Retro PEZ Talk: Roy Knickman
Interview: The name Clarence ‘Roy’ Knickman rings a lot of bells. Big in the US and a man to watch in Europe, with big teams wanting his signature on a contract, but then he went back to America and? Ed Hood caught up with Knickman to hear his side of the story and a few other tales from his career of in the 80s, 90s and even into the 2000s.
He blazed onto the US cycling scene as the ‘Next Lemond’ – multiple US junior titles; three junior Worlds medals and an Olympic medal as a first year senior; a contract with one of the peloton’s coolest teams then stage wins in two of the most desirable stage races on the Euro circuit.
And then. . .
He came home to the USA; we thought it was high time we caught up with Roy Knickman and asked him a few questions. . .
PEZ: How did you get into the bike, Roy?
Roy Knickman: I was originally a BMX kid but we hung out at this cool, hippie bike shop – one of the guys had about 50 bikes – whilst the manager was a Vietnam vet and custom frame builder. I was exposed to that 10 speed race culture and they convinced me that I should try racing…
PEZ: US junior champion in the road race, time trial, criterium, individual pursuit and points race – pretty comprehensive.
And I slipped an Elite Cyclo-cross title in there too – there was no junior ‘cross back then – the specialist guys rode too conservatively that day and as the eventual silver medallist, Clark Natwick was preparing to straighten his jersey and raise his arms, I did a bike throw and took the title.
PEZ: And three Worlds junior medals in 1983; team time trial, individual and team pursuit.
I went into those Worlds with really good form and what was helpful was that because they were held in New Zealand, a lot of teams ‘double up’ riders to keep the travel costs down. I rode the 75K TTT where we got bronze and was on the line for the individual pursuit qualifying just five hours later. Most of us race every day for six days, Dean Woods was the pursuit phenomena back then – he won it, I took bronze – but I think he rode the TTT, individual pursuit, team pursuit and points.
PEZ: And an Olympic bronze in LA in the TTT as a first year senior.
I was well prepared for that race; my coach had prepped me for high power, not endurance – my training had been for the individual and team pursuit as a junior. And it was a very good team; Davis Phinney, Ron Keifel, Andy Weaver – and me. Those guys were all my mentors and there was no way I was going to let them down – we were well prepared though, Andy Weaver and I had been living and training at Copper Mountain. We lost a man and it was just three of us fighting to the finish – but one of the guys couldn’t come through so it was just two of us bringing it home, we finished 19 seconds behind the Swiss who got silver; the Italians smoked it by four minutes for gold.
PEZ: You were pro with Raleigh, initially?
Yes, but I was offered a contract with La Vie Claire at the end of ’84 but I didn’t feel ready and turned it down. I rode for them in ’86 – because of the rules back then I could ride for Raleigh in the USA because it was a ‘developing cycling nation’ and La Vie Claire in Europe. In ’86 I rode the Coors for Raleigh then flew to Europe with no bike, picked one up along with my race gear then rode the Tour de l’Avenir where I held the yellow jersey for a spell – Indurain won that one overall.
PEZ: La Vie Claire – Bernard Tapie the boss, Paul Koechli the manager – big personalities. . .
Tapie was a business man; I only ever met him at training camps he had his problems later (accused of match fixing for the Marseille soccer team which he owned, for one. ed.) but that was quite a team he put together and he left his mark on the sport.
Koechli was a difficult man, he was Swiss/German and they’re an exacting breed – he was not a man to cross. But he was a man ahead of his time, working scientifically as a coach not just doing stuff because ‘that’s how it’s always been done.’ I trained under his regime in the winter of 1986 it was on heart rate and brutally hard – if power meters had been available back then we’d have used them. He was very much into the science of work load versus recovery. And he was staunchly anti-doping, the only product around that team was vitamin powder. Of all the guys in management at that time Paul, along with Jim Ochowicz were the only guys I’d trust. I had an offer from PDM at the same time as the one from 7-Eleven but I trusted Jim Ochowicz.
PEZ: Stage wins in Romandie and the Dauphine – huge results for a young pro.
