The Taj Mihelich Interview
“You Can’t Win BMX”
Words and photographs by GEORGE MARSHALL
Archive photography by SANDY CARSON, CHRIS RYE and LARD GALLOWAY
(First published in The Albion Issue 14, April 2013)
I’m a vegetarian and I dislike being asked why. I lower my head with a groan when I hear the question. I can barely remember my script of reasons. In recent years I’ve preferred to give a dumb answer in the hope of avoiding debate. I tell relatives I saw the film Babe and it changed my life forever. I tell other men it’s because ‘I hate animals so much I won’t even eat them’, and when riders ask I answer: ‘Because Taj is.’ All three answers are ridiculous, however the last is admittedly not far from the truth. Taj Mihelich was arguably the most influential and most admired rider of the first decade of the 21st century – a golden era of BMX. It was a time when BMX gained independence and looked in the mirror. Rider owned companies took the helm, the chest protectors came off and riding became style-conscious. Leading the revolution was Taj, with infallible moral integrity. He lead by example and like disciples we followed, we wore mesh caps, took off our front brakes and some of us even stopped eating meat.
“Arrrrhhh… I’ve got no plans for the next few days,” Taj tells me from the driver’s seat of a large white van in a gentle voice, sounding some what nervous and shy. Taj is living on the road. The Mercedes van has everything he and his dog ‘Monty’ need. A bass guitar rests beneath a camp bed, a small amount of folded up clothes sit in a cupboard and a fleet of bikes of various size hang in the back. “Everything I own is in the back there. I sold my house in Austin and all my belongings in a garage sale and bought this van. I’m not sure what I’m doing or where I’m heading. I’m trusting my intuition and it’s telling me it’s time for a change. I might end up back in Austin, or maybe I’ll fall in love with another town and start somewhere new. I thought tonight we’d find somewhere to camp-up in the country and do some hard talking.”
The three of us drive away from the city of Milwaukee where Taj collected me and we head deeper into the countryside of Wisconsin. We pass the time by chatting over many mutual interests such as different forms of cycling and illustration but I avoid the topic of why I’m vegetarian. Later that evening we camp up beside a lake and start a fire. Thinking Taj was a non-drinker, I am surprised when he passes me a can of Canoe Paddler Wisconsin lager and opens one for himself. “I didn’t start drinking till late in life.” He tells me, taking a sip and facing the fire. “I had a lot of alcoholic step dads around me as a kid. I never met my real father. He was into doing heroin, drugs and drinking. He left when I was two. I never wanted to be like my dad or step dads. I didn’t drink for years and I’ve never messed with drugs. If someone drank booze, I wouldn’t talk to them. I started to feel like I was afraid of it because I’d turn into those people who were shit to me as a kid. As I grew older I realised I didn’t want to be afraid of alcohol and I thought I should be able to drink without losing my life to it. When I was 31, I did a tour of the Guinness Factory and at the end of the tour you get a perfect pint of Guinness, that was my first drink apart from a few sips growing up. I still don’t get into liqueur but I enjoy a beer or a wine. I’m mellowing out.” I’m shocked to hear the story of his father. From his unusual name, old photos of his dreadlocked hair and gentle caring manner, I had pictured him growing up in a commune of peace and love. My assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. “My mom was a hippy – she called me Taj. She raised me on her own in Michigan. There would be a different step dad every few years. The cycle would be; she’d be single, we’d move, she’d meet someone and we’d move in with them, she’d divorce them and we’d move on again.
“The last stepfather I lived with was psychotic. My mom and him had a kid when I was 14. He didn’t want me in the same room as my half brother. Often the family would sit in the living room watching TV and I’d be told to stay in my room. My step dad didn’t want me to be a part of the family. He thought I ate too much but I felt like I was starving. It would be so bad I would steal dog food, I was that hungry… it was brutal. My mom saw what was happening but wouldn’t do anything to help. She’d told me, ‘I love you both, don’t fight back when he yells at you so we can all be happy.’ I wasn’t getting physically beaten, but he wanted an excuse to beat the shit out of me. He would get two inches from my face and yell I’m worthless and everything I did sucked. I believed him. The only thing I could do was stand there and fucking cry. The only strength I could find was from just standing there and taking it. It was brutal. I wet the bed until I was 16! I even went to the doctor about it but they couldn’t understand it.
