So you wanna be a pro? A conversation with Roy Knickman

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Roy Knickman, Olympic medalist, famed teammate of Steve Tilford, Nelson Vails, and Thurlow Rogers from TI-Raleigh in the 80s, one of the first wave of Americans to ever ride the Tour, is now the director of America’s top junior development team, Lux Cycling. He’s been doing it for seven years, and the covid crisis has upended the pro cycling scene, and much less publicized, the junior scene as well. For juniors the situation is, if anything, even more critical.

I spoke with Roy about what it takes to become a pro, about Lux Cycling, diversity training, racing, and the future of the sport. It was clear from our conversation that he’s dedicated to improving all American racers, and it’s a passion of the most profound sort. Far from creating a herd of robots, his mission is to develop good people through bike racing, whether their career leads them to the Tour or stops with Lux.

What’s apparent is that the challenges are big. And that if anyone is equal to the job, it’s Roy Knickman.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: Who founded LUX and why?

Roy Knickman: A local Cat 4 bike racer founded it for adults and quickly realized that it would be more satisfying to put efforts into raising funds and getting sponsorship for the development of youth. Dave Feldman with Sideshow Collectibles got the firm’s primary owner to donate into LUX to help get kids to races locally here in the Conejo Valley and in SoCal.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: How do you become a professional bike racer?

Roy Knickman: It is a long process and it starts with the kind of local club that LUX used to be, not with what we are now, riding your bike and riding with a local club, one that includes all ages or that is a development club. SoCal VeloSport is that kind of club, one that gets you to local races and teaches the basics. In this day and age there are multiple steps. You go from regional races to racing nationally. As a junior you would need to align with a larger club, one of the more elite junior clubs such as ours, Hot Tubes, or Swift run by Laura Charameda, an ex-world champion. Someone who understands bike racing at the highest level, which is different from a development club’s manager/coach. You need someone who can provide some of the finer details of what it really takes such as state of mind, believing. For example, if you have someone who has medaled at Worlds or the Olympics who can say, “You have an injury right now, that’s not a problem, we believe in you, you will hit form later, this happened to me and I had my best results because my form came later.” I do think there is a large psychological element that the directors with experience who can share true life experiences offer something different. But it also requires a lot more training and building your life around athletics, being able to travel, that extreme discipline. It’s a great life lesson but it teeters on being unhealthy because of the extreme nature of searching for excellence, which is the same if you want to be the best lawyer, it’s more time in the books. It works the same in many fields and is why this is a great life lesson. You can be successful and these are the things you need to do.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: What do you look for in selecting a junior rider?

Roy Knickman: When we select a rider we look to see if they have a good coach, schedule, equipment, and people who believe in them. And we have to do research talking to parents, other racers and coaches, will it come together to benefit them? Nine times out of ten we’re right. A rider may not be the best when we take them but a year later their results show we were right.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson : Who selects the male/female riders on the team?

Roy Knickman: In the past it has been me and George Chester, who when I came in was the daily operations guy. But he stepped back when I came on board and he is now phasing out because of his age, but if he believes in a kid or rider I take his advice. He holds a huge amount of clout. The other thing is that selection on the men’s side is not made in a vacuum. I respect other people in the sport regardless of their accomplishments, and when a coach or regional director or ex-star messages me and says, “Hey there’s this great kid, take a look” I do, because I’m not everywhere, I don’t know who kicks ass in the DC area, right? That’s where Quinn Simmons came from. Ned Overend, who I hadn’t talked to in years, said, “You gotta get this kid,” so I did. Quinn is a gifted athlete who benefited from having our resources and guidance. On the women’s side, Ryan Kelly, who is my partner, we look together at riders. She’s an expert in women’s cycling, I’m not, she was a junior national team rider, understands the inequities, understands women better than I do. Restructuring of the women’s program has to do with her feedback and her understanding of the sport and what’s needed to be done for women. And I think it’s important. Women’s teams run by men miss the mark. Frequently. It’s who’s deserving when you are creating a team. The problem is that there are many kids who are deserving and talented, but we have limits. We had forty-eight bikes at Valley of the Sun Stage Race with nineteen athletes in four categories .. it’s a lot. There needs to be more support for this and more organizations that are willing and have the funding to do what we do.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: Mileage vs. power meter?

