One of the work horses of the peloton, Omer Kem of the Bissell Pro Cycling Team crashed violently on the third stage of the Amgen Tour of Californa and fractured his pelvis. The 26 year-old Oregon native was out with one of the most painful injuries he’s ever faced in his career.
Ten days later, on a Friday afternoon, Kem took some time to share his feelings about his injury and recovery, his path to becoming a pro cyclist and his goals for 2009.
The crash. As part of a group chasing back on, while speeding down the tricky descent off Sierra Road, Kem hit a road reflector going at an estimated speed of 40 miles per hour.
“It was on a pretty steep left hand switch back corner. The set up for that corner had been a right hand turn previously so I was on the right hand side of the road cutting across and in the process of following wheels, there was a dip in the road itself and looking at that instead of looking at the meter of road in front of me, I side-swipped a road reflector and just lost the front wheel. The wheel never had a chance of making it over, just a small little tire on a carbon rim.” said Kem who went 50 feet off the road into the ditch.
“But at least I was lucky, I didn’t go off the edge of the road, a half dozen corners before that and you’re flying off the road,” laughed Kem, “a hundred feet drop so I’m lucky.”
At first glance, the diagnosis was a broken femur due to both the position of his leg and his reaction to the violent and traumatic crash. “I couldn’t move the leg, I couldn’t even rotate it over and so that was what their initial prognosis was that I had broken the top of the femur in my hip and that was the reason why I couldn’t roll my leg over.”
“It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever done to myself, I’ve crashed, I’ve broken collarbones, scapulas, that was another level. I’ve never hurt a leg cycling and it’s definitely a lot scarier, a lot more traumatic than anything else.”
The aftermath. Ten days after the crash, still on crutches, Kem had already forced himself off the painkillers during the day.
“You’re already kind of depressed and you’ve got painkillers, and the painkillers ease the pain but at the same time, you’re just kind of limp and you can’t do anything and you feel like life is over because you’re just completely stuck, immobilized.”
After a short stint in Salem, Oregon, Kem was back in Boulder, his new home in 2009 where he could take advantage of the numerous sports medicine expertise and the altitude which was the reason to move to Colorado from Oregon in the first place.
“It was amazing. She was able to activate some of the muscular area around the pelvis as everything had just shut down from that initial impact. I think it’s still going to be a slow process coming back but it’s going to be a lot better having someone like that to work with. “ said Kem who had returned from his first physical therapy appointment earlier that day.
Recovery will be a slow process as both team management and doctor have recommended a break of 4 weeks off the bike which didn’t make Kem happy. So much so that he tried to get back on his bike.
“I’ve already tried to put my leg over the bike and I couldn’t.”
“I had to try to see if I could get on it and I couldn’t get on the bike so I know that I’ve still in trouble from that standpoint.” continued Kem when I laughingly called him nuts.
The good news is that no surgery is needed as the fracture is located at the bottom left corner of the pelvis, and according to Kem, unless the area took another direct hit, it is very hard for any movement to displace that fracture. He expects that even after ten to fourteen days, the bone has already started to knit back together.
“I don’t think that the bone itself is the issue, it’s just more the muscular stuff. It’s a weird injury because if I’m standing stationary, I can put all my weight on the leg as long as everything is lined up but as soon as I try to walk all the stabilizing muscles that are in that area want to collapse and give so that my leg constantly wants to collapse in, collapse out which is why I’m still stuck with the crutches because once I try to be mobile I have a hard time trying to hold myself up.”
With the gap in the NRC calendar, Kem will only miss one big team race, the Redlands Cycling Classic.
“The reality of it is that it sucks that it happened in California but they were happy with me before, they were happy with me then. I’m going to miss one race. I crashed doing what I do for the team, doing the job and that’s just the reality of bike racing and I’m the one that has to deal with it and everybody else is supportive.”
The impact is not only physical. Last year, Kem was sidelined at the beginning of the season with a broken collarbone when he “was at the bottom of the massive crash” in the Sunset Road Race, the last stage of the Redlands Classic. At his first race back, three and half weeks later, he had to mentally handle another tricky descent. And he will face the same hurdle when he comes back this time.
“But my first time in the bunch at Tour of the Gila was tough but once I got through that initial sensation like a kind of pit of the stomach paranoia … it will be okay. That’s kind of the name of the game, it’s not a question of if I crash, it’s just when and you hope that you don’t break your femur, it could be always be worse, I think.”
Depressed? Yes but not feeling sorry for himself.
“I still get to be an athlete, I’m still a cyclist, I’ve never wanted to take that for granted and in doing so I can never feel sorry for myself that something happened.” replied Kem when I made an off the cuff comment about it being okay to feel sorry for himself.
It hit him at the physical therapist when asked if he was taken time off from his job to recover that whe he gets hurts, “it’s almost a paid vacation.”
“My job and I will continue to get paid by the team, is to get better for the next race, whenever that race may be, if that next race is one week from now, if that next race is two months from now, if the next race is a season from now, it’s my job to be an athlete to get better. And that’s a pretty amazing to be able to go through or take advantage of so while I am hurt … man I wish I could be with the team and do what I love to do, at the same time I can’t feel sorry for myself.”
But that doesn’t mean that Kem is not fighting feelings of depression which he had expressed honestly in his blog prior to our conversation.
“I think about it in different terms than feeling sorry for myself. I’m definitely depressed and a big part of that is because as an athlete you want those endorphins everyday, a day off is hard. Most endurance athletes are their own worst enemies when it comes to rest, a lot of guys that crash and are out for six months, they came back and are stronger than before, but this is the one that scared me. I will probably will be a different rider from here on out, maybe I won’t be able to descend as fast as I was before, or maybe I’ll start thinking too much but at the same time, I still don’t feel sorry for myself in life, in general.”
So at this point, it’s only a matter of time. Time to heal before his next race in April. Even though, earlier in his recovery, he was adamant that he wanted to be back for the NRC opener, Redlands. “They told me no.” laughed Kem.
“In fact, I had it all planned out, I was going to be back on the bike this coming Monday. It didn’t matter if I could walk or not, I would get back on the bike and I’d be ready for Redlands.”
Part of his pushing is a concern that the team might not need him, and the other part is not wanting to let anyone down.
“It’s hard to not be there. From a cycling career standpoint, I still have to chuckle at where I’ve come from and to where I am. And yeah, part of me is scared about getting hurt … is that you’re not going to be able to come back, you’re not going to be able to do your job and you’re not going to have a job. I’m really lucky to be involved with this team and I don’t ever want to let them down and when I crashed this last time, I was sorry that I wasn’t able to do the job for the rest of the week, that’s one of hardest thing for me is that I wasn’t going to be there for the guys in the way that they needed. I don’t like letting everyone down. “
“I have been through the washing machine of professional cycling I have to say.” said Kem when our conversation takes us through some of the hard times he’s faced in his cycling career – in the second part of the interview.