The Math PhD who nearly won the KOM Jersey at the Tour of California

Tour of California is special to Stinner, for obvious reasons. This year, and for the first time, a stage of the race finished atop Santa Barbara's iconic climb, Gibraltar Road. The local cycling community turned out in droves to experience the race on a mountain that seems to rise straight from the sea. It is this locality that is special. We were there with our friends to see some of the best in the world conquer our local measuring stick. And it was a great stage, a great experience, that brought everybody from the cycling community to the mountain road we love.

Bike racing, when it's in your hometown, is special.

Paul Mach was a PhD student at UC Davis, studying applied math. He was also racing professionally, at the time, for U.S. powerhouse, Bissell Pro Cycling. Two completely different worlds, two completely different callings. For one day, those two worlds merged. In 2010, Paul was racing the Tour of California for his Bissell Team. On the first day of the race, he made the day's breakaway and won enough points to be the leader of the King of the Mountain's jersey. The next stage started in Davis. Called to the line at the start, in the KOM jersey, in front of his family, friends, training partners, and academic adviser, he got to show what all those crazy training rides were about.

But by 2012, Paul was ready to move on. He became the director of Strava Labs working as an engineer before moving on to other exciting ventures. 

For this focus on racing, we chatted with Paul about what it's like to be a bike racer in the United States, what being a bike racer did for his life, and why he decided to move on. Most importantly, we talked about the community of the cycling world, how much bike racers truly love racing, and how racing shaped his identity.

Meet Paul Mach.

Stinner: So, how did you get your start in racing?
I went to UC Davis for grad school, I ran there for a few months [Paul ran varsity track as an undergrad] and realized flat farm roads were boring. There was a cycling community there, and I had some interest in riding a bike before that. I had ridden a little bit as an undergrad, but it was always like, “Hey, I like riding bikes,” but never like, “Hey I want to race bikes.”

UC Davis has a really strong collegiate team but grad school the first few years is pretty tough. As coursework went down, I had more flexible schedule to ride more. And each year I got a little more serious, a little more serious.

How did you justify racing to your academic advisors?
I did have a very flexible advisor, he was pretty open. And I did a pretty good job of generating progress, maybe not quite making as much progress as if I was working on it full time, but I think I picked the right advisor.

But once I got the climbing jersey at Tour of California, the next day started at UC Davis, and he was there, that was when he realized this wasn’t just something I did for fun . . . . well, it’s for fun, but it’s not just something that’s not going anywhere. That’s when he realized it was...it’s kind of interesting. He’s from France, so he understood the concept of the climbing jersey. Once he saw me there, he got it. 

You were going to school still while racing on Bissell?
Yes. So that was good and bad. For the first few years, it kind of worked out. In Grad school, those years three and four, are just kind of like…you’re trying to figure stuff out, see where this going, when I was focused a lot on cycling. The flexibility was there not like years 5 and 6, where we need to have some sort of plan, so there was pressure from my advisor, from me. Not explicit pressure, but you can’t be 100% at both cycling and research. That’s definitely when my cycling performance went downhill. The stress of grad school catching up.

By 2012, when I was on Kenda Pro Cycling Team, it was less fun.  2010 was my best year. I had really good training partners, we were riding every week. By 2011, 2012, those people graduated, and moved on or were in the same situation, focused more on getting the degree done. It did become less fun at that point. And there was a choice to be made. Do I want to go to Europe? But that was never really something that I thought was worth it. Especially because I had so much going for me on the education front and I’m not going to give that up to get my teeth knocked in, in Europe. It just didn’t make sense.

When you were on Bissell, what did the other guys think?
I think it was different outlook. Bissell had better funding, so there were some guys who had been in the sport a long time, but to be honest, it really felt like high school or college. It’s like a four year thing. After four years of college you’re ready to move on. You thought it was theawesomest thing ever freshman year but after four years, I’ve been there done that. I’m ready to move on. I definitely felt that. A lot of the people who stayed are people who could be in college forever. I definitely started feeling that towards the end. Some of the maturity a little bit. Just from the jokes to the outlook, that five year plan. I’m married, I got think about a five year plan. They weren’t thinking that far ahead.