“I didn’t have anyone to share my problems with. Our dog was my only friend. I felt a connection with animals, I thought: this dog is awesome – he likes me and wants to hang out with me, and how is he any different from a cow or a pig, or any animal we eat? I couldn’t separate the two, so I didn’t eat meat. My step dad used to force me to eat meat, which me made me associate that with him.
“I was closed off as a kid. I couldn’t look anyone else in the eye. I just walked around with my head down. I’ve always been shy by nature, but it was made worse by having to show up at a new school every year. I didn’t have any friends growing up. All that stuff is what drove me to bikes and I guess the upside to it is that it’s what made me focus on riding. Most of the time riding was something I could do alone and where ever I was, and get away from my situation. BMX was always something I could lose myself in. I started out racing but it was dirt jumping I really loved. When I hit a jump I just wanted to go as high as I could and land hard. I had all this angst to get out. I rode with all my emotions on my sleeve. I think that’s why people noticed me riding. I didn’t know how to express my emotions in any other way. I had no one to talk to.
“I would steal dog food, I was that hungry… it was brutal”
“One night I scraped the dinner fork on my teenager buckteeth. My step dad freaked over table manners and threw the kitchen table at me with all the food on. It was a pinnacle moment and I thought ‘fuck this– I’ve got to get out of here.’ I had no idea things could be better, I just I couldn’t take it anymore. I left the house and walked down the street and into the country. I stayed with my aunt for a bit and then I left town. The bed wetting stopped the day I left the house…arrrhhh it’s cold.” Taj says with a shudder in the night air. “I’m going to grab my hoodie from the van, are you warm enough?” He stands, finishes his beer and walks away into the darkness of the night.
At the age of 16, a very shy and vulnerable Taj had no choice but to leave his family and make a life for himself alone. “That was the lowest point of my life. I felt like I got dropped off on a curb with no life skills, no idea how to live, no idea how to be happy. I was truly convinced that I was not worth anything. I’m almost 40 now and I want to be truly past all that but looking back it’s heavy to see the state I was in.
“I feel like I was born at 16 when I started out on my own. During this time I was full of hate and I was so self-righteous. I was so ignorant to the world. I had to figure everything out on my own. I started out pretty much believing there was an absolute black and white, right or wrong. If you didn’t believe what I believed you were wrong – simple as that. I shunned people and blocked out huge parts of life because I didn’t know how to deal with things I didn’t understand. I feel like the rest of my life since that point has been an adventure in opening up.”
When Taj left his home, he left with next to nothing but he did have one possession that would take him further than he could ever imagine, his bike. “During that time I put everything into riding. I have no idea what gave me the confidence to, but I entered my first dirt jump contest at 17. It was at the NBL Grands race in Kentucky. Fuzzy [Hall] was in it, he was an idol of mine. He was wearing full race kit. I was wearing torn up shorts, mismatched knee-pads, two different water skiing gloves and I had two odd tyres. I came second in the contest and BMX Plus ran a full page photo of me doing a Grizz. It blew my mind. You’d never see a photo of a kid dressed so ratty in BMX Plus. That contest started things for me, not long after my ‘5% discount bro’ deal with Albes, it turned into a real sponsor.”
Taj’s first photo in a magazine (BMX Plus!), Nac-nac with water skiiing gloves and mismatching tyres
Although still very shy, Taj began to make a name for himself as the gnarly quiet kid at the dirt contests, going higher and landing harder than anyone else. His days alone without friends were about to change. “Suddenly people began to come up and talk to me. That really helped my shyness and getting praised for something helped my confidence. I started to think maybe I wasn’t so terrible. In the early days those contests were like a pilgrimage. You’d see the same riders at every contest all over the damn country. That became my extended family. Ron Kimler practically adopted me in the beginning and started to take me to my first contests even though I had no money to help pay for the trips.”
