Brancale Stories: Roy Knickman June 09 2016

Former professional cyclist Roy Knickman shares some stories with Brancale. These include his time on the legendary La Vie Claire and 7-11 teams, his long breakaway in the 1988 Paris-Roubaix and his bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics as a young 19-year old…

Photo: Graham Watson

Roy Knickman was known for having the strength of four men when he was riding tempo on the front of the peloton to control a race. Early in his career he was hailed as “the next LeMond” but Knickman preferred the role of super-domestique and sacrificing himself for his teammates. Even with all this sacrifice, he still won a number of very significant races himself.

What was it like riding on the legendary La Vie Claire team in Europe in the 1980s beside LeMond and Hinault?

Roy Knickman: “It was pretty overwhelming coming into the number one team in the world with Bernard Hinault, a five-time Tour de France winner, and Greg LeMond, the best American rider of the era. But everything in my life at the time was a whirlwind and I didn’t expect any of it. I didn’t expect to make the Olympic team in 1984 as a 19-year old and I didn’t expect two years later to join the best cycling team in the world. I remember showing up at my first winter camp to go skiing in the Alps with Hinault. All I could think was ‘holy crap! This is crazy!’ 

It was a very European experience. I would go for month long stretches without interacting with a single English speaker. It was a lot for a 20-year old kid. But it was also a huge opportunity and a great experience with many great moments. This was before cycling was ‘work’ for me, rather, it was still a crazy life experience. Later, after 3-4 years it would become ‘work’ for me.

Overall, it was a mix of the traditional and new approach to cycling. Hinault was very much a traditionalist. For example, he washed his own jersey in the sink after each stage of the Tour de France. LeMond, on the other hand, was more from the new school of cycling.

Hinault was very firm as a leader but he was also very giving as a leader. This was evident from his generosity with prize money. All of the prize money went into a communal pot and you got a share at the end of the season based on the number of race days you completed. Everyone got a share, including me. And Hinault never took his share from the pot because he was the leader. His gift to the team was to put his share back into the pot. 

Hinault also would ride as a domestique in other races during the season for his teammates. He knew that they would give him 110% during the Tour de France when he needed them so during other parts of the season he would sacrifice for them. He set a good example as a leader.”

 

You later were on the 7-11 team, what was that like?

“Well, psychologically it was easier than the European school of cycling. It was like coming home. On the 7-11 team, you had a group of guys who spoke English. I was isolated as an English speaker on my French La Vie Claire team. But with 7-11, there was small talk at the dinner table and shared cultural references. I was also able to do a little US racing which was fun too. 

Overall, it was easier. The 7-11 model was one where you could have longevity in the sport because you weren’t hating it every day. Management’s goal was to get performance from team members by making the riders more comfortable. It was not about breaking the riders down as it was with the European model, but rather making them comfortable and able to perform their best.”

Can you tell us a little about your early years of racing?

“I began racing in California. My introduction to racing outside of California was a crazy six-week road trip that I took when I was 16 years old. First, we went to SuperWeek in Wisconsin, driving all the way from California. During the trip to Wisconsin, the clutch on my dad’s van broke and we spent the whole time there having to push the van to get it rolling before getting it into gear!

In the first race at SuperWeek, I got dropped but then was able to recover and catch back on. In catching back on, I had momentum and just kept going and somehow won the race. It was my first win of the year and even better, it was against the junior national team members who were also in the race. From Wisconsin, I went on to something called Sports Festival and then later on to road and track nationals.

I then linked up with the Raleigh team and got to ride along in their team van, going to races. It was so cool. I ended the trip by taking a Greyhound bus from Lima, Ohio back to Ventura, California. I had some fat, sweaty dude sitting next to me for three days on the way back home. By the end of the trip, I had raced a giant loop around the country, all as a 16 year-old.

It was this first road trip and my early years as an amateur where I have my most memorable moments and experiences. That first road trip is still by far my most memorable trip. Whether it was traveling across the country by van, staying in host housing, the people we met along the way…those were the days. I try to recreate this with the junior team I am coaching now. I try to instill in them to just enjoy the experience. After all, when you’re 50 years old, who will care what bike races you may have won?” 

What were some of your favorite races?

“I liked the smaller stage races like the Tour of Switzerland. I lived in Switzerland so it was sort of a hometown race for me. For me, the grand tours weren’t any fun. They were pressure cookers, the stakes were so high. Every minute of every day was so nervous, with constant positioning among riders in the peloton and crashes. It’s safe to say the Tour de France was my least favorite race, it was too intense.”

 

What was your best day on the bike?

