Reflections on destiny, African tribal percussion, organised religion and steel guardrails with the idiosyncratic American.
Taylor, this may seem an odd way to start an interview, but you’re probably one of the few professional cyclists who wouldn’t blow a fuse if we started an interview with a simple, animal-based word association game. “Okay, let’s do it.”
It’s loosely based on a 90’s kids TV show from the UK called ‘Wonkey Donkey’. I say a word, you have to answer with another word, but it’s got to rhyme. Ready? First up: cat… “Hmm, I want to say ‘bat’. Does that count?”
Yes. Otter… “Mmm… squatter… is that a word? Someone who squats?”
Yes that works too. Lion… “Iron.”
Canary…“Binary. Kinda works.”
Bear…“Lair. As in, L-A-I-R.”
I’m not sure what the purpose of that was…“Yeah… icebreaker.”
Well, ice broken: you have a lot going on in your life besides cycling. So what is going on with you right now?
“I think I’m just generally interested. I’m driven a lot by curiosity and seeking inspiration, wherever that may come from. I’m never quite satisfied with the days, I always want to be experiencing something new, finding inspiration somewhere, a different nook, a different place to where I have before. I need that for me as an athlete, to be able to then go out and think about my body all the time. I need to flex my mind and flex my creative muscles at the same time. Right now, music is the most portable form of art I can have being on the road. I’ve kinda gotten into a groove with the piano. I’m listening to a lot of music and trying to make a lot of music, I think my most productive for creation is actually when I’m on an airplane.”
How does that work?
“Technology these days is amazing, so I play with everything on the Garage Band app on the iPad, to get into these grooves. They have a bunch of preloaded samples on the app, and I’ve imported some audio files into there, and you can create your own mini drum tracks, you can play a keyboard and create a melody just using, basically laying it out on a mini platform just like you would on a computer.”
Where do you get your samples from?
“For the wilder side of sampling that I’ve been playing around with, I have a setup in Europe with a record player that connects to my computer and I can record samples directly into my computer as audio files and share those across all platforms. When I was in Antwerp for the Classics I went to a record store and bought a bunch of funky records… one was a record from this African tribe, I think it’s from the 60s, and it explains how different African tribes…. when they would meet each other, they weren’t able to speak the same verbal language, they would communicate by way of percussion, so they recorded a bunch of their chants and songs. Those drum beats… if you take those drum beats and add a boom clap and a simple chord structure to those, you basically have like modern house music. Ultimately that’s the feeling that I really love, to be able to listen to something that I really like and then to make something and look back on it and be like, ‘oh that actually sounds a lot like one of my favourite artists.’”
Who are your favourite artists?
“Nicolas Jaar is probably my number one fave, he’s an electronic, ambient, experimental composer. I like computer music that’s not music that you would hear on the radio. There’s so much weird stuff you can do with synthesizers and tones and overtones, the amount of flexibility these waves have and how they interact with each other is beyond my comprehension, actually, so I love just diving into it and learning little by little, more and more. I love artists you have to listen to a couple of times, or a lot, to appreciate what they make. It’s not something you can listen to once and be like, ‘yeah this is fucking sick,’ you kinda have to be patient with them and respect them as an artist, just in the way you would have to be patient with a visual artist when you go to a museum. There’s something to be said for walking past a painting and being like, ‘I have no idea what is going on in there but I wanna just stop moving for a moment and stare at it until I can derive my own interpretation’.”
This seems like an interesting contrast to cycling, which is inherently transient. You don’t make anything permanent in cycling…
“And more and more so at this level. I think in general as an athlete you’re trained to move on to the next thing as soon as possible. You finish the Tour de France and people are already talking about the Tour de France the year after. We could definitely take a bit more time to sit back and reflect about what we all learned as a group throughout the races. But the bicycle itself is an amazing tool for self-discovery, self-realisation. Exploration, inspiration. It’s a beautiful moving meditation that allows you to grow and evolve. Racing is not really like that, but it is something that teaches you a ton about yourself, more so if you spend a lot of time off the back, which has been a lot of my career actually.”
“There’s a lot of evolution that we undergo as professional cyclists that is overlooked. Unless you’re winning, you don’t have this feedback, this product you’re making as an athlete. The product you’re making is your body and your mind but the state of your body and your mind changes so rapidly that you can’t just freeze frame that in time in the way that you can a piece of art. My mission now is, how do I take that artistic search for inspiration and really put it into racing and racing well, and being able to… I think the key is just staying really present with it all to be honest and not thinking about it too much.”
Do you see yourself as a bit of an outsider in this bubble of pro cycling?
“I became a stranger when we moved from Boulder, Colorado, to Italy and I went to middle school in Italy and I just had to learn Italian. If I’m anything, I’m an outsider who knows how to connect with people, which is probably one of my strongest attributes. It’s not even knowing how to connect but I have this desire to connect, I want to be everybody’s friend.”
How do you think other riders perceive you now?
“I have no idea to be honest with you.”
Are you bothered about finding out?
“Nah. I think it’s better, like… I mean I’m kind of a loner. At heart. I love spending extended periods of time alone. But I feel like while I am a loner I am also very empathetic and mirror a lot, if I spend too much time with people. I ever started to dig into trying to understand the way that I’m moving through my life, I feel like the best way to move through your life is to respect the opinions of those closest to you and trust that they will call you out if you are acting inappropriately.”
Do you care?
“Well obviously if you read something that’s really negative directed at you, you have an immediate response, no matter who you are. Unless you’re a very high vibration Indian meditation guru. I think most people in the Western world have an immediate response to negative feedback and that’s just programmed into you. Basically, I think it’s an evolutionary thing, wanting to be accepted and liked.”