Roy Knickman: For all riders at this level they need to have a coach who is current with science but who also is a good communicator, who listens to the athlete. There are a few riders who for whatever reason in the winter aren’t riding with a power meter but rather on feel and time, especially when coming back from injury. But in this day and age there has to be science, there has to be specific monitoring of the training and guidance because the level is so high. The kids who want to succeed at this—life and confidence and self-belief—it makes going away to college look easy. Those who go to school, and those who want to be Pro Tour athletes, they all have the same challenge: To be competitive at the junior international level, which all of them say that they want to do—it takes science-driven training. The caveat is that we’ve realized what’s most successful is that if you do enough racing, not chasing crits and 1-day races—but a schedule of good stage races with overload, rest for a week, step into another one, you can go the whole year and not be staring at your power meter numbers all the time. It’s clear there can be burnout constantly chasing numbers all year. It has made not being able to race this year very difficult because all the riders have to go off are power meter numbers all year, a sure way to burn mental matches. Having a smart coach as covid was rolling in, changing the environment, keeping it fun, not just focusing on numbers, but letting the kids focus on mileage, so a lot of it is having a smart coach who understands the psychology and is willing to say, “Okay, we won’t chase numbers and will protect from a psychological standpoint and for longevity while still training a whole bunch.” I stopped coaching when I didn’t have the time to keep up with the science. I prefer to focus where I have knowledge and skill in putting all the pieces together. Get to the best races, get them good coaches, and it was only five years ago that I could come up with a good formula that got good results for athletes, having success on the performance side as well as the personal level, succeeding after cycling. And seeing international success and racing for U23 teams in Europe or the U.S.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: How much science do you teach your riders?

Roy Knickman: My part is to remind them to listen to their bodies, that communication with their coaches is critical because if they bury themselves every week it could be months to come out of that; to detrain and get fit again. The other part, the science, is put on the coaches but we have three or four coaches we trust so it isn’t a question. We’ll recommend someone who does amazing work. That person may push their athlete to breaking and then pull back, but you can relate that to “I was on the best team in the world and almost quit because I was pushed too hard.” The third part is my relationship with Allen Lim, and we had him come to camp and teach the kids science and as well he cooked for them every night. He paid for his hotel and for someone to help with the cooking. He did it because he wanted to. He sat down with the kids and talked physiology, talking about food, doping, its history, what it means, about nutrition and fueling, it was a huge benefit for the athletes. Some of them took in 1% and some 20%, it was there as great information. It’s multi-level education depending on the athlete’s need.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: If you have to choose between motivation and talent, which do you weight more heavily?

Roy Knickman: It’s not just motivation and talent, it’s character, and character comes first because as a team unit someone who is disruptive and somewhat toxic, it’s not healthy for the team. That said we can have someone on the team with issues, and when we bring them on we’re committing to developing them as a person. If they become challenging it means we have our hands full, not that they’re off the team. They have to understand commitment and belief on our end, we took them because we believed in them and we’re not giving up. That’s true even if they’re struggling socially. We stand with them. We’re committed to developing these kids, and kicking them off the team would be the easy way out. I won’t bring someone in who is super challenging, but once on board we commit. Character is very important and why we’ll have a rider, and he’s good and has good family and we’re going to reward him for being a good kid. We can’t do that for every good kid but sometimes we do. It’s not all w/kg-based but that can certainly help get you in the door.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: Do you look for race IQ or is that something you teach?

