In the first part on our interview with Bissell’s Omer Kem, we talked about his violent crash at the Amgen Tour of California and his road to recovery where he shared the ups and downs of the healing process.
Our conversation then turned to Kem’s past and his road to professional cycling. Or as he put it going “through the washing machine of professional cycling.”
While living in Oregon, Kem had ridden bikes as kid for fun but admits that he wasn’t very athletic when growing up or in high school.
“I was more a musician, both my parents were musicians and that was kind of the path that they saw for me.”
After graduating, he went to work in a cubicle in a corporate environment like many others, and he found that it wasn’t for him. “I really figured out what I didn’t want to do, and I really didn’t want to work in a box so I decided to go to college.”
The forestry school at Oregon State was offering scholarships and still not knowing what he wanted to do, Kem took advantage of the scholarships and ended up at at the school which was about one hour from where he grew up. His introduction to the sport of cycling was via a school-sponsored mountain bike class where he also met friends and mentors Barry Wicks and Doug Ollerenshaw, who both would be instrumental in Kem’s cycling career.
“I’d never really had an outlet physically that I had used or taken advantage of. I met Barry Wicks and Doug Ollerenshaw and at that point, I think that Barry had yet to start to riding for Kona, Doug was still racing collegiately and regionally so they kind of took me under their wings at races. I raced well, they were like ‘you should really race with us or train with us’, so I kind of went from nothing to just riding my bike all the time.”
Kem went from one extreme to another and got hooked. “Knowing those guys and becoming friends with them and I think them believing in me just got me across to being as dedicated as I was, because all of a sudden I saw this life, ‘man it would be so cool becoming a pro bike racer’. I don’t want to find a job, I’ve had a job and that was no fun at all, I wanted to be a pro bike racer, that was my decision. It wasn’t ‘I want to win bike races’ or ‘I want to ride my bike’, it was I want to be a pro because this is the life I want to lead.”
At the age of 19 going on 20, Kem went all out into bike racing. Still riding mountain bikes, with Wicks and Ollerenshaw helping him out, Kem won the Oregon series for the Open Men. “I ended just being the guy that was always there, I didn’t win a lot but I was consistent.”
The passion grew. “I went to every race, that was my life, that’s what I wanted to do, my parents thought I was insane. They didn’t know what to do with me but at the same time, they weren’t really paying for my education, my parents were self employed and so they saw this thing that I was passionate about and ‘okay he’s young, he’ll figure it out’.”
His parents offered what support they could including the offer of coming home if needed but Kem didn’t want to go home. Then a decision had to be made.
“Cycling consumed everything, losing the scholarships, the grades got bad at school, I was trying to work part time and go to school and ride all the time, it just got to the point where I had to choose and I chose.”
And Kem made the choice to follow cycling. He left school and ended up living in basement of his parents’ house.
“I said I wanted to be a bike racer, I made the decision that it didn’t matter how bad life got if I was still racing and if I was able to get to the point where racing was paid for itself. Race for a team, they give me a bike, and they took me to races and that was all that mattered.”
He then made the switch to road and his goal was to make his team happy, either by winning or helping out his teammate. A constant that has shaped the next six years of Kem’s cycling career.
“I wanted to make everybody happy so that I could keep on racing, that was my only goal, the only agenda. I want to be a bike racer, I want to be a pro, I want to make money doing this.”
With Ollerenshaw and Wicks’ assistance, Kem joined the elite amateur team Broadmark where he “got lucky with some results at some fairly big races” and acquired his Cat 1 upgrade.
At the same time, Kendra and Rene Wenzel were starting a new team, Subway and Kem “ just pushed and pushed and pushed” and was offered a contract “for nothing” two weeks after his upgrade. But that was okay with Kem because all he saw was the fact that he was on a pro team.
“That was probably the best and worst decision of my cycling career if I had to name one thing that I could look back with any regret, instead of figuring out how to be the guy that won races at the amateur or elite level, I went straight, 21 years old at that point, into Rene’s system of cycling.”
Wenzel was running his low-budget team with the same methodology as his previous team, the long running and very successful Saturn team where Kem learned how to be a very good domestique.
“How to take a rider who was extremely talented but needed to be pointed in the right direction or told what he was capable of and put in that place so he could do what he does best.”
