When Roy Knickman arrived in his hometown of Ventura, California last week, he saw his old high school and neighborhood surrounded by flames. It was 1 a.m. when Knickman arrived with his fire crew, and everywhere Knickman looked, the landmarks of his youth were threatened by the Thomas Fire, now considered one of the worst wildfires in California history.
Knickman told VeloNews that he and his fire team drove straight into a neighborhood of burning houses near the foothills north of downtown, and proceeded to battle the blaze.
“It’s like, ‘Holy crap, we’re driving down Poli street and there’s a 50-unit apartment building with 100-foot flames shooting out of it.’ We drove down Sunset Drive and every house was on fire,” Knickman said. “I used to race my bike on these roads.”
Knickman, 52, is one of the best American cyclists to have raced during the 1980s and 1990s and was one of the first to launch his professional career in the European peloton. He won the Olympic bronze medal in the team time trial at the 1984 Olympics and completed in major races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France. He was teammates with Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault on the La Vie Claire in 1986 and was even a member of Andy Hampsten‘s winning Giro d’Italia team in 1988. During career, which spanned nearly two decades, he won stages of the Coors Classic, Tour de Suisse, and Criterium du Dauphine.
Just last month, Knickman was officially inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in Davis, California.
Knickman had little time to celebrate his induction. These days Knickman works full-time as a firefighter, and since 2004 he has worked with the municipal fire department in Paso Robles, California, about four hours north of Los Angeles. He is still involved in cycling — he manages the junior development team Lux-Stradling, which most recently graduated Brandon McNulty into the pro ranks. But firefighting takes up the lion’s share of his time.
“It was the best thing I ever did for being able to take care of my family,” Knickman said about his newfound career. During the past decade, the job largely consisted of small fires and relatively minor home emergencies.
This year has been different — Knickman has helped battle two major wildfires on opposing ends of the state. And in fighting both fires, Knickman says he has found himself back in locations he knew best from his days in cycling.
In October Knickman’s department was called to battle the Tubbs and Nuns fires outside of Santa Rosa. In another middle-of-the-night call, Knickman and his team sped into downtown Sonoma to set up a fire perimeter around the small town. As he strolled through the deserted town, he was reminded of a scene from the 1988 Coors Classic stage that kicked off in the town. Knickman won the stage from Sonoma to Sacramento.
“It brought back memories,” Knickman said. “And then you realize it’s 4 a.m. and there is such heavy smoke you can barely see the town.”
And just last week Knickman and his crew were called to assist fire crews Ventura. The beachside town has suffered the worst of the damage thus far, with a reported 524 structures destroyed and 135 damaged as of Monday morning. Per California’s Master Mutual-Aid system, fire crews from across the state have been sent to battle the blaze. Knickman is one of approximately 6,300 firefighters from across California to work the fire.
Since Monday Knickman has battled flames and worked to protect homes around his hometown and up near Ojai. When VeloNews spoke to Knickman on Monday evening he was taking a break between the grueling 24-hour shifts.
Knickman said that his firefighting missions around Ventura have been surreal. The rural roads and communities where he took his first training rides — places like Santa Paula and Steckel Park — have been reduced to ash. He has had to kick in the doors of burning houses and decide which structures to try and save, and which ones to surrender to the flames.
And Knickman has had to do it knowing that it’s happening in his hometown.
“You’re looking at this place you grew up in just burning to the ground,” Knickman said. “I was speechless.”