Roy Knickman: We will recognize and value it but it’s not a requirement because we are about teaching. We’ve had trouble with some parents who want to know our racing philosophy; our philosophy has been teaching kids how to think about racing, not teaching them how to race. You need to think on the road and talk to your teammates and adapt. I’m only going to get upset if you don’t think and if you stick with a plan you can see isn’t going to work. If things aren’t going right, you communicate, change it up, and if it fails, I’m stoked, because we had two chances to win, not one. We had three guys in a race, put two in the break at nationals, and didn’t win; the kids thought I’d be upset but I wasn’t; what they accomplished was amazing. First, they lost to the reigning champion. Second, I reminded them that the execution is more important than the outcome and I reward them for good, intelligent thinking. Then the results come. A perfect example: Those two guys in the break, one is riding pro now, Logan McLain. Their intelligence has been recognized. Logan will race in Innsbruck with an Austrian U23 team and he has an agent—it speaks to the story that he was recommended to my team, had huge capacity, and was a good kid. I took him, we invested in him for three years and now he’s a pro.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: What percentage of LUX riders get a pro contract?

Roy Knickman: We’re still in development. Five years ago we had Brandon McNulty, but were still a regional program. We judge success by how many riders can represent the US national team in international competition. In 2019 all but two of the boys team and a majority of girls all made national team trips abroad. Four to five riders at Worlds were from LUX, riding based on merit, auto-qualifying. Quinn Simmons, Kevin Vermaerke have gone pro. Several riders are with smaller French teams. It’s part of developing relationships as we’re doing with Austria. And it’s why this year is so crucial. We know if the juniors who are aging out don’t get a ride their careers could be over. I ended up flying to Austria and selling our organization to our new partners in Innsbruck so they would understand what a LUX athlete would mean if they got one of our riders. We can now use their service course because our philosophies match. It’s crucial so that there isn’t a big hole in the development pipeline. Only the superstars could make the jump in the past, but with this philosophy and partnership we can fill the gaps so we can take the riders who aren’t the McNultys or the Costas and give them what they need to be great bike racers. That’s what the other countries are doing. We realize that a typical national team kid from Denmark has a lot of race days and can hop in the van and do ten stage races a year. Here, if there’s one in your region you go, maybe you get three in a year. How can you compete with a kid who has ten? And those races are always against 140 dudes on narrow roads in crappy weather. That’s why it’s so important to keep it going, because this way more riders have been able to get into Europe developmentally with U23 teams. The goal is to get as many riders the amount of racing they need and also be in the European environment so we can load up the number of kids in the development pipeline.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: Why do you have your riders race so much?

Roy Knickman: Because that’s where success is in Europe. They need this much racing. We’ve seen that these are the athletes who are responding and improving with 9-10 stage races a year. Which is beneficial because they don’t need to train as much and they are excited to race and not stare at their power meter readout in the basement at home.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: When did this change in thinking come about?

Roy Knickman: It started with feedback from the national team coach that my guys weren’t racing enough, five years ago. So I started chasing one-day races and the kids got tired from all the traveling around. Learning from that and experimenting I said, okay, let’s do more stage races, and asked the kids to take off weekends locally. It’s that simple. Listening to the feedback.

Seth Davidson: Have power meters helped or hurt bike racing?

Roy Knickman: It has definitely helped. It’s a double-edged sword. Training has changed in ability to quantify because heart rate is so sloppy. Being more accurate allows you to do more work and being able to see when you were overworking. More quality work is more adaptation. The negative has been the racing aspect, where they race by their power meter. There’s less  human element, where they won’t try now because of the power meter. There are moments where I think it’s made racing less dramatic.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: What do you think about race radios?

Roy Knickman: I think they can be helpful but they can make racing a little less exciting. Juniors can’t have them. That’s a great rule because it teaches them to think. They can’t just be told what to do. They have to fail and learn and I’m happy about that. Even when they can use them, such as doing a 1-2 race, I don’t use radios. I’d rather not have radios in order to force them to communicate amongst themselves and learn and make decisions with the information they have.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: What do you think about virtual cycling?