At 18 Taj left school and devoted all his time to riding, joining the small number of pilgrims that attended competitions throughout the country. Eventually this path led him to the cold northern city of Iowa and the home of Standard Bykes. “Rick Moliterno and his company Standard were my first bike sponsor. I was over the moon when he asked.” At Standard Taj found himself at the heart of one the most progressive scenes in America, befriending teammates Joe Rich and Sandy Carson. With BMX still in its infancy, it was a time of rapid progression. Taj added to the evolution of freestyle, inventing tricks such as foot jam nosepicks and even pulled the first downside foot jam tail whip back in the dark ages. But at a Standard team photo shoot at Scrap Skatepark, he experienced a tragedy that would affect him and his outlook on BMX for years to come.
“It happened at my very first photo shoot. One of our good friends and probably the best rider out of us, Jeff Crawn jumped the box and his forks blew up. It happened right in front of me. At the time we knew it was bad. Later that evening we found out he was paralysed. Seeing my friend get paralysed really upset me. After the crash, I rode around in circles all night. I had to be on my bike. The only way I could handle that emotional overload was to keep riding. It also inspired me to write a story about the incident for Ride BMX [magazine]. I’d never written anything before, but it helped me find another way to be able to express myself, other than riding. “Bikes were dangerous back then. BMX bikes were kids bikes – they were bullshit. That’s why I can’t get into the old school bike collector thing… those old bikes were terrible! It was so important to support the few companies that were making products that weren’t going to kill you and that put on events, so they could survive and we could keep riding.
Turndown from the Hoffman’s B.S. Comp days
“Not long after things started to get weird at Standard. In truth it was never much of a sponsor, I never even had one of the bikes. I never wanted a freestyle bike. I always rode an S&M Holmes race bike. There was a famous time where Joe [Rich] asked Rick [Moliterno] for some money to go to a contest, Rick replied ‘No sorry, I have to super-charge my other Mustang this weekend – I can’t afford to help you”. We were all like WTF? He wasn’t making a lot of money but he certainly wasn’t giving the team any money. I think he just got what he could out of us young kids. We didn’t think to negotiate with him because we looked up to him so much – we assumed he had our back. We’d get the ‘we can’t give you any money, we’re only small but we’ll grow, if we all work.’ I just got fed up with things and felt like it was going nowhere.”
Wiser from his experiences at Standard, Taj left and headed south. “My only plan was to head south till it got warm. I ended up in the Hoffman Bikes convoy after a BS contest, sat in the van with Mat Hoffman. Over a long drive from Chicago we got into a few deep, long conversations. He asked me to ride for Hoffman Bikes. For some reason it took me a year to say yes to him, which was weird because Mat was such a hero of mine. I accepted. I rode for Hoffman but I couldn’t ride his Condor frame because I didn’t like the geometry. After all my sponsors I was still riding a Holmes.
“My first pro contest was the B.S. in Kansas . In practice I jumped the box and crashed head on with Leigh Ramsdell, ripping my head tube off my Holmes. As it happens a guy called Paul Murray was moving to Oklahoma to weld for Hoffman Bikes, and had all welding gear in his van. In the middle of the contest floor there was the 220v plug socket he needed to run his welding torch. Fifteen minutes before the contest starts, he grabbed his gear and welded my head tube back on right in the middle of the contest. I did my run with my head tube so hot it burnt my legs when I did no handers. Afterwards Mat bought me a new Holmes and we built the Taj frame based around that.” Thanks to Taj’s growing popularity, a race inspired geometry and American Made quality, The Hoffman Taj frame was a hotly sought after frame on the market that Taj could be proud of. Taking inspiration from racing and adapting it to Freestyle was an evolutionary idea. Taj later continued to draw from racing, sparking the move to 36 spoke wheels, the introduction of cassette hubs and smaller sprocket sizes. At a time of 40lb bikes, four pegs, front brakes, platform frame designs and triple bolt seat clamps, Taj led a decade long movement toward refined, light-weight design.
