Taylor "TJ" Eisenhart's skills on the bike are well known. The Utah native has been racing with USA Cycling's development and national teams since adolescence, most recently plying his game on the US and international circuits with Pro Continental team Holowesko-Citadel.
USA junior rider Eisenhart wins Tour du Pays de Vaud
But there's another, lesser-known aspect of Eisenhart's talent that he's been nurturing for just as long, if not longer, and which is now providing balance to the sometimes hectic, singularly focused life of a professional athlete.
"My mom, she always knew that spark was there," Eisenhart said about the early embers of a painting career that has begun to pick up speed as of late.
"She always had a sketchbook in my hand since the early stages I can barely remember. I was always in church just sitting there, and she'd hand me a sketchbook just to keep me quiet. Eventually she saw I had talent, and she started signing me up for art classes."
When he's not on the bike in a race or on a training ride, Eisenhart is applying paint to canvas in a studio behind his Utah home, successfully marketing his work and getting commissions for specific projects picked out by the patron. What started as a simple astronaut painting for his nephew's bedroom as a favour for his sister, has turned into a full-fledged living and an outlet that provides balance to his life.
"One of my favourite artists does these astronauts, and I started looking at his style and everything, and I was like, 'OK, that looks similar'," Eisenhart said of his first 'commissioned' work for his family. "So I did a very similar thing and it just exploded. Everyone was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's amazing. I want to buy one.' I'd tell them I was sorry, but that's for my nephew."
Eisenhart started getting more and more commissions as word spread and he began promoting his work on Twitter. As the momentum began to build, he decided to keep pushing it.
"Instead of being that starving artist, where people think you just need to be inspired, I was that thriving artist, where I wanted to keep pushing myself and have others push me as well," he said. "People would say, 'Hey, can you paint his for me?' And I'd say, 'Yeah, absolutely.' It's like a coach pushing you during intervals."
When Cyclingnews spoke with Eisenhart at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah in August, he said he'd sold somewhere between 20 to 30 paintings so far this year. His largest-ever piece, which he finished before the Amgen Tour of California, went for "around" $8,000, he said.
"Everything is around that price range. Everyone kind of jokes with me about being an artist, but I'm like, 'No, I'm making a living at it.' I eventually built a studio and everything else so I was able to express myself."
TJ Eisenhart stands with a portrait he painted of cycling legend Eddy Merckx
Seeking balance in a single-minded world
After shining on the bike throughout his junior years, an 18-year-old Eisenhart landed a spot on the BMC Racing Development team that raced in Europe and around the world, but rarely in the US. The team was a feeder program for BMC's WorldTour team, and an ambitious Eisenhart assumed the role of consummate professional, too, always carrying himself as expected and pinning a laser-like focus on his trade.
Eisenhart competed with the BMC World Tour team as a stagiaire briefly at the end of 2016, then signed with US Continental team Holowesko-Citadel in 2017.
When he returned to the US domestic circuit that first season with Holowesko, there was an almost immediate change in the way Eisenhart carried himself and spoke. The straight-laced Utah kid let his hair grow out, adopted a large turquoise necklace as his signature affect and sounded more like a surfing California golden boy than the locked-down aspiring pro. It was a change that had been a longtime coming and something that could only happen once he embraced his inner artist and got back to his roots.
"When I signed with BMC devo when I was 18, it was like I turned on that lame cyclist mode where the only thing that matters in life is cycling," he said. "I started reading cycling, watching cycling. My whole life was cycling, and it eventually became the death of me.
"I called my mom, and I was just like, 'Hey, I feel like I'm just getting so stupid.' So I told her I wanted to go to school. I went back to Dixie University [in Saint George, Utah - ed.] and I just wanted to restart."
Eisenhart already had extensive formal training in different forms of art. He had taken every kind of art class, from cartooning to working with an airbrush and liquid lead.
"I was so upset when she signed me up for that because it was three hours every Monday, and it was very intense," he said. "You know airbrush takes a ton of patience and a lot of delicate skill, so I did that for 10 years and really defined and developed that skill into something special."
Now that he had returned to an academic environment at Dixie, Eisenhart went back to the basics with his art, enrolling in a class that took him all the way back to sketching with a pencil. The class moved into charcoal and started using live models, and Eisenhart had an epiphany about what draws out his creativity.
"One of my favourite things about it was at the end of class when everyone would turn around their piece," he said. "You get to see everyone's perspective of the object or person we were painting or drawing. What was always so special to me, or what clicked fast, was that it's looking into someone's mind to see how they see or perceive the world.
"So, to me, that was always a special moment, and I always really appreciated that. I was kind of going through some emotional stuff at that time, and I was learning how to deal with it and I was struggling. My art teacher really kind of helped me push through it with my art and really become an artist.
"When you're able to express your emotions through art is when you really kind of hit something. It's not when you learn how to draw something well. Anybody can draw something well. Anybody can draw a car or whatever. Art is when you can express yourself and how you perceive this world."
TJ Eisenhart created this portrait of team owner George HIncapie.
Finding his muse
The artist inside him inspired by the outlet that painting provided, Eisenhart set out to hone his craft, turning first to the "messy, emotional" charcoal that really allowed him to express himself. He moved to oil painting next and began studying pop artists.
"I did a sort of like Andy Warhol series where I picked some of my favourite icons. I did Keith Richards, Walt Disney, and I just kind of started studying that style, where it was more pop art," he said. "I would use brighter colours and draw these icons in a more simplistic form and just allow the person's mind to kind of pop."
Another revelation came when Eisenhart painted a Picasso-style self-portrait using primary colours and abstraction.
"That was also the first time I ever have really like looked at myself," Eisenhart said. "So that was kind of another way of me seeing who I was and feeling comfortable with myself, because any time you're able to paint yourself or draw yourself as a portrait, it's very humbling and a very sacred moment."
Now 24 years old and heading into his third season with Holwoesko, which will race under title sponsors Arapahoe Resources and BMC bicycles next year, Eisenhart seems to have found his groove and is no longer feeling crushed under the pressure of what can be the unbalanced life of a laser-focused pro.
He married his longtime girlfriend earlier this month, and the commissions keep coming in. He appears to be cruising along well now, soaking it all in and finding a personal outlet that others will pay to appreciate. There's nothing "lame" about that.
"Everything just balances out," Eisenhart said. "Money is money. It comes and it comes, but you need that balance. This has been great."