Roy Knickman: I think for some people it’s really good, people who just need to have the racing. I’ve not promoted it with my athletes, if they want to do it, fine for motivation and intensity but right now the psychological aspect is most important. Don’t force them to do something they hate. Now the most important thing is to weather this lack of racing. Most athletes are driven to train purely to prepare for the next race and next experience. A year of no racing is incredibly trying. It’s a good tool for some, with the right psychology they can do great things. Others just want to ride their bikes and I’m good with that, too.

Photo copyright Danny Munson

Seth Davidson: What is your diversity strategy?

Roy Knickman: We don’t have a new strategy. We’ve always picked athletes based on character and talent. We brought on the Nsek brothers, we’ve included Asian, Hispanic riders. It hasn’t been a factor. What’s been there for us, we’ve taken. We’ve talked about the issue, I don’t want to be reactive. Now we’re working with the top athletes; we’re not grass roots, we’re not putting on clinics to get kids into the sport. There is such a small pool of athletes of color, we’ve talked about this with Ama Nsek about what we can do trying to raise funds for a specific LUX diversity team. But I haven’t been able to raise the money or get materials; with the industry back-ordered it isn’t easy right now. Legion Los Angeles is doing it.

Seth Davidson: Do you think bike racing is a white sport?

Roy Knickman: It’s pretty clear, it’s a sport for a certain income class because it’s so damned expensive. Yeah, it’s somewhat a white sport. It’s unfortunate because there are as many talented athletes of color as there are white ones. The financial restraints are the same in other sports. Downhill skiing is an example. So many athletes of color would make it to LUX or Hot Tubes if they had the equipment and coaching. LUX isn’t grassroots and we’ve done everything we can for kids who are out there. We care and we do what we can and we are looking at ways to get LA Bike Academy kids come up and ride with our kids and let them know this is the next level. We think there’s value in kids seeing that there’s no reason you can’t be here, and give them a taste of top level riding. The problem is always the same. Schedule and money.

Seth Davidson: What was your reaction to Quinn Simmons’s suspension by Trek-Segafrodo?

Roy Knickman: I think how it was handled from a business standpoint didn’t seem very well-thought through. It’s something that needed to be addressed, and education of athletes and social media and how you may think something is innocuous or silly can be tremendously hurtful or damaging.

Seth Davidson: Has LUX ever reached out to the black community?

Roy Knickman: We are committed to have anyone come up and share our experience and show kids what it takes. If anyone wants to know how we do things and what the true development pipeline is, I will spend as much time as it takes to explain and show how to do it and why.

Seth Davidson: What would you tell a young black girl who wants to be a bike racer?

Roy Knickman: I’d say, “Why not you? You have to believe.” Then find the club that will support you at the local level and that will allow you to get to the next level. What Justin Williams is doing is phenomenal; he’s earmarking money for development opportunities at the junior level.

Seth Davidson: Do you give your athletes media training?

Roy Knickman: They do normally through other sponsors. Last week Shimano had social media training. A lot of the things we’d talk about at camp we weren’t able to do this year. We’ll use sponsor relationships to educate, by Zoom.

Seth Davidson: How has covid changed the domestic racing landscape?

Roy Knickman: Racing ended and everything from February to early June this year has been canceled or has moved to the fall. There is zero bike racing prior to nationals. No Redlands, no Gila, no Cascades, no Joe Martin, no Valley of the Sun. There is a continued void from the motivational standpoint and I’m constantly monitoring race promoters as I’m trying to figure out what’s happening, which is hard when you’re raising funds. If there’s no racing, why are we spending money? For the junior men there is no result they can get in the US that will help them get selected on a European team. They need to race in Europe and race there a lot to develop and to be there with the other kids going onto U23 teams. It’s a huge commitment of the team. It has pushed us to be very aggressive. Covid complications may complicate national team racing until right before Worlds. Our athletes won’t be prepared if they are sitting home training and they won’t be visible and the development pipeline won’t continue because there was no international racing for any US rider in 2020. Those riders have to be in Europe and be stage racing in Europe. I can’t say “Sorry kids,” so I’m making another push to create a schedule for our athletes and even some non-LUX racers to get them the racing they need. I have commitments to nine stage races in Europe and Asia. USAC had to fire most of its staff to stay solvent. They have to focus on the Olympics.