At Hoffman Bikes in the late ‘90s Taj again found himself surrounded by individuals even more hell bent on the progression and evolution of BMX. Taj was not a spectator, as testified by his video part in UGP’s Face Value. “On Hoffman you got to go on the Sprocket Jockey tours with Mirra, McCoy, Hoffman and Miron. We’d earn money doing shows at hill billy state fairs four or five times a day. You’d make 75 to 100 dollars a day. I’d go on the road for a month and make a few thousand bucks. At my first Sprocket Jockeys show, Mirra hung up and blew up his spleen. They needed someone to fill in and that was me, even though I didn’t ride vert. I learnt to ride vert on those shows.
Taj’s ending section on the legendary video UGP – Face Value, 1996
“Doing shows all day you get beat up. You start doing tricks you know you can pull because you don’t want to get hurt. I could do pedal to pedal tailwhips, back then not many people could do them. That was my hard trick for the show. I had two ways of doing them; burley and land 50% of the time, and this other way I could pull them every time but they felt stupid and robotic. “All of sudden I realized doing shows made riding feel really contrived and it felt like it was becoming a job. I quit doing shows because I realised I was riding in this formulaic way. It was my only income but I liked riding to feel completely on theedge, sketchy and loose. I wasn’t going to turn it into a job. It was a lesson in standing up for myself… right or wrong, I was starting to be strong enough to follow what I thought was best.”
Today the notion of the world’s best five riders sharing a ramp deck and riding five shows a day for $100 is unthinkable. The Sprocket Jockeys Tour was in a period where BMX and money were unacquainted. However, the tide was about to turn, the world of BMX was about to change. “I heard from Mat that TV were interested in screening the comps. I had a terrible feeling about it. Miron said, ‘It’s going to make everything huge, we’re all going to get money’. He wasn’t necessarily for it but he could see what was going to happen. To me all I could see was the death of what I loved about BMX.
“When Mat worked with the TV companies, he did it with the best intentions. It was good to ride on a big stage at those first Extreme Games and show people what BMX was. But we shared that stage with freestyle bungee jumping, a dude jumped off a building wearing a Kayak, another jumped dressed as a cow. They were making up sports. It was embarrassing. I remember being disgusted to see BMX turned into a ‘sport’ that you could win. They were making a joke out of riding in my eyes.
“They were manipulating contests so they could make it presentable for TV. They took out so much of what I thought was awesome. No longer could someone try the same trick 45 times with the crowd cheering and pushing him on. The cameras needed to change tape and everything had to be on a schedule. They stopped the riding between each run to wait for the commercials to end. You’d be cold and the crowd would be bored. There was no energy, it was cold and calculated…it became a challenge of: ‘if you could ride your best in the absence of all that energy. If you fall, you lost.’
“I remember I was winning Dirt by a good amount at the first Extreme Games. I knew on my last jump that if I pretty much did anything and landed it, I would have gold. In my brain I thought it would be a total cop out. It made sense to me to try a trick I had never done before. So I tried something new, fell and got second. It probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but to me it felt like I would be letting myself down if I took the easy way out. I wanted events like that to give me the energy to push myself and be creative. It would be worthless if I just did what I had to do in order to ‘win’.
“It’s BMX… you can’t win BMX.”
“In that way the big contests have hurt BMX, they reward consistency, playing it safe, practising in a foam pit over that magic no one can replicate. I would never want to say anything bad about the contest riders but no one goes into the X Games to try something they’ve never tried before, they do dialed runs… I miss that wildness of contests.
