From his humble beginnings in Ann Arbor, Mich., to his current legendary status, Taj Mihelich has become a name that is etched in the minds of almost anyone who rides BMX. An attempt at reducing the time Taj has spent on a bike to a brief tick list would be a horrible disservice, but for the sake of our readers who are just finding their hands on a pair of handlebars, a few ways Taj has left his mark on BMX include: second place in dirt at the first Extreme Games in 1995, a signature frame while riding for Hoffman Bikes, an esteemed member of the first Props Road Fools video, designer of several pro model shoes with Etnies, co-founder of Terrible One, pro rider for Giant, and now a position at Odyssey. The storied path Taj has forged during these past 15-plus years as a professional bike rider has had its fair share of twists and turns, with a few bumps in the road. In the process and in the trenches, Taj has always brought more to the table than just bike-riding prowess; he has been a driving force that helped shape modern-day BMX. These years of experience bring a hard-won but valuable perspective, along with arguably the best downside tailwhip in the business. Recently, we were able to track down Taj, and gather a few of his thoughts regarding bikes, his back and his new job.
ESPN.com: Taj, you had back surgery awhile back. How's that coming along?
Taj: I had surgery in July of '09 and I've been recovering since then. Healing has been going OK, but somewhere around four months after surgery, I started realizing I had a super sharp pain anytime I tried to bunnyhop or pump. I've been doing rehab for about five months now and I'm getting stronger and healthier all the time. However, the sharp pain hasn't let up at all. It's pretty much made it impossible for me to ride outside of just cruising around. Doc doesn't really know what's going on, but it's likely to require another surgery to correct. At the moment he's having me just take it easy for another five months!
What have you been up to lately? I hear you have been working at Odyssey?
Lucky for me, Odyssey opened a design studio here in Austin. They invited me to work with them. It's been really cool. I'm still sort of figuring out exactly what I'm doing there, but it's been awesome. It's a company I already supported as a rider and I really get along with the people there, the ideals, and I honestly support the products. It's great to get to work on something you believe in.
That sounds like a good match. Are you working more on the artistic side of things or product design?
I'm doing a bit of both, and with something like Odyssey, they are usually intertwined. I've gotten to help Jim Bauer with some of the graphic/color things and I've got to at least look over the shoulders of the product designers and throw out suggestions. It's cool here in that way; everyone's a bit involved with everything. They'd also like me to help organize some events too. I'm looking forward to that: just putting on some fun get-togethers for us all.
Any other projects you've been working on?
I've been taking some woodworking classes. That's mostly just for fun, a hobby for me. Learning things I can apply to art projects or working on my house. I really enjoy it.
Within the past few years, you decided to step aside as part owner of Terrible One, and eventually found a spot riding for Giant. Was that a huge change of pace?
Huge change of pace! I felt chronically underwater at T-1. So busy and seemed like I could hardly ever get my head clear of it or get anything done. Riding for Giant was no stress and no responsibilities. I just got to be a pro BMXer for a while, which means being a bike bum. Just ride and don't worry about anything else.
Did it come as a surprise when Giant let you go from their team a couple months ago?
Yes and no. I had some warning that it was coming, but I also had some reassurance from them that I was going to stay on the team since the entire purpose of having me on the team was to not be just a BMX rider. The original concept for me riding for them had more to do with promoting their bikes in general rather than just BMX. That was kind of what I found interesting about the offer. It's not like I was going to race the Tour de France, but I was into going over there and maybe riding part of the course and writing for them about watching the race. Same with MTB stuff. I'm just into bikes and I thought it would be cool thing to do in my older years as a BMX pro. Get out and see the rest of the bike world. It kind of never materialized sadly. I kind of like the way they are handling their BMX program now. It's just a small little division that is sort of doing its own thing.
Do you think either the economy or your injured status was a factor in this decision?
It's the same old same old for those big companies. The budget got tight, something has to get cut, and BMX is always the low man on the pole. Giant has a great history of supporting their riders who have gotten injured, so it wasn't that.
Are chronic injuries from a riding a BMX bike something you feel is unavoidable? Do you think today's lighter bikes help mitigate this at all?
I don't think bike weight is a part of the issue. If anything, riders seem to be going bigger and bigger than before. The higher you go, the greater the chance is of something catastrophic happening. There's no way around it. One issue is that for some reason, in the mid-'90s, we all stopped wearing full-face helmets. I can certainly take some blame for that as I ditched my helmet for no good reason. Also, just the natural progression of pushing the limits I guess. More riders are doing that and we're all figuring out ways to go higher.
In the past few years we've unfortunately seen some riders sustain some pretty serious injuries. Do you think sponsors should feel an obligation to stand behind an athlete when they are injured?
It would be really lame for a sponsor to not stand behind their rider if that kind of thing happened. I'm glad to see BMX looking out for its riders in that way. I really feel like that our community does care about each other when it comes to that kind of thing.
It's the same old same old for those big companies. The budget got tight, something has to get cut, and BMX is always the low man on the pole.
It almost seems like there is a pattern with some bigger bicycle companies, where they try their hand at the BMX niche for a few years, decide there isn't enough money in it, and move on. Understanding that you've seen both sides, in your opinion does a "rider-owned" business have different expectations both from a business model standpoint and as a sponsor?
I know what you mean. I've seen that happen countless times with countless companies through the years. I'm not really sure why it happens. Do big bike companies really think BMX is bigger than it is? I think that maybe they see that BMX is popular and they think that if they had some BMX pros it would be some good promotion for their bikes. You know, that kind of thought process where if we had some guy doing flips in our catalogs, it would look really good to someone who's shopping for a mountain bike. Anyway, so the company gets some BMX riders, makes some bikes and then sales are below even their least expectations. Partially because BMX is way smaller than other forms of cycling, but also because the big companies have a hard time getting a handle on our market or being accepted.
With the proliferation of free outdoor skateparks and major events, do you think some of the DIY ethic within BMX has eroded?
I don't know. It's still there, it's just maybe not as popular. Trails still exist and backyard ramps are still around. There are some kids putting on events here and there too, but I wish there was more. I've never much liked cement parks and I really miss privately run wood parks.
I know it's a horribly broad question, but how does BMX compare today to ... let's say ... when you were 15 years old?
When I was 15, no one seemed to have ever heard of it. I would jump in any car that would drive the six hours to the nearest skatepark with a box jump and was breaking frames and parts constantly. Now I live in Austin, where it's not unusual to run into two full BMX teams filming at different places through town. It's an easy pedal to amazing spots to ride and I haven't broken a part in years.
On a different note, did it go to Roscoe's head when he had a pro-model shoe on Etnies? [Editor's note: Roscoe is Mihelich's dog.]
Nah, Roscoe's a chill dude. He's a bit fatter and his mane is a bit longer, but mostly he still just wants to hang out with people and play ball.
To keep up with Taj, check his Fairdale blog on the Odyssey BMX site.