“My best days on the bike were those where I was able to dig deep and deliver for the team. A good example is the team time trial at the 1984 Olympics. Believe me, it wasn’t because it felt easy. During the Olympic team time trial, the team was in crisis because we lost our core guy due to dehydration. I was five years younger than most of the guys on the team and I was going as hard as I could every pull. Towards the end, there were only two of us who could pull through for the last 10 kilometers. It was the moment where I had to dig the deepest. I was riding with guys I worshipped: Davis Phinney, Ron Kiefel and Andy Weaver. Here I was, the 19-year old kid who came through and helped the team to a bronze medal. I was able to deliver for the team and for these heroes of mine. It was truly a moment of accomplishment for me.

I also had other days on the bike where it went well for me personally. In 1987 I won a stage of the Criterium du Dauphine after a long breakaway. That same year I won a stage of the Tour of Switzerland. Those were big days for me.

But there were also days that were equally satisfying when there was not any significant personal result. Days when I was setting tempo at the front of the peloton to defend a leader’s jersey. I wasn’t a good climber, but if I was able to drive the train for a 20km climb and whittle the field down to just 40 guys for my team leader, it meant I was doing something that was hard for me but I was doing my job well. It wasn’t about the personal result but rather that I was able to deliver for the team.”

What was your worst day on the bike?

“My worst day on the bike was at Paris-Roubaix in 1987. That day, my job was to help my teammate Steve Bauer. It was one of those days with very heavy crosswinds. Early on, the field split up into several echelons. It was like those famous photographs you see where there is an echelon of 15 guys across the road with the last guy at the edge of the gutter, then another echelon of 15 guys and the gutter and several more like that. The field was split into several echelons like this that day. Bauer and I were three echelons back from the leaders. My job was to get Bauer back in the front so I drove at the front of our echelon as hard as I could to get Bauer back to the group in front of us. For half an hour I pushed myself as hard as I had during the ’84 Olympic team time trial to reform the group. I was able to get Bauer up to the second echelon but then I imploded. Afterwards, I couldn’t find any group I could keep up with. By the first feed zone 100km into the race, I couldn’t even ride with the last group.

Afterwards, I was pretty hard on myself, thinking ‘I am a bad bike racer.’ After the race I thought I might even quit the sport. For me the worst part was the psychological aspect of not being able to do the job to support the team. But I was being too hard on myself: it was because I had over-trained that season, I had lost too much weight. Ironically, afterwards I was the only guy who got kudos later during the team meeting after the race. Our director Paul Koechli said, ‘the only guy who did anything today was Roy who was pedaling with only one leg!’”

The following year in 1988, you were in one of the longest breakaways in Paris-Roubaix history, what can you tell us about that?

“My role that day was to help my teammates Bob Roll and Dag-Otto Lauritzen. I was young at only 22 years old but it was a day where I had good form, I was strong. I was riding at the front to help my teammates. I was simply covering the early move and ended up in the breakaway of thirteen riders. I wasn’t riding for me, I was riding for Bob and Dag.

Dirk Demol and Thomas Wegmuller were both in the breakaway with me and were incredibly strong. I rode in the top five into every cobbled section with them. Then, coming into the Arenberg Forest, I wanted to be first because I knew it was the worst section of cobblestones. But, I went in too fast and about 500 meters into Arenberg, I tried to bunny hop a missing section of cobblestones. I misjudged it and and didn’t make it, slamming the edge of the missing cobbles and flatting.

This stretch was so narrow and the team cars began to go by me as I tried to find a new wheel.  I finally got my wheel replaced but then had to fight to get around the team cars that were blocking the way. I eventually made it out of the Arenberg Forest but was now about a minute down on the leaders. I chased hard for an hour with a few other riders and was able to stay at just about a minute back. Then, the others gave up but I kept chasing alone for another hour until I was caught in the feed zone. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t flatted, I would have finished in the top 10 at Paris Roubaix that year. It was a bummer, but that’s bike racing.”

Link to some great CBS coverage of the 1988 Paris-Roubaix with Knickman in the breakaway.

What are you up to today?

“I am a professional firefighter and I am also currently coaching one of the best junior teams in the US. We took what was a small, local team and transformed it into one of the best junior teams in the country. We are based in Southern California and have a great group of guys. It takes a lot of time, hard work and money. I am doing this not simply with the aim to produce future professionals, but to give them an opportunity to have some great experiences at a young age. I think back to my first road trip when I was 16 years old and all of the great experiences I had and that’s what I want for the members of the team. Then, afterwards, I will tell them to get on with life!

Another project I am lining up is the creation of a new under-23 development team. There are at least four great junior teams right now in the US but once these riders become senior-level riders, there are very limited opportunities for them. Therefore, I am aiming to create a new under-23 team and am in the process of raising funds to do so. If any readers are interested in contributing to this team, they can reach me directly at: crk3@aol.com