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Taylor Lideen: Road to Redemption

A mental collapse rocked the 24 Hour racer in 2020; it's taken him nearly a year to plot his comeback.

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Taylor Lideen was on the brink. It was just after 9 a.m. on February 16, 2020, and Lideen had spent the past day and night riding the race of his life at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, the season kickoff for endurance racers and one of the biggest events in American mountain biking. He was tantalizingly close to achieving his goal and validating two years of work. The Phoenix, Arizona, native hadn’t just come to Tucson to win; he’d come to break his own record and ride what some considered to be impossible: 21 laps, for a total of 336 miles.

Lideen, then 29, had attacked the pack around midnight, building a gap on four-time 24-hour national champion Josh Tostado. By sunrise, Lideen’s lead grew to 25 minutes over Tostado and 15 minutes ahead of the pace he needed for 21 laps. He could have relaxed and played it safe. Instead, he uncorked a heater: his fastest lap in 14 hours, almost 10 minutes quicker than his prior one. When he came through the pits, his crew erupted like he’d won. Lideen pedaled out for his 19th lap and the coming coronation.

He’d been less vocal in the early morning hours, uncharacteristically, but no one thought much of it. Twelve miles into the 16-mile lap, Lideen called his wife, Mary, who was handling his support at the finish. She immediately sensed something was wrong. Lideen had stopped on course, disoriented. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten from one section to another. No one knew that Lideen had been staving off collapse for hours—that he “kinda felt … not there.” Up until that moment, on the outside at least, he’d looked invincible.

After sitting on the ground for 10 minutes, Lideen rose and pedaled the remaining four miles at a fraction of his race pace. His wrists had stiffened into two-by-fours, making it impossible to grip the bars. Kenny Wehn, who was supporting Lideen for Stan’s NoTubes, followed him in, reminding him to shift. Soon after Lideen sank into a chair at the finish, Tostado rode through and began his 20th lap, cementing victory. Everyone from Lideen to whispering bystanders wondered: What just happened?

Old Pueblo was Lideen’s Super Bowl. He first raced it as a teenager in 2010. The festival culture captivated him, and the course rewarded his strengths as an aerobically gifted sufferer with rare bike-handling skills. In 2016, after a stint chasing DH results, he set a goal of 20 laps. He achieved it in 2018, winning the solo category for the first time. The only problem? He was sure a tiny error had cost him a shot at 21 laps. The possibility haunted him until he entered again, in 2020.

Lideen trained for six months, driving 90 minutes each way to lap the course as often as he could. “I knew exactly, to the second, what my lap times needed to average to allow us to go out for a 21st lap,” he says. That built confidence, but it also invited obsession. “I had never been so deep in my own head about a goal before. It was just this thing that I couldn’t stop thinking about. But the problem was it’s all I was thinking about.”

Lideen didn’t tell Mary how fixated he’d become, a decision he later called “a big, big mistake.” They’d met in high school ceramics class and started dating soon after. She knew him better than anyone, which is to say, she knew about his mental struggles. He never used to talk about them; he’d just say he was having a down day. Then, as he and Mary started their life together, the problem got worse. Lideen estimates he’s had a half dozen major episodes over the years. “Where I’m in this head fog that’s so bad I don’t leave the house for a week or two, I can’t drive a vehicle, there’s no way I can exercise,” he says. “The only relief I get is when I fall asleep.”

I had never been so deep in my own head about a goal before. It was just this thing that I couldn't stop thinking about. But the problem was it’s all I was thinking about.

Going into Old Pueblo in 2020, Lideen felt stable. But he was vulnerable, too. For years people told him to focus on a discipline that paid better, that didn’t require so much for so little. But Lideen stuck with 24-hour racing, intent on winning a world championship (his best finish was second in 2018) and chasing possibility at his hometown race. Much of his inspiration, ironically, came from Tostado. As a high schooler in the late 2000s, Lideen used to stay up all night refreshing his browser to follow Tostado’s live timing at the 24 Hours of Moab, which Tostado won three times.

