Taj Mihelich. For some of you out there this man needs no introduction. Maybe you already know him from his BMX history. If not, put the kettle on and click play.
For others, maybe you know him as Pinkbike's cartoonist
, always looking at our mountain bike obsessed world with a humorous tint to his glasses. Part of me thinks we should actually make a comic book from all the work he has graced us with every Sunday. Remember those things? You can't pinch to zoom on a piece of paper. He also just finished doing animation for a TV series based on Anthill Films' Return to Earth
movie that debuts on Outside TV next week.
Perhaps you even know about Taj through Fairdale, the American bike brand that came about originally as part of a blog for his long time sponsor, BMX brand Odyssey. Not many bike brands can site their origins in cartoons. His story of cycling over the Alps
, from Geneva to Strasbourg is a brilliant read for anyone thinking that you can't bikepack in a set of Vans. He and his friend, Chris Cotsonas of Fairdale, finished their trip at the Vans BMX Pro Cup event in Stuttgart, where Taj's cartoons were used around the whole event.
However you know him, or perhaps if you're learning about Taj for the first time, his recent bike build sparked our interest and what ensued was an undiluted look into the mind of an incredible rider approaching this world of mountain bikes from a different perspective.
This is a closer look at Taj Mihelich's Chromag Stylus.
Height: 6’1" / 185cm
Weight: 249 lb / 113kg
Hometown: Houghton, Michigan
Model: Chromag Stylus
Frame Size: M/L
Wheel Size: 27.5"
Suspension: Rock Shox Yari 150mm
Drivetrain & Brakes: SRAM 11-speed, Code brakes
Wheels & Rubber: Spank hubs & rims, Maxxis tires
Maybe we could start on the history of your MTBs and how they failed/succeeded and ultimately helped you find what you wanted for this bike.
I tried MTBs a few times before I moved to Houghton, but mostly with comic results.
The BlkMrkt team came to my old ramp in Austin. They convinced me to try one of their bikes. First time ever on an MTB. I pumped one of the bowl corners, jumped the box and the fork broke. Like the actual front wheel came off the bike and I got body slammed.
Later, I did a small stint riding for Giant. They took me to Whistler for my first ever MTB ride on trails. It was amazing, but, first round down the hill and my fork broke. This time the legs extended out full length, but luckily not off the bike. I didn’t know better and kept riding it for a while until a mechanic saw it.
Giant sent me to a contest at Rays MTB to ride dirt jump MTBs. You guessed it, first hard pump up a ramp and the fork broke. The legs shot out again and luckily not off the bike but this time would not go back in, just stayed extended. I think Adam Hauck had some extra fork for me to use.
Anyway, that started me off on a lifetime of fork failures and didn’t exactly hook me on MTB riding. I think it has something to do with how you generate speed on a BMX through pumping super hard. Forcing a suspension fork to deal with that is asking a lot. Oh yeah, Fox are sending me a 38. Lots of knobs to figure out but hopefully finally tough enough!
As far as MTB goes, I didn’t give it a serious go until after my back surgery. I originally thought of it as exercise. Like road biking but away from cars in the woods. I really resigned myself to not being too moved by it but at least it was on a bike if I could no longer ride BMX. However, riding down hills is fun of course. And so is going uphill in its own way.
At some point I started to figure out that suspension could be a help rather than a hinderance. When I realized that I could corner with this seemingly unreal amount of grip I really started to get it. This was something an MTB could do better than a BMX and an experience I’d never felt before. I get the tires to grip by really forcing the bike down into corners. It feels like a reverse bunny hop into a corner. To BMXers I describe it as trying to wall ride on the side of a parking block. You have to really jam your tires into it to make them stick, but if it works the tires hook up, you get a pump and come out of the corner a lot faster than you went into it.
More and more I started enjoying going faster and faster and learning the capabilities of the bikes. My back injury has finally healed up enough that I can make it through the mellow dirt jump line too! In recent years I have come to really love mountain bikes. Different than BMX, in that I don’t ride around looking for ways to be creative on my bike, but still really fulfilling and fun.
You‘ve mentioned that the full sus bikes you had left you feeling bored. Where do you think that comes from?
Full sus feels a bit boring to me because I feel less involved with the ride. I mean, I spent pretty much 30 years of my life developing bike handling skills on BMX. For 15 of those years it was my actual job, just ride all day and try to get better.
When I get on a big travel 29er bike I feel like I just hang those skills up and become a passenger on the bike. I suppose I could ride absurdly fast to challenge myself more, but then I feel like I need more pads and bigger helmets and stuff. And a crash at that speed is the end of the season for sure.