Seth Davidson: If it becomes lucrative for riders to race domestic gravel races like BWR, will that change your race schedule?

Roy Knickman: We had already discussed that and yes, we would definitely integrate that into our racing, my hope is that we take where we are now with Europe, keep that in place, and to integrate gravel would be great. It is so much fun, keeps it fresh, these extreme challenges for the athletes are huge. And for an athlete to want to be a pro gravel racer, that’s awesome. There are so many talented athletes not in the pipeline or who can’t adjust to the pro Euro lifestyle, then with gravel you have two winning situations. It’s clear there is so much untapped talent. We’re a huge country with so many athletic kids there’s no reason why we should have any difference with Holland or Belgium, and gravel opens the door for another kid to be excited about riding and racing bikes. The Sea to Summit here in Ventura up to Mt. Pinos, 100 miles, 8,000 feet, I did that at age fourteen with a bike bag with a pineapple in it. I did it in four hours longer than the winner, and next year I got second, the guy that won became my coach, and next year I beat him. I loved that I could be where people are racing. I re-experienced this excitement last year on the Delta Epic, a 240-mile unsupported gravel ride—and I was only injured for a month afterwards! These are races and they’re participation rides and they can be both. It’s a business and UCI will gravitate towards it. USAC is trying to monetize it, too.

Seth Davidson: Why are you basing in Austria?

Roy Knickman: My first trip to Europe was a race from Salzburg to Vienna. My great-great-grandfather Josef Lehner wrote a few waltzes with Richard Strauss. At that first race, they brought me to a statue of my forebear the composer. I got 3rd the next year. So I have a special connection with Austria, for sure.

Seth Davidson: Thanks, Roy.

Roy: You’re welcome!

END

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6 thoughts on “So you wanna be a pro? A conversation with Roy Knickman”

  1. Wise words Roy, thanks for your efforts with the youth and for keeping a level head and understanding that the psychological health of our kids is the most important thing in their life. There are great life skills that can be learned from youth sports, including most significantly the realization that hard work and team behavior are the key to any successful career regardless of occupation. Too often we see kids who come out of youth sports programs traumatized and with a head full of self doubt from all the badgering by some coach. Support is the great enabler, which in my mind should be the goal of any educational institution.

  2. Definitely worth a mention here: There’s another program in SoCal that runs complementary to programs like Roy Knickman’s and Laura Charameda’s road programs. That’s Kevin Phillips’ iCademy Junior Cycling (velodrome, out of Velo Sports Center in Carson).

    Like Roy and Laura, Kevin isn’t going to post up lists of his graduate’ successes. He’s just going to keep identifying great junior talent, and helping them get to the next level with the understanding that the sky is the limit. Two of the 10 racers on the 2021 Elevate-Webiplex roster are iCademy graduates, as well as Megan Jastrab, Ryan Jastrab and Zoe Ta-Perez.

    And, Kevin is still young enough, mostly at heart but also in body, that he doesn’t just talk about valuable personal race experience: from time to time he’ll get out there and race with his charges.

    The actual track training and racing is all on hold right now as Velo Sports Center is closed, but Kevin still touches base (and trains on the road) with his current and former riders like a good Director Sportif.

  3. That Austrian junior race was called the Dusika Jugendtour. I went with the National Team in 1985, a year or two after Roy won it. They were still talking about Roy, and we got tons of respect and were treated well because of his victory. Nice work, Roy.

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