“There is nothing wrong with wanting to win…” Taj pauses for a second to weigh it up and chucks another log on the fire.“… but maybe there is. For me, you can’t win BMX. How can you win something so subjective and personal. The whole idea of trying to beat someone else, or thinking that riding really good will earn you a win is against everything that BMX is to me. Maybe what you do hits a nerve with the certain group of judges at a contest and you end up winning, but you didn’t really win. It’s BMX… you can’t win BMX.”
For better or worse, the introduction of the televised contents in the mid ‘90s changed BMX, and for none more so than for the riders at the top. As Miron predicted, a wave of new money entered BMX, but for Taj it wasn’t a simple case of cashing in. “I was a top rider at that point and potential sponsors would say we need you to get a podium finish in the X Games and be on TV. I rebelled against that, I didn’t what to be competitive. I’ve turned down so much money over my career. I can see how other people could go the other way and accept all the endorsements. Dave Mirra is a badass, he should have a video game and all of that, but that wasn’t for me. I would always run it through my moral compass, and think ‘are they helping BMX? Are they good for us?’ I was so incredibly strict. I never wanted bike riding to turn into a job for me. I wouldn’t let my contracts have stipulations or requirements. In truth I had a really unique career. I did make decent money but I had contracts that just said, ‘you be you… do your thing and we’ll support you.’
Classic Taj 1ft Moto at 9th Street Trails, by Sandy Carson
“I couldn’t endorse products I didn’t believe in. That attitude comes from my early days ASA racer. When I was racing all the pro racers were sponsored by Oakley and all wore Oakley Razer Blades. I was convinced you had to have a pair. I was 13 years old, poor as shit and spent $130 on a pair. I get to the track and realised you sure as hell didn’t need them. It sunk in. I’d been duped. The guys in the magazine wore them only because they were sponsored. When I started getting in the magazines and getting sponsors I decided I would never want to do that to little kids, I would ride for companies that made shit I would actually buy. It’s funny looking back now. Oakley got its start in BMX and is now huge. They even helped me put on the Texas Toast Jam and made me special Toast Oakleys for the event. It’s growing up I guess… a company like that can still be a part of and help BMX even if you don’t really need to wear sunglasses to ride. I just couldn’t get it back then.”
With the arrival of television coverage, the old BS contests that had once provided Taj a lifeline from his lonely childhood were no more. His extended family had been replaced by jocks and suits. Taj was openly against the contests, yet was still an integral part of Hoffman Bikes, who organised the contests with ESPN. Taj found himself in a difficult position. “I felt more and more alienated by the whole contest world. At the same time Mat moved the production of Hoffman Bikes to Taiwan. The first bikes I got from there were terrible, the geometry was really fucked up. They were really inconsistent and badly made. I was against the move to Taiwan, Mat was convinced he could make good bikes there. In the end he did it and opened that door for the entire industry, but at the time I was too impatient to wait around for things to get fixed. I couldn’t deal with the fact there was product with my name on that I wouldn’t buy. I have all the respect in the world for Hoffman, but I knew I had to move on. Mat knew too, he is a lifelong friend and told me he knew I had to do things on my own. I left Hoffman with the intention of never being sponsored ever again, to not be a part of the industry and just ride my bike.”
While Taj’s old Sprocket Jockey team mates enjoyed lucrative endorsement contracts and the wealths of prime-time television, Taj turned his back on the new contests that quickly came to be dominated by the new role of the TV pro. He was after a new direction entirely. “I wanted to keep that part of my life [BMX] pure and not screw it up by having a sponsor. After almost a year of riding without a bike sponsor, I began to get the idea I could maybe make BMX more how I wanted if I started a company that showed riders what I thought BMX should be. I thought I could carve a little corner out of BMX that was my way. That’s where T1 came from.”
