Roy Knickman's path: From handlebars to handle fires

Thousands of firefighters were called to California late in 2017 to battle the wildfires ravaging the state, one of them was U.S. Bicycling hall of famer Roy Knickman. Nate Bass / Paso Robles Fire Dept.

The 7-Eleven cycling alumni email chain, usually reserved for reunion planning and light chatter, gathered urgency last October as a wildfire spread with sickening speed, consuming the northern California landscape where they'd trained and raced.

A hotel that had once been their base camp had burned to the ground. Nearby neighborhoods were reduced to cinders. The groundbreaking American pro team of the 1980s had so many personal connections to Sonoma County, whose undulating, picturesque roads have made it a decades-long hub for the American cycling community. The old riders were worried. They wanted information.

Roy Knickman sent a quick note back telling his former teammates he was on his way there -- in a fire engine. He promised to be their eyes and ears.

It's in Knickman's nature to serve others. He did it first as an athlete who often wore himself out to help other riders win. He does it now as a firefighter who assists people in their most vulnerable moments, and the widely respected manager of the Lux developmental cycling team that nurtures promising riders in their late teens.

But he is also a U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame inductee with plenty of honors of his own. Now 52, Knickman won multiple national titles as a junior and was part of a U.S. quartet that took bronze in the 1984 Olympic team time trial. He rode for top-shelf European teams prior to 7-Eleven, and won stages in prestigious races in the Alps. One of his biggest victories on home roads came in a 1988 Coors Classic stage from Sonoma to Sacramento, the day after a criterium stage in the scenic wine capital.

Some 24 hours into what would become the most destructive fire in state history, Knickman and his fellow firefighters from Paso Robles, California, some four hours south of Sonoma, pulled into the historic town plaza there with full-tilt lights and sirens. He squinted through the heavy drift smoke wreathing city hall and in a trick of memory, saw the phantom outline of a podium from that long-ago race.

Knickman's department was among dozen summoned to try to contain the Tubbs fire, fed by high winds that sent it on a malevolent, hopscotching path in the middle of the night. He spent 12 days there, helping cut lines to deprive the fire of fuel, inspecting ruined subdivisions and searching for bodies.

Mere weeks later, by chance, Knickman was on duty when his department was among the first called to the scene of another devastating conflagration. The Thomas fire in southern California last December leveled more than 500 homes in his hometown of Ventura. Flames lapped near city hall and the high school, and terrorized friends and family. After a two-week siege there, Knickman went home, but returned for more duty when flooding and mudslides killed 21 and wreaked massive damage in the Montecito area in January 2018.

"You realize how much stuff you have that you don't need. Everyone was in the same boat. Your social status didn't matter. It was a binding, strengthening." Peter Stetina, a Trek-Segafredo rider on returning to California after a European race last year

"It was always just business in the moment,'' Knickman said over breakfast in the coastal city of Carpinteria this week. "Then when you're done and sitting there exhausted, there was a little emotion. I had more of that in Ventura because that's where I grew up.''

This week's Tour of California race has prompted him and many in the greater U.S. peloton to reflect on loss, resilience and rebuilding. Ventura hosted a stage start Monday, drawing a couple of thousand people downtown in the biggest and happiest event there in many months. New home construction will begin next month, according to Jeffrey Lambert, the city's director of community development.

Nearby hills are awash in new green growth and the bright yellow wild mustard that proliferates here in the spring. Yet riders on their way to the Stage 2 summit finish on Gibraltar Road above Santa Barbara also traversed areas of scarred earth and scorched trees. A section of the course was redrawn because of road damage, and detoured through the business district of Montecito.

The route of the seven-day race that ends Saturday in Sacramento, determined months before the fires, otherwise remained unchanged. Santa Rosa, where whole neighborhoods were leveled, has been a frequent host city in past editions of the Tour of California, but had not bid for 2018.

Yet many lives and perspectives were altered in far less time than it took for the ash and lingering odor of charred material to dissipate. The fire laid waste to both affluent and modest residential areas. Trek-Segafredo rider Peter Stetina returned from a race in Europe to find his wife waiting at the airport with their dogs and a car packed with their most valuable possessions. Their home in Santa Rosa was threatened but ultimately spared by the blaze.

"You realize how much stuff you have that you don't need,'' Stetina said this week. "Everyone was in the same boat. Your social status didn't matter. It was a binding, strengthening.''

Stetina personally led two charity rides, participated in another one featuring Slovakian superstar Peter Sagan, and has helped promote efforts by Sonoma Pride, a partnership between local breweries and non-profits that has raised $1.1 million to support affected families.

Few in the cycling world had the chance to be as hands-on as Knickman, who became a rookie firefighter at age 40, attracted by the physicality, teamwork and problem-solving the job requires. It has been a good living and a safety net for his family, including a daughter who has battled cancer for eight years. There are risks inherent in the job, but as with bike racing, Knickman said training gives him high confidence.

"There is an intellectual side and a science to it, and once you have that education, 90 percent of the time, you know what you're going to get,'' Knickman said.

He's passionate about moonlighting as the Lux team director. Perhaps the most talented graduate of his program, 20-year-old Brandon McNulty, now rides for Rally Cycling and is currently in seventh place overall at the Tour of California thanks to strong performances on the Gibraltar Road climb and in Wednesday's time trial.

"I'm totally interchangeable in the fire service,'' Knickman said. "They know they have somebody who won't fold, who will go and go and go. But I'm a set of hands, nothing special. In cycling, my perspective and experience is something unique."

He stays in shape by trail running and doesn't ride much anymore, but last year's fires connected him back to his days in the saddle in various, sometimes unexpected ways. While deployed in the aftermath of the Tubbs fire, he recruited his old friend Shelley Verses, the former 7-Eleven soigneur, to give therapeutic massages to bone-weary firefighters.

The sight of chimneys standing alone where houses once stood, of cars melted in garages or thrown upside down by "fire tornadoes,'' of the frightened voices and faces of both strangers and people he cares for, won't fade soon. But Knickman said there was a satisfaction in knowing he and his colleagues were doing "work that has an impact, work you train for all your life and seldom do. You got to say to people, 'That area will not be a flare-up. You are safe. You can come home.'"