In many shear- and pressure-driven wall-bounded turbulent flows secondary motions spontaneously develop and their interaction with the main flow alters the overall large-scale features and transfer properties. Taylor–Couette flow, the fluid motion developing in the gap between two concentric cylinders rotating at different angular velocities, is not an exception, and toroidal Taylor rolls have been observed from the early development of the flow up to the fully turbulent regime. In this manuscript we show that under the generic name of ‘Taylor rolls’ there is a wide variety of structures that differ in the vorticity distribution within the cores, the way they are driven and their effects on the mean flow. We relate the rolls at high Reynolds numbers not to centrifugal instabilities, but to a combination of shear and anti-cyclonic rotation, showing that they are preserved in the limit of vanishing curvature and can be better understood as a pinned cycle which shows similar characteristics as the self-sustained process of shear flows. By analysing the effect of the computational domain size, we show that this pinning is not a product of numerics, and that the position of the rolls is governed by a random process with the space and time variations depending on domain size.