You may know Max Levchin best as one of the cofounders of PayPal, or the entrepreneur who sold one of his startups, Slide, to Google for millions of dollars. Or you might know him as the mastermind behind the potentially revolutionary companies Glow and Affirm. Perhaps you know that he sits on the board of directors at Yahoo and Yelp.
You might not know he’s a fast cyclist.
I learned this firsthand when I traveled to California to write a profile of him, share my passion for pedaling with a fellow obsessive, and, yes, test my mettle against his. As he probably has his whole life, Levchin won, and with grace.
Levchin brings a sharp focus and a high level of intensity to his business life and his cycling. He often wakes up early to go out for a ride, then it's into the office for a busy day. If he's pressed for time, he'll ride his indoor trainer for an hour. 'I try to touch my bike at least once every day,' he says.
Levchin's penchant for the stealth look borders on obsessive, but then again, obsessive is what roadies are. He avoids loud colours and showy brand logos whenever possible. Note the reflective tabs on his Swiss-made Assos apparel, on the back of his thighs and calves. On his left leg he wears a Road ID, which has his name and emergency contacts.
Before we roll out, Levchin tells me about the ride we're doing, Paradise Loop, one of the most popular routes in the Bay Area. He has ridden it more than a hundred times, so he knows each rise, downhill, and turn. He likes that he can test himself repeatedly over certain sections and compare his performance data over time.
As he tops up his energy levels and we get ready to start, Levchin turns to me and says, 'I can never imagine a time when I won't be riding a bike. I'm definitely addicted.'
Levchin rides a limited-production Cervélo RCA road bike, a gift from his wife, with a state-of-the-art electronic Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 component groupset. Fewer than 500 of these carbon-fibre frames have been produced -- the frameset alone costs $US10,000. Levchin's complete bike? More than $US15,000. It weighs under 15 pounds, and it's the same bike used by some of the pros in the Tour de France. 'I'm not religious about it, but I like having an entirely monochrome bike,' Levchin tells me. 'I don't love the super-loud stuff.' (As such, he removed the decals from these Zipp 303 carbon clincher wheels.)
Levchin uses a cycling computer and a power meter. His performance data is displayed in real time, including speed, distance, heart rate, pedal cadence, and power. There's a GPS feature that maps his route, too. But he has to be careful, because all the data can lead to over-training. 'My No. 1 enemy is the power meter,' he says. 'If the number has not cracked 300 (watts), I am not OK with that.'
Levchin always wears his prescription cycling glasses and a helmet. He even keeps the helmets he's crashed in -- he has 'a shelf of marginally intact helmets as a reminder of what not to do.' And he has a rule that if one of his carbon-fibre frames hits the ground hard, he doesn't touch that frame ever again. Ditto for helmets.
During his year at Google, Levchin commuted by bike from his home in San Francisco to Mountain View. It was full gas, solo, for the nearly two-hour ride each way. He's always preferred riding alone. 'If I'm training, I either know I need to be at 70% or 80%, and it's just me and my plan,' he says. 'Riding slow is unbearable -- I'd rather do the turbo trainer than ride slow. Nothing irks me more than looking at my computer and seeing I'm doing 14 mph and have 20 miles to go. Unless I'm climbing.'
Riding in the Bay Area proved to be a rejuvenating retreat from my regular bike commute in New York City, even if Levchin kept the pace high and reminded me every mile or two that I don't like climbing. Max, he just loves when the road goes up.
'When I'm in the middle of a really hard ride, it's a bit like starting a company,' Levchin says. 'Am I going to slow down, or am I gonna go all in? And you just grind. On the bike, I'm no Chris Froome, but I work very hard. I'm willing to suffer. I ride every day, no matter what.'
'My No. 1 competitor is me,' Levchin tells me. 'There's always a moment in a ride where you're like, 'I can't do it anymore,' when your tongue is hanging out on the handlebar and you've still got another five k to go. You just have to fire that extra gear -- giving up is not an option. It's true in bike races, and it's very much true in entrepreneurship.'
In addition to being a diehard cyclist himself, Levchin follows pro racing obsessively -- 'I can rattle off more stats than you care to know,' he says. 'It's the only sport I follow.' His favourite pro? Jens Voigt.
The only time I managed to give Levchin a run for his money, so to speak, was on the flats, but then again he might have just been toying with me. For a climber, Max has a pretty good kick in the sprints.
When it comes to his lifelong passion for riding bikes, Levchin says, 'for someone as competitive as I am -- foolishly competitive or correctly competitive -- it's sometimes hard to reconcile having a family life and a great experience with my friends. I'm getting better about knowing what's important, but I still want to be the fastest guy up the hill.'
After spending a little time with Levchin, in his office and on the road, I'd say he's probably the most competitive person I've ever met. He's at once reserved and passionate, as happy bombing a descent at 50 mph as he is seeking the next big thing in internet tech.
Read the related profile: 'Max Levchin, Star Entrepreneur And Cycling Fanatic: 'I Still Want To Be The Fastest Guy Up The Hill'