Road Fools 1 out take, by Chris Rye
Whilst on the much celebrated and groundbreaking video Props Road Fools 1, Taj announced the start of his new company Terrible One, with long-term friend Joe Rich, who shared the same values and outlook as Taj. “We wanted to show that BMX isn’t all about competition. T1 was always more of a vehicle to show what BMX could be, rather than an actually functioning company. T1 was more of a symbol than a company or a business. We were making money from our sponsors, so we didn’t have to rely on T1 to pay our rent. We certainly didn’t pay ourselves. From my past experiences we wanted to pay our riders, make the best bikes we could and show the world BMX isn’t just what you see on TV. We supported riders such as Paul Buchanan and Garrett Byrnes who were amazing but as far from podiums as you got. Through all of this, Joe and I would occasionally go to some of those ESPN contests, maybe we’d do well, but that was not to be our focus. I think we did accomplish our ideas with T1. We inspired a lot of people to open up doors… to make BMX how they wanted it to be.
In the early 2000s, Terrible One quickly grew into an iconic and respected brand. Taj and Joe’s little corner of BMX grew into a dominant force in the industry, opening the sluice gates to a golden era of BMX, captured in the video Etnies Forward and the Props Road Fools series. It saw the rerival of Backyard Jams, which restored the original atmosphere of the old contests that Taj so loved. No one personified this time more so than Joe Rich and Taj. The two were the inseparable guardians of their own beloved world of independent BMX. From the outside it was an unshakable friendship, but on the inside cracks were beginning to appear.
“When we started T1 we knew business could ruin friendships. The pact we made in the beginning is that we agreed, if we stopped being friends, we’d just close the company down and not let it ruin our friendship. That pact stuck for a long time. We both worked really hard, it was hard to know when to stop. It was ours, no one else was going to do it.
“The company grew. We’d struck a nerve with riders and people wanted what we were selling. We had two full time employees who had families and team riders who we were paying well. We’d become a full company and people were counting on us to make it work as a business. I took that seriously and that’s where Joe and I started to have a difference in opinion. Joe didn’t like the responsibility or the idea of T1 being a business. I would argue that it could still be ethical, moral, and maintain our ideas as a business… I wasn’t trying to get rich from it.
Vert Wall Disaster, Derby Backyard Jam, by Lard
“Before I continue, I should make it clear, Joe and I are no longer friends. Anything I say about him needs to be taken with that in mind. If anything sounds negative, just remember this is only my side of the story, but I’ll try to be objective. When we started we had different ideas and met in the middle. That middle ground produced some great stuff. But more and more we were going in opposite directions. We got to the point where there was no middle ground, it was just us fighting. I think we just grew into very different people.
“We had issues over the product a lot towards the end. This was about the time that stuff made over in Taiwan was starting to get as good or better than the stuff we could make in the USA. It became harder and harder to justify making stuff in the US. The nail in the coffin for me was the T1 Bars. They were a big seller for us. All of a sudden all the bars from Taiwan were cheaper, stronger and lighter. I thought ‘how can we keep on making our bars in the US?’ But Joe wasn’t into it. To order bars from Taiwan meant we had to order a lot of bars and so we had to run the company as a business to sell them all. I started making changes to run the company more like a business but Joe hated the changes. I can’t really blame him for wanting to keep it as a hobby, but with everything riding on it. It just wasn’t for me anymore.
“T1 really started to effect our friendship. We stopped wanting to see each other out of the office, we weren’t friends. That’s when I left. One day I walked into the office and told Joe, ‘we’re not friends anymore, we have an agreement that if we’re not friends we’d close it down, so let’s close it down, let’s try to save the friendship.’ That was the end of it. A few days later Joe called me and said, ‘I agree with you, you’re right, but what would you think if I kept the company going.’ I had some apprehension about it, it was my baby and I didn’t want to let it go on without me. But I knew T1 meant a lot to some people, we were getting photos of kids with T1 tattoos. I said, ‘alright, you keep it going, I’ll give you my entire half, I don’t want anything for it, go for it.’