I was still cycling focused, I needed to show my value to the team and I was trying to do that. There were people on the team, on Bissell who were younger who had it, easy in a way. On Kenda, it was more scrappy. It didn’t have the funding, it was really good but guys had jobs, and for instance…Phil Gaimon was on the team running a clothing company at the time, everybody else was doing construction in the winter. Almost more like real life experience. They were willing to do whatever it took to race. I actually felt like more of a team there. I respected those guys a lot more, for the effort put into the sport.

So nobody really "got it."

On Bissell, nobody really got it or cared. There were a few times where I tried to mention an interesting tidbit, and it was like, almost laughed out, but on Kenda we had Roman Kilum. He’s a lawyer [he had graduated law school from a prestigious university and passed the BAR by this point] and he would always use his lawyer skills to argue with you. They were intelligent people and they respected it. They didn’t have money, but they were smart, particularly how to scrape the money they needed to be bike racers. 

What was the moment you were like I need to go move on? Or was it the team folding?
Kenda was my last year no matter what. My wife wa pregnant and I just knew in ten years do I want to be the guy with the PhD, working on cool stuff, or do I want to be the guy who almost kind of made it on the domestic team, and almost kind of made it in Europe. The best future for me , and I learned and developed a lot while racing, but the best future for me and my family was capitalizing on the education I got. I was fortunate in everything that happened to me, it’s lucky in some sense.

At the end of the day I saw the value in my PhD was higher to me. Do I want to be Dr. Mach, or do I want to be that guy was pro five years ago? I want to be Dr. Mach. 

Are you glad you did the bike racing thing still? Would you do it all over again?
Oh Absolutely! Yeah. Bike racing…you really build a community. Bike racing is unique in that you build a community. You train with guys all the time, you go to races, it’s a team sport. Like, how do you get to the races (especially when you’re new), what will you do about clothing, how do you figure out stuff…With the college experience too, you get to a race, a race weekend, the racing is just a small part of the stuff that goes on. That thing that goes on. When I raced track, it wasn’t quite the same camaraderie. I made a lot of friends through that.

What do you think, for most people…do you think they let it go too far?
Yeah, I think, there’s people that go through college and whatever and can make it work. And there’s people who go through that and can’t make it work, because they need to spend extra time in the books or they’re distracted by other parts of college life for better or worse. If you want to be a cyclist, you can fit in the time around your books, I firmly believe that. 

So it did provide…being able to strike a balance is easier said than done, and my position was easier than some other situations, but striking a balance, even academically, if you have this sport, it helps both sides of it. Until you go too crazy on one side.

Can you imagine just being a bike racer? 
I thought about that long and hard. Even as an undergrad when running track. What would it be like if I didn’t have to go to class? Could I just run and lay on the couch? All that stress…Almost for me being a student athlete, for ten years of my life I was a student athlete. I almost couldn’t separate it. What does it mean to lay on the couch? My brain couldn’t shutdown like that. Other teammates could. They’d go ride then watch Netflix all day long. The person who is satisfied doing that is different than somebody who I want to be. Whether that means having school of side hobbies. It doesn’t have to be a job, just something else.

Erik Joule: At Strava, I was fortunate enough to work alongside you. You were highly focused on your work, highly industrious. You inspired and led. Do you think your background in bike racing has influenced how you behave within an organization?

I never really thought about it that way. To be a bike racer, what you do, is you go out every day, you have to be motivated. To go out and ride hard the next day, you know you’re doing the similar ride you did last week, the similar training you did last year, you have to be disciplined, long term focused, develop long term perspective. At work, there’s this longer term perspective, let me put in the work now to make that better in later phases of that project. How do we lay a strong foundation. That points to cycling training, to base miles and building. I mean, it’s kind of like a chicken-egg problem. Did cycling teach you how to be self-disciplined and motivated? Or are you already that way and that draws you to cycling? Something makes, even that guy that rides his bike for four hours then does nothing but lay on the couch the rest of the day, something makes that person go and ride hard again the next day.

At work, there are things you want to push in three months and problems you want to solve in three years, or five years, or longer. I guess growing into solving or having those longer term problems, cycling may help with that. 

Epilogue: Whether you're a bike racer or not, cycling shapes our identities. Certainly, there is a time and place for our passions, and they can be formative. For racers, especially in the United States, it is a passion for cycling, more than anything else, that keeps them training and racing, even when the money isn't there. At the end of the day, all cyclists seem to have some underlying trait that pulls them together. And these traits show up in the workplace and in our hobbies. We owe Paul a thank you for providing some perspective on bike racing and being a cyclist in general.