“When I was younger and first stepping into a little bit of spotlight, I felt like I was really good at telling people what they wanted to hear which, when you really think about that sentence, doesn’t make any sense, because how do I know what people want to hear about me? Now that I’m a little bit older, I recognise that just by being myself I can also add positively to the image of the sport. You have so many different teams with all these different press releases and all these guys just, well, getting asked the same questions, but also giving the same answers. There is a level of authenticity that I want to address, that I think through making art you can recognise that I’m a weirdo and that’s totally cool, and that everybody else out there is also a weirdo, and everybody who doesn’t think that they’re weird is just lying to themselves. I think the world now just needs more people to be OK with being themselves.”
You have a certain media caricature now; this hungry cycling caterpillar who, after that serious crash in 2014 where you shattered your leg, went through a total metamorphosis into a colourful, kooky butterfly who reads Murakami and carries a yoga mat. What do you make of that? Do you think it’s fair?
“I’m definitely aware of that, and I agree with that. That’s definitely a little bit of the story that I like to share: you can think you know everything about yourself and then the universe intervenes and sets you on a parallel path. I think you’ve gotta be put wildly off balance in order to understand where balance actually is. I came into this sport and was just able to do everything that I wanted, and I was starting to create a pretty intense imbalance in my personal life with what I thought I was doing, how I felt about what I was doing, and what I was actually doing. There was a large subconscious feeling of dissatisfaction, I was accomplishing things and starting an upward trajectory towards being the rider that people had always told me I could be, and then in that transition phase, the universe intervened. I mean, if you want to get like kinda weird and spiritual on it…”
Yes, we do…
“…and a little bit scientific, the right side of the brain operates the left side of the body. The properties of the right side of the brain are largely your creative impulses whereas your left side is the more logical, rational, law abiding, driven side of the brain. I just absolutely destroyed the left side of my body. Through the recovery and rehabilitation of the left side of my body, and the creative side of my brain, I discovered this deep, infinite well of passion for art and music. This is just purely strange spiritual speculation, but I started to believe that I did this to myself because I wasn’t fulfilling an artistic need in my life. I was largely just, I don’t know, imbalanced. There were other factors involved, obviously, but it just happened that I ran into a guard rail [in the 2014 crash], and that’s what it took to bring this other side out of me, to bring my consciousness to be aware of the left side of my body that I had been neglecting my whole life.”
So up until that moment that you hit the rail, you weren’t aware of this deficiency?
“I just didn’t think I had time for anything else. That makes me laugh now because, you ride your bike for six hours but then you have at least eight hours of the day left for you to just fizzle away, and for most of that I was just watching Netflix. I love being entertained but something about this transition made me realise that just veg-ing out was not enough to satiate my creative expression and evolution.”
Has that transition now ended?
“Apple comes out with a new iPhone every year. They’re never really going through a transition phase, they’re always transitioning. I think I kind of realised that if anything the only constant is perpetual change, and there’s a way to embrace that within the structure of sport that is very traditional and likes to have things the same all the time.”
“If I learned anything from the experience it’s that I wasn’t taking care of myself before the accident. I feel so grateful and fortunate that it has corrected my brain, that I now understand that my physical body needs maintenance every day. Your body gets what it wants, eventually; there’s no mind over body when it comes to injury, there’s only mind respecting body and giving it what it wants before it needs it.”
“So… transition. I’m all about it. Always transitioning.”
Do you subscribe to the idea of destiny, that maybe your crash was meant to be?
“I do recognise… listen, I meditate twice a day every day, in the morning and afternoons, no matter whether I’m at a race, at home, hungover, jetlagged. I’m trying to tap into that layer of vibration and frequency… to stay as close as possible to the understanding that I’m just a passenger. When you’re up you’re up, and when you’re down you’re down, and when it’s time for you not to move, you don’t move.”
“Where you get in trouble is when you start to process things and you throw them in the laundry machine and they just go on cycle on repeat through your head. That’s how you lose it, that’s how you lose connection with what is actually happening around you. I don’t know if I would call it fate, but I definitely fully understand that there’s a certain level of me not having to do anything. Life happens, and it happens to you, and all you can do is experience it and try to allow it to bring the best out of you and hope that you grow with that and you grow at a rate that you feel comfortable with.”
Does religion play a role in that?
“Hmmm…. No. You know, that’s been a really interesting part of my life over the last year because Kasia was raised very religious [Phinney and Polish cyclist Kasia Niewiadoma began a relationship in 2016]. Like, very religious. Religious. I was raised atheist, basically. I was raised in the hippy capital of the West, to believe in science. I still believe in science. Do you know what Niewiadoma means? Niewiadoma means ‘unknown’. I recognise that there’s just shit that I don’t know. But I’m interested. I’ve been studying the history of religion, actually. I’m interested in how we have interpreted these very abstract emotions and feelings over the course of our history. But I don’t pray… to anything. If anything, I just allow myself time to let things go. That’s largely what I do in my meditation.”
What do you make of the old Taylor? Do you recognise him?
“Erm, I mean, he was really good at just blacking out. I mean, just doing it. Just doing things. He wasn’t good at understanding the direction that he was travelling, but he was good at travelling in that direction as fast as possible. There wasn’t a lot of intention. He’d do the racing and the training and it would feel like punishment because he didn’t have that understanding of what was laid out in front of him, it was hard to figure out if they were laid out be him or just by what he had been told that he could be. I mean, he was totally blind. But nice. A gentle soul.”
What would you tell yourself back then?
“I think I already did it. Believing in a higher stuff, and just intervention. I think I already sent some kind of message in a bottle which just came in the form of a pretty intense crash.”
That cold, hard guardrail…
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 19 where it was first printed.