“I walked away. I tried being just a rider for a while and it didn’t work. I’d walk into the office and see something happening I couldn’t handle. It was a learning experience in letting go. I gave Joe my part of the company so I had to accept him doing whatever he wanted with it. I stopped riding for T1 and went back to that mindset I had when I left Hoffman of never riding for anyone again. Things seemed good between Joe and I for a few years but then he stopped talking to me. I don’t know why, he won’t tell me. We were friends for 20 years and then one day he just tells me ‘I don’t want to talk to you anymore.’ Since then I can’t go to a BMX event without the fear of seeing him, I’m a nervous wreck. I really don’t know how to reconcile it all. I guess it’s just a lesson in learning that some things are out of your control.” Hearing Taj’s words, it is obvious he is still very sad by the fallout. Mildly drunk and the camp fire burning out, we call it a night.
Downside whip, Derby Backyard Jam, by Lard
The next morning we drive to Ray’s indoor skatepark. With the park empty I watched Taj drop in and pull a perfect deck manual and Fufanu in his first run in three years. As the session progressed the pain of an old back injury raised its ugly head and to shoot a photograph, Taj put himself through an ordeal of suffering that I found uncomfortable to be a part of, but I was also honoured to be a first hand witness of his mental strength. Later that evening in a nearby Mexican restaurant we discuss his injury.
“I was always very fortunate with injuries throughout my riding career. I got hurt of course and I did have some serious concussions. Once I got knocked out and lost a lot of memory. I got home from the trip and my girlfriend wasn’t there. I called her up, ‘Where are you? Where’s all your stuff?’ ‘You threw me out’. She told me. I had no memory of it and she moved back in. A year later I remembered she was cheating and we had broken up, and I’d completely blacked it all out. Apart from that and a burst spleen, I never tore a knee tendon and my shoulder never popped out. In that sense I feel like my body was made for riding, especially those heavy bikes of the mid ‘90s.“My luck ran out a few years before I left T1. I did a really fast backwards grind on the ramp, missed my back peg and fell into the transition, twisting my back. I was instantly fucked. For a couple of weeks after that I crawled around my apartment on my hands and knees. I pissed in a bowl because I couldn’t stand up. I went to the doctors and they told me I needed surgery, then I went to another doctors and they told me to never get surgery. In my last years as a pro rider I’d go to a contest and I wouldn’t practise because I knew as soon as I pulled up hard I would be unable to walk for a week. Riding became miserable, it was just pain.”
This was Taj’s first ride in three years after his back injury. 1-handed fast plant, 2013
Without a bike sponsor and his back injury becoming worse, a new opportunity came from an unlikely place, the opposite corner of BMX. “I started to get into other bikes because I was able to ride those without the pain. I bought a road bike from Giant, and then I bought a mountain bike from them. When I bought my third bike from Giant I joked with them ‘you guys should sponsor me, I’m buying so many bikes’. They said, ‘we have enough budget we’ll sponsor you’. I thought ‘oh shit’. I can’t say I don’t support this company because I’m buying their products. I had a huge ethical and moral dilemma. They were a massive corporation that before, I would have never supported. As soon as I got scared of the idea it became like a hand rail or a jump. I had to just go for it. It was one of those things where I needed to prove to myself I could do what I felt I should. Giant was as far from T1 as I could get.”
Remembering the surprise at the time of Taj’s decision, after an opinionated career being very vocal in his opposition to corporate bike companies, I ask Taj if he could see how some people regarded the move as hypocritical. “Of course, but honestly, worrying about what other people thought was half the reason I did it. I had to prove to myself that I could make this decision without worrying about what other people thought. Things had changed. I felt like I’d done my part for BMX. No one was going to buy a Giant BMX because I rode for them, and the bikes were actually quite good. They weren’t dangerous. I didn’t feel relevant anymore, I felt like an old guy doing his thing. I had back problems and I was close to retiring [as a professional rider]. What do you do if you’re a professional BMX rider at the end of his career? When I was younger I thought the cool thing to do is just quit. Move on and let the young kids come in, but I was still in love with bikes. In fact I was starting to really enjoy all kinds of bikes. I was expanding my mind I feel like… opening up to other ways to fulfil my life you know? What attracted me to Giant was they wanted me to go to the Tour De France, and go to some down hill races, and experience all these other forms of cycling.”