Eventually he sent Tostado an email, asking him how he went so fast for so long. Tostado’s response helped Lideen launch his career—and stirred his love of endurance events. When he learned Tostado had signed up for Old Pueblo, Lideen was at once thrilled and unnerved. “In my opinion, he’s probably the scariest person to race against,” says Lideen, who is 15 years Tostado’s junior. “Just because he never slows down. Specifically in 24s.”

That became a problem late in Old Pueblo. To understand the depth of Lideen’s meltdown, you must understand how perfectly positioned he was. Wehn, who manages athlete and media relations for Stan’s, watched Lideen’s 18th lap alongside three-time Olympian Todd Wells, astonished by how strong he appeared. “In our minds, the physical component was there,” Wehn says.

But Lideen was imploding inside. “I was convinced that Josh was hiding out in the bushes, and he was jumping out and pacing me,” Lideen says. “When it first started, I was able to talk myself out of it: ‘You’re so into getting 21 laps and breaking your record that you’re just playing tricks on yourself.’ But that soon faded away to, like, no, this is real.”

Lideen saw numerical lap times in his vision. When he called Mary to check in, his voice sounded foggy. “He wasn’t sharp with his words or connected,” she recalls. “He was asking questions about where Josh was or what his times were, how he was sitting. He was getting very desperate on the phone.”

When Mary reached her husband’s side after he’d stopped, the scene brought her to tears. “I felt that he had broken in front of my eyes,” she says. “His brain, his emotional character, everything. I just watched it fall through my fingertips. And I’m sitting there holding on.”

“It was one of the hardest things to watch in my 35-year career in cycling,” Wehn says. “There was nothing in him when you looked at him.”

A video released by Stan’s months later showed what happened but didn’t crystallize the cause. Lideen was both relieved and anguished by that. After stewing for so long, he realized he wanted two things: to go back to Old Pueblo and come clean about his collapse. So he signed up again and made plans to release another short film about the race, this time to include a transparent telling of his extensive struggles with mental health.

His brain, his emotional character, everything. I just watched it fall through my fingertips. And I'm sitting there holding on.

Some still consider Lideen’s failure a physical bonk, possibly brought on by the tactical error of riding such a fast 18th lap when he didn’t have to. Lideen rejects that notion. “I think anybody who races bikes knows what a bonk is,” he says. “I felt like I was walking a fine line of bonking right before the sun came up, but it definitely was not a physical bonk. If I could sum it up in its simplest form, it was an anxiety attack on a bike.”

He adds: “I would never be hurt or offended if somebody saw the race through their eyes and that’s how they perceived it happening [as a physical failure]. For me, honestly, it is more embarrassing because it was such a mental thing: Can’t you get your shit together, be more mature, and get over that mental hump? It’s easier said than done.”

As Lideen began training for redemption last fall, he plunged into “one of the darkest” depressive episodes he’d experienced. Afterward, he repeated his standard mantra to Mary, essentially hoping it never happened again. “Taylor,” she said, “you can’t just hope these things away. You need to have the right tools so that you work with it rather than fight against it.”

He started seeing his sports psychologist more often and spoke more openly with Mary. They developed a plan for how they would address any of the same problems that arose in 2020. Over time, the goal became less about riding 21 laps than managing the stress and anxiety. Then, two months before the race, it was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. Lideen, not wanting to lose his momentum, pivoted to a record attempt on the Arizona Trail 300—an FKT held by bikepacking superstar Kurt Refsnider, who rode it in 45 hours, 7 minutes in 2014.

The AZT 300 poses additional challenges, namely a more primitive course and 30,000 feet of climbing between Parker Canyon Lake and Picketpost. Also: no outside support. No film crew. No Mary. Just Lideen and his GoPro, on a heavily loaded Pivot Mach 4 SL. He is aiming to start around February 23.

Whereas Lideen has spent much of his career worrying that people will write him off if he doesn’t meet his goals, he’s keeping his expectations qualitative instead of quantitative this time. If he can find his way into desolate, haunting situations like those that crippled him in 2020, and then find a way out—or at least a way to continue without crumbling—he will consider his attempt a success, he says. “The record or time wouldn’t matter to me.”

Photos: Lear Miller