmas lights.” Myelin wraps these circuits together, making thick lines of bandwidth.
Coyle says research shows that various forms of “deep practice” help create myelin. Deep practice involves repetition and struggle: doing something, making a mistake, identifying the mistake, correcting it and trying it again and again and again until you’ve mastered the task. “Each time we deeply practice a nine-iron swing or a guitar chord or a chess opening, we are slowly installing broadband in our circuitry. We are firing a signal that those tiny green tentacles sense; they react by reaching toward the nerve fibers. They grasp, squish and they make another wrap, thickening the sheath. They build a little more bandwidth and precision to the skill circuit, which translates into an infinitesimal bit more skill and speed.” Myelin helps wrap together the thicker bandwidth.
The footnote about cycling argues that Lance Armstrong did “deep practice” by having a “maniacal focus on errors” and optimizing every dimension of the race in other ways. He’s famous for doing reconnaissance workouts that helped him memorize every inch of the race course.
My only complaint about the book is that at times it reads too much like a grant proposal – albeit a fun-to-read one – for more funding for myelin research. I wonder if there are informed skeptics out there who might not agree that myelin is the wonder substance that Coyle and the many scientists he quotes claims it to be. Or perhaps some experts don’t agree that there’s such a connection between deep practice and myelin building. If so, I would have liked to hear about the debate. Who knows? Maybe there are no skeptics. I must apologize for my readers for not researching this a bit further on my own. But I’m lucky enough to find a bit of time to read such books, and I’m glad I read this one.
Although “Shop Class as Soulcraft” was written by a motorcycle mechanic, the inspiring book’s theme is highly relevant for cyclists like me who want to better understand their machines. The book’s author, Matthew B. Crawford, argues that we should be masters of our own stuff. He laments that more and more, we live in a throw-away culture that discourages people from understanding how things work. There’s a decline in tool use that has made us more passive and dependent. An engineering trend has been developing that seeks to “hide the works” from us. Many appliances are now held together by esoteric fasteners that can only be opened with tools not commonly available (This made me think of Campy!). In many new cars, especially German ones, there is a hood under the hood. “The engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the protohumans in the opening scene of the movie ’2001: A Space Odyssey,’” Crawford says. He notes that consumers in the old days were more demanding. The Sears catalogue contained blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances in case you wanted to fix it yourself.
One of the most interesting things about the book is Crawford’s unusual background. He spent part of his youth with his mother living in a commune, where he learned how to be an electrician. He majored in physics and eventually got a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago. He joined the white-collar world and worked in a think tank in Washington – a job he found extremely unsatisfying. He quit to open his own motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto, in Richmond, Virginia.
I plead guilty to being in the mechanically passive and dependent camp. I’m more of an arts and letters guy with little natural aptitude for fixing things, as my wife constantly reminds me. But I’m changing. (I learned how to true a wheel last weekend.) I no longer want to panic and feel helpless when my bike breaks down, and “Shop Class as Soulcraft (The Penguin Press, 245 pages) further stoked my desire to be a better wrench.
Another thing I like about the book is that it dispelled my stereotype of the mechanically gifted as being people who have an innate understanding of machinery and somehow know how to to easily fix it. Crawford describes in detail the many times he struggled to solve a problem and at times made it worse. It figures into another important theme in the book: Jobs that our new high-tech society have written off as low level, blue collar, grease monkey labor actually require a high level of intellectual ability and a grasp of a vast body of knowledge. There’s a great line in the book where Crawford describes the deep theoretical discussions that fixing a motorcycle frequently inspired between him and his fellow mechanics. He said there’s usually more thinking going on his his shop than in the Washington “think tank” he once worked in.
Some of the chapters in the middle of the book involve some hard slogging, even for a philosophy major like me. To be fair, I usually read the book in bed after a long day, and I could have brought more energy to it in a better setting. But it is an inspiring read for those who want to be better mechanics, and it’s a great pat on the back for those who already have plenty of Some of the chapters in the middle of the book involve some hard slogging, even for a philosophy major like me. To be fair, I usually read the book in bed after a long day, and I could have brought more energy to it in a better setting. But it is an inspiring read for those who want to be better mechanics, and it’s a great pat on the back for those who already have plenty of grease between their fingers.
Joe Parkin’s new book, “Come & Gone,” reminded me of how we used to pack ice coolers with beer for college parties. We’d put the micro brews and Euro beers on the top layer. At the bottom, we’d put the cheap beer – stuff people wouldn’t mind drinking because they were too drunk to care near the party’s end. Parkin’s first book, “A Dog in a Hat,” about the six years he spent breaking into the pro ranks in Belgium, is the Chimay. His latest book is a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It’s OK if you enjoyed the Parkin party so much that you’re happy to hang around for the second half to explore the bottom of the cooler. But it’s not something you’ll want to savor or think about too long. Like the title, the book often seems tired and flat.
Parkin returned to the U.S. in 1991, and the first few chapters of “Come & Gone” describe his culture shock as he tried to readjust to American life. He settled in Minneapolis and tried to resume his career as a road racer. I enjoyed his descriptions of how he tried to train through the frigid Minnesota winters. He struggled to get a contract with a good team and got stuck on a few second-tier squads before eventually getting picked up by the Coors Light powerhouse.
He’s definitely an oddball. The book features a Coors Light team photo of Parkin with a full-blown mullet. Wasn’t that hairstyle laughably out of style by the 90s? On a long roadtrip in the South, he buys an albino ferret at a mall and brings his new pet aboard the team bus.
Parkin left the road scene to race as a pro in the mountain biking circuit, which was booming in the 90s. He had a few good results as he bounced from team to team. But he misses the podium in most races because of frustrating mechanicals, bad legs or bone-headed mistakes. In one race, he seems certain to get a top place but he blows up in the end because he forgot to hydrate – an amazingly stupid mistake for a such a veteran pro.
I generally enjoyed Parkin’s book, but it wasn’t nearly half as interesting as “Dog in a Hat.”