“Giant was as far from T1 as I could get”
“During my time at Giant, my back pain got severely worse. Nothing non-surgical worked so I went to see a surgeon, guess what? He recommended surgery. He waited till I was literally prepped up in a gown for surgery to tell me the success rate was only 70%. At that point I felt like I had no choice, I was in constant pain. The surgery did help stop the constant pain, but ever since the surgery, just bunny hopping up the curb has been really painful. No amount of rehab has ever helped. I’ve been to see ten different rehab specialists.
“The failed surgery forced my early retirement as a pro rider. I always pictured what I’d do when your career ends. I saw myself with some money saved, going to school and starting a new life. What happened was I got hurt, had a surgery and I woke up with a lady leaning over my bed with a clipboard saying, ‘do you have $50,000 to pay this bill sir?’ Shortly after the surgery I received a letter in the mail from some guy at Giant who I’d never met and couldn’t spell my name telling me I was fired. It was the faceless nightmare I always feared riding for large corporate brands would be. Suddenly I had no skills, no job and I thought I was going to lose my house. I was in a scary situation.
“I was told before the surgery that my insurance company would pay for it. But they pulled some sleazy shit there and told me I had to pay the hospital costs. Luckily the ARF foundation came to help me. The ARF’s insurance agent knew the right legal things to say to my insurance company and got the bill down to $20,000. That was in a realm where I could pull it off without losing my house. Even with the help of the ARF it was a low point.”
Wallride to Downside Whip, during filming for Etnies Forward, by Sandy Carson
As his old rival Dave Mirra was also retiring with enough money to never work again, Taj was filling out his first resume since he worked at a juice bar in ‘94. He went back to college to study woodwork with the thought of leaving BMX for good. But BMX wouldn’t let him go and was there for him when he needed it. His long-term sponsor Odyssey cleared a desk and created a job for him. At Odyssey, Taj now continues to follow his love of all bicycles through his new creation Fairdale Bikes, building bicycles that focus on the spirit of cycling. As ever Taj continues to give back to BMX. For the past two years, he has worked himself into the ground to host the Texas Toast contest, an event that aims to restore that energy he fell in love with at the early contests when he first left home. The corner of BMX that doesn’t believe in competition, is alive and well. Texas Toast is just one further example in a catalogue of acts of generosity in which Taj has given back to BMX. Our community has rarely seen anyone so unselfish. On that first evening by the camp fire, I asked Taj why he thought, he more than anyone, approached BMX with such moral integrity and unwillingness to exploit BMX for his own gains.
“BMX tucked me under its wing and taught me life, friendship, happiness, love… all of it”
“Early on I realised BMX had been awesome to me. It had gotten me out of bad stuff and lifted me up. I wanted to keep it as pure as I could. I couldn’t let anyone tell me how to do it, or even define it for me. It was one good thing in my life and I wasn’t going to fuck it up by doing something I didn’t believe in. So as much as I wanted to look after BMX, it also looked after me. We grew up together in a way. We both started in pretty small dark places (BMX in the late 80’s having crashed pretty severely) and in away I think we both matured together. BMX tucked me under its wing and taught me life, friendship, happiness, love… all of it.”
I left Taj to continue his and Monty’s trip into the wilderness. I bid him farewell and wished him the best of luck finding whatever he’s looking for. He now enters a new chapter of his adult life aside from BMX for the first time. I hope without him BMX can maintain the course he set for us. Such noble characters of unrivalled devotion and sacrifice are rare. If BMX was ever in need of a winner, surely Taj Mihelich would be he.
[Update – Taj continued his journey and eventually moved to Denver, Colorado where he continues to ride bikes and run Fairdale Bicycles]