But the team was faced with monetary problems and had to fold at the end of 2005. “The two years at Subway were a great learning experience and I would still be probably riding for Rene if he had been able to find money, find sponsorship.”
And that brings us to 2006 with the Monex team and a very bad experience. Without any results on paper but with good references, Kem joined Monex and lived in the team house with Roberto Gaggioli and the other riders.
“That’s an interview on itself, we could do an hour on what the spring of 2006 was like” laughed Kem about his experiences that spring.
“That was probably the lowest point of my life in general, in terms of how we were treated, how the team was ran. And the worst part of it is that Gaggioli is probably one of the best bike racer ever in history on America and he had so much to learn from but it wasn’t all good. It was skewed, like 60 percent bad stuff that he could teach you, and 40 percent good so I feel like I went through the ringer on that.”
Kem walked away in May 2006, and there are still salary issues which the UCI has never resolved bu the bank guarantee.
“I had ridden my heart out and we’d won races. I just couldn’t deal with Gaggioli and there was some money stuff that is still unresolved with that team and that most of us have just written off.”
Kem moved back to Salem, Oregon. “I just said that I’m not going to deal with that anymore. I want to be a bike racer, I want to figure out how to be a bike racer that someone actually wants around, so I went home.”
After bouncing around, Kem ended up talking to the Seattle regional team sponsored by Axley who had a new golden boy, Ian McKissick.
“Ian had a huge engine but there was no one at the control.” described a laughing Kem. “ He’s a phenomenal time trialist, amazing uphill but he can’t ride his bike, he doesn’t know how, he doesn’t know how to attack, how to position himself, he starts the climb in last wheel and then he works his way to tenth.”
Axley made him an offer. While they couldn’t offer any money or even a bike, they would pay Kem’s expenses to come and do a stage race in Washington, and Kem went for it.
“I’d hit a pretty low point at that point and I was drinking a lot, and they said we’ll pick up the bar tab, and I was like okay I can drink for free. They talked me into putting on a jersey and riding for Ian and basically the job I’d done for the last couple of years finally I was with someone that was capable of actually winning something and I think that we ended up winning the overall for that race, maybe 1-2, won a stage.”
“I remember both guys being just amazed because me being there and just telling them what to do, they felt like their level was raised amazingly.” The team brought Kem back for a bigger race, the 2006 Mt Hood Cycling Classic.
“My only job is to make sure that Ian is in a position to do well, we rode at the front, I rode in the wind, I got him his bottles, I nursed him when he needed to be nursed.”
McKissick finished fourth. “He couldn’t believe it, he just couldn’t believe how easy it was to do well, and the team felt the same way, it was being in the right place at the right time and no one had helped them do that. “ McKissick went on to win the elite time trial later that year.
And Kem felt good about himself. A grateful Axley owner paid for Kem’s way to the Tour de Nez where he met the other team that Axley was sponsoring, the Priority Health team which included a still racing Glen Mitchell, the current general manager of the Bissell Pro Cycling team.
Kem made the break along with Priority Health’s Tom Zirbel in the big road stage at Nez, and got his foot in the door with the team.
“I think Glen had a little bit of a soft spot for me because he too had really been through the ringer of pro cycling, he’s been through the bad teams, he saw a little bit of himself in me.”
Mitchell offered to pay Kem’s entry fees to join the team at the upcoming Cascades Cycling Classic in Oregon, a deal was worked out and Kem rode his heart out for Zirbel in the same capacity as he did for McKissick.
“Tom was this extremely talented that had never experienced and had been able to ride with anyone that was one hundred percent dedicated to him doing well, I had no interest really in any type of result apart from making sure that Tom was in the right place.”
After a first bad day, where Zirbel didn’t make the split and lost some time, the team won the second stage.
“We rode it, Glen and I on the front of the race, just a small team to the base of McKenzie Pass and then just basically handed it to Tom. Tom did his thing and Tom won.”
“Tom was a first year pro in an NRC race, a mountain top finish and that kind of set the ball rolling for me and the Priority Health team because there’s not a lot of guys with my attitude I guess as far as being able to help leaders or even want to. And Tom was one of those guys that needed to be told that he was good, he needed to be put in the right place, he needed to be kept out of the wind so he could be fresh for the time trial, otherwise he’s riding at the back at then no one is ever going to see how good he really is.”
In the third and final part of the interview, Kem talks about his skills and his goal for the 2009 season.