Yeah, but that’s bike racing; I was awful that spring and summer so I went home, rested, trained, re-booted. I was never a Kiefel or a Phinney who could constantly find form – I took opportunities when they came. In both of those wins I was well trained and the victory came from a long breakaway group which I attacked solo, late to take the win.
PEZ: Then 7-Eleven but without the same successes?
The opportunities weren’t happening; I was given a good race program with 7-Eleven which included the Tour de France but at La Vie Claire I hadn’t ridden the Grand Tours – I think with 7-Eleven I race a little too much and little too hard. I was doing a lot of race days and that stuff catches up with you — in ’88 I was trying to make it happen but I was empty.
PEZ: We have to ask about your epic breakaway in the 1988 Paris-Roubaix.
That was a funny thing; I was there to look after Bob Roll and Dag Otto Lauritzen – and we’d prepared well, instead of riding the Pays Basque we went up and rode the cobbles to familiarize with them. I was there purely to support my team leaders and cover the breaks – a break went at kilometer 44 with Dirk Demol and Thomas Wegmuler and my DS told me to go with it. Demol had been displaying good form going into the race and whilst Wegmuler maybe tactically wasn’t the best, he was a very strong guy, so it was a smart move to cover it. That day, everyone who didn’t flat finished in the top 10 – I made a rookie mistake in the Arenberg Forest, I tried to bunny hop and ended up pinch flatting. It’s an awful place to puncture with the narrowness and the crowds – I literally had to punch fans out of my way to get my wheel changed and back into the race. I thought I could get back up to the break; me and these two Super Confex guys chase and chased, the gap was at a minute for an hour.
Then I blew up and was caught – toast!
I was so confident that day, I had it in my mind that top five finish was possible, I ended up 65th @ 14:12 and of course, Demol won. But you know, now that I’m an older guy whilst I think that would have been a nice result, it means nothing, I get much more satisfaction from the results the guys I coach achieve.
PEZ: Why go back to the States?
I had a long chat with Jim Ochowicz and he told me that he wasn’t going to renew my contract with 7-Eleven and I didn’t want to look around in Europe. I got an offer out of my home town in the US; I didn’t really have an answer as why I wasn’t progressing – I was no longer enjoying it. Davis Phinney was coming home too, from Switzerland and was joining the Coors team – I wasn’t chasing big results or big money, I was a good individual and team time trial rider and felt that I could be a strong domestique for a few years more. I needed to enjoy it again; I’d reached my ceiling in Europe, too many races and racing too hard at 20/21 year-old. I was maybe too much of a thinker, too; I tell my young riders, like Brandon McNulty, who’s just won the junior Worlds time trial to take their time, be confident – as long as they continue to produce the power then the opportunities will come.
PEZ: Then you had several years out. . .
That was a little bit crazy, Chris Carmichael offered me an opportunity with US Cycling working with juniors and elites. Then I came back with Mercury in 1998, the team was being formed but they needed a rider/manager – a bit of that ‘Team Wiggins thing’ I guess. I trained in the fall and started to race again – the thing is that with USAC they wanted to work with the elites at the top of the pyramid and I was always fighting for funds. I always wanted to be more inclusive. My history as a pro on the continent helped get the team established – I raced with them for a few years and then went back to coaching and management with Prime Alliance. That was a good arrangement, less days on the road and working from home – I only had to attend the big races and do PR with our sponsors outside of the office. The money lasted three years there and after that I decided I had to get a stable job. I went to community college and became a fire fighter at 40 years-of-age. The job offers me a lifestyle that suits me, I have time with my family and I can work and travel with my youth cycling commitments – and that includes my son, who’s racing now.
PEZ: Your finest hour?
I still look back on the Olympics TTT with pride, even though it was an amateur competition – just three guys left, one suffering from heat exhaustion and me just 19 years-old, riding with my mentors. My stages in Romandie and the Dauphine give me satisfaction but personally, I think that Olympic bronze was my finest effort.
I think I pushed too hard, too soon, I’d have enjoyed a longer and more fruitful career if I’d been more patient. . .
# Thanks to all the photographers, sorry original owners could not be found for some. #
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,200 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.