Let’s face it, I’m 46 and have gotten kind of fat, but what I seem to enjoy most is scratching the itch to tap into riding skills not necessarily setting record times or pushing things to the limit. On a hardtail I feel like the ride is a lot more alive. I don't get sore or achy or anything from riding a hardtail.
You’ve mentioned before about how hard you are on parts. And flexing a Yari around speaks volumes about that! Bending MTB cranks too! Was that also part of the reason for a hardtail, something more robust?
I bounce back and forth on bikes a bit. Full sus makes sense in my head but just doesn’t seem to capture my heart. I do have some pretty gnarly trails to ride. Some of the Copper Harbor downhill stuff, right up the road from me, can get kind of hairy. But it’s still rideable on a hardtail and, aside from a few parts where I start bouncing around so much I can’t really see, I can mostly keep up with my friends there.
Out my back door are the Michigan Tech University trails. On a daily ride I hit up the dirt jump section for a while, then a fast and flowy downhill section with corners like a pump track, a few nice climbs and some more XC-ish stuff. I, like everyone, want a bike that can do it all since I ride all that in a single ride. I guess I’m not willing to compromise the bike’s performance on the fun stuff, though. I do, and maybe this is backwards, kind of want a full sus bike for XC rides. I like the idea of just planting my butt on the seat and zoning out on longer rides without having to get out of the saddle for every root and rock in the trail.
What pointed your direction towards the Chromag Stylus?
I had a few people suggest getting a Stylus and then while I was with the Pinkbike Field Test in Whistler
I saw someone with one next to me in the lift line. I was on some $6,500 brand new Field Test bike and I was jealous of the guy with the hardtail.
I hit up Chromag to see if I could land a [washed up old] pro deal and they suggested a trade: one of my signature bikes
that they would add to their lunch bike cruiser fleet and I would get the Stylus.
I spoke with Ian, the owner of Chromag, and he said that at 6'1 I'd probably be on a large sized frame but I could get away with a M/L. A smaller bike I can whip around always feels good to me. It is a little cramped when I'm sitting down pedalling, but jumping and descending I'm grateful for the extra agility. He also said that if I was worried about the slack steering angle (my BMX bikes had a 75º steering angle) I might, though it would be a bit unusual, try an angle set headset to steepen it a bit.
My bike has a prototype Wolftooth angle set headset that they gave me. It came with two top cups, one flush and another sits up higher. I put the taller one on because someone told me I might want a few spacers on the Stylus. The bike is almost too stable, but when you start going fast it really comes alive. One of the coolest feelings on this bike is in bermed corners…it has this amazing way of tracking when you really lean it over. It feels so much like a rad curved wallride I tried to film it for this bike check with my GoPro but sadly the footage appears to be of some fat old guy dawdling through the woods!
Tokens All of them
Compression A few clicks up from "-"
Rebound Don't fiddle with the knobs you know nothing about!
What’s your fork setup?
I know I have all the tokens, I have absolutely no idea on the rest. I specifically bought the Yari because it has the least number of knobs and dials on it. Pressure is 120psi. I have the compression set a few clicks up from "-".
You'll probably think I'm joking but I've never touched the rebound knob. I broke a few forks messing with the knobs, turning the lock on either thinking the bike felt better or by accident, so I try not to touch those! I promise to take the time to learn it all when the 38 fork shows up.
What about the drivetrain? There are some interesting parts on there that we don’t see so much of in MTB.
The Profile Elite cranks are pretty special. Just really pretty craftsmanship. I used to get flow from Profile back before I started to ride for Odyssey. None of the Odyssey cranks fit a 73mm bottom bracket so I was lucky to still have friends at Profile. I had to grind the ends of the spider arms down to make a 32t chainwheel fit, but just a tiny bit.
The Ti spindle was a bit scary because Ti spindles used to be so sketchy in BMX. But it’s 22mm and I think this feels much less mushy then what I had ridden before. I thought the stainless chainring was an over the top addition to a crank set that is chrome with Ti and silver aluminium BB. All the metal!
I guess the 11-speed stuff has worked well for me and I keep replacing cassettes and chains and derailleurs piece by piece when they wear out. One of these days everything will wear out at once and I'll finally get a 12-speed setup, but I've never felt like I was missing gears.
Which brakes are you running?
I upgraded to SRAM Codes this season because Mike Kazimer is always talking about them and they're the first brakes I'm learning to use with one finger as they are trustworthy. Hard to break the two finger BMX braking habits.
Note for BMXers: If you are a BMXer of a certain age, from back when there were brakes on a BMX, I’d recommend SRAM brakes. They seem to have more modulation than other brakes I’ve tried. If, like me, you might tend to lean on your brakes with a feather now and again while manualling that extra brake feel is good.
What about the cockpit and touch points? Do some of those parts come across from the BMX roots?
Chromag also sent me bars and stem. I asked them for whatever was stiffest. 35mm diameter arrived. Good and safe feeling. I hate when I can grab the bars and flex them in my hands while standing still. Carbon bars are terrifying to me for this. I cut my bars down, possibly a bit too much. I don't suggest deciding where to cut your bars after spending an entire winter on a road bike on Zwift. Probably should have spent some time riding the bike outside first.
TMAC pedals are absurdly expensive but I really like them. I don’t think I would have liked them on BMX, but they work great for MTB.
Dropper is a One-Up at 205mm drop. It looks kind of silly at full mast but I love that I can slam it to the frame when I'm on the jumps.
I have big hands and I like to be able to move my hand position on the bars so I try to find wide grips. These ODI ones are a little wider than most I could find.
Oh yeah, I twist my grips a lot to make the bike do what I want it to. I used to constantly tear my grips off my BMX bikes. Lock-on grips are a saviour for me on big bikes. I like that these have locks on both sides of the grips. Some of the grips that only have locks on one side slip when I ride them.
Spank also got me the Oozy saddle. Seems good and comfortable to me.
Being so tough on components, which wheels did you go for?
Spank hooked me up with rims and hubs which I laced myself. I asked them for whatever was stiffest and they sent Race 33 rims and Hex Drive hubs. In my BMX days I used to tension my spokes before every good ramp session. They just couldn't be tight enough and I could feel them starting to mush out when I pumped hard.
When I read about wheels with "compliance" I don't really understand it. I have problems flexing the rims into the rear triangle or forks when cornering on most all bikes. I'm searching for stiffness so I don't have to tame down my riding for fear of flexing the wheel into the frame so bad it is like hitting the brakes. The new Hex Drive hub has a good freewheel buzz... loud but not obnoxious.
Tires seem to have been a tricky story for you, trying to find the right ones and the right setup?
I have a Minion DHF front 2.5WT tyre (25-30psi) and an Aggressor 2.3 rear (32-35psi). Both with the thick casings and tubeless. My local bike shop, Rhythm, was brave enough to let me set them up myself! I managed it without a huge mess like normal.
I got a lot of "good" tire advice via my Instagram and I think because I’m so hard on everything I ended up with thick casings, but they feel really dead and slow to me. I’ve been noticing that I keep adding more and more pressure to try and speed them up. I know I’ve got them much too high by most people’s standards and I think once I get back to normal sidewall tires that will go down a bit.
Pressure changes with what I'm riding too. These are home trail pressure which are pretty smooth and corners are bermed, so grip is less important. When I go up to Copper Harbor, which is much more legit downhill with rocks and rougher corners, I have to bring the pressure down to get grip. This isn't too weird for me as you do the same in BMX, except it was 110 psi on ramps and 80 on dirt!
Whenever I dip below 30psi in the rear I rip the tires off the rim or feel it rolling over in corners. To be honest, I probably should be looking to pump track racers for bike set ups because that is how I enjoy riding corners, even though I ride the same bike for everything else.
The tire story seems to not have a solution yet. What other options have you been looking at to have good support but less of the wooden feeling? Have you dabbled with tire inserts?
Never messed with inserts. I feel like with how much pressure I run they wouldn’t do much. I think it is just the sidewall mostly. Though that Aggressor tire in that 2.3" width is much too squared off to be a good cornering tire on my bike set up. Maybe back tire cornering isn't a big deal for a lot of people? I want the knobs to wrap further around the sidewall. There’s this knife edge feeling you get on a lot of tires where you’re on the corner knobs and then roll off them on to the sidewall and the grip just vanishes. There is a covid shipping delay but the local shop ordered in some 2.4/2.5" rear tires for me to try (DHR II and a High Roller with Exo casing). There is about nine more parts to the tire name but I’d have to look it all up… I think it is just the casing that bugs me. Odd that the entire bike needs to be stiff but I want the tires to be more compliant?
A big thank you to Taj for his incredibly interesting words about his Chromag, setup and history. Look out for more of Taj's cartoons and animations on Pinkbike in the coming year.