Here we are, the final installment of my interview with Omer Kem of the Bissell Pro Cycling Team. The 26 year-old Oregon native has been through his share of ups and downs but he has never diverged from his goal of being a professional cyclist. Kem crashed violently at the Amgen Tour of California and broke his pelvis. He is now in full on recovery mode, and is scheduled to start at the Tour of Battenkill at the end of April.
On a personal note, while working on the interview, I was faced with a choice, either summarize Kem’s words into a shorter article or split it up into multiple posts. After reading and re-reading the complete transcription, I decided that I wanted to put Kem’s words out there, to show that the life of a professional cyclist is not all coffee shops and fun as portrayed by some of the blogs and tweets out there.
In the second part of the interview, Kem described his path to the Bissell team where he’s been working for the past four years. As part of his role as domestique, Kem is able to position himself and his teammates well into the peloton.
Some riders never master that skill of positioning, for Kem, the key is not to be “worried about the energy that you are using.”
It’s all about the team staying together with the domestiques such Kem riding in the wind. Riding in the back is just not going to cut it.
“I was taught that it was better that I was used up if it kept these guys fresh and so I’ve always known that mentality of to be a pro, to race like a pro, you race together, you race like a unit and doing that there are guys that get used up early.”
That mentality won’t work if the guy being used up early is also thinking of his own personal results instead of the team’s results. For Kem, it’s okay to be dropped before the final climb as long as the rider he is looking after is ready to go.
“I was just always burning matches staying at the front because there were always guys on my wheels, who were then protected and I guess you have to do that enough times to figure out how to race out there but also get a little protection.”
As the Bissell team as gotten better, Kem is often called to ride tempo and now he rides at the front of the race, still in the wind every day.
“Last year, you saw the full team take control at races even when we didn’t have the leader’s jersey because I can do that all day, everyday, it doesn’t matter. That was the job I was there for, we had some younger guys that were kind of learning that role, but Tom, Ben and Burke, those guys never saw the wind and that’s how they were able to get those results they did because they had a team that was dedicated to that, it wasn’t 8 guys wearing the same jersey in a race trying to get results.”
Another skill that Kem has demonstrated is the ability to read a race and tactics which he developed because he “has never wanted to do anything half-assed.”
“If you want to be a bike racer you have to figure out how to be bike racer and that’s part of it, and the reality of this sport is that it’s pretty easy to think about, I mean it’s hard to train, it’s hard to win races but at the same time you’re still just riding a bike.”
Under the guidance of then Directeur Sportif, now General Manager Glen Mitchell and his “thinking outside the box in terms of race tactics”, the team’s tactics surprised some in races such as the last stage of the Mt Hood Cycling Classic and the Tour de Nez, last year.
But there is another part to tactics. “You have to really know the guys that you are racing with and what they are capable of and that’s a big part of my job, it’s a big part of what Glen does, you have to always ask for a little bit more at the same time, you can’t ask too much because if they don’t achieve, then they’ll be discouraged. You don’t want guys that are capable of winning bike races to be discouraged.”
At the beginning of the year during training camp, Kem told me that he wanted to become more of a leader in the team which he described as “making sure that they guys are in the right place at the right time so they can do what they do best which is win bike races.”
It’s all about the team “If Ben Jacques-Maynes is having a bad day, I’m going to go back and get him and if that means I end up sliding 50 feet into a ditch, I don’t blame him, I’m glad he got back on because that’s all that mattered.”
Kem plans to lead by example for his younger teammates. “You need to have guys on the team that will sacrifice for the other, and if they see me do that, then they give a little bit more when it’s their turn to sacrifice. I think that that’s huge, that’s what the team needs, that’s what we need to win bike races.”
Born to be a bike racer? “I don’t think so. I’m not a really talented guy. I think I’m really good with people and I also take a lot of pride in what I do. It’s easy to be good at this especially with the environment that I’m in now because that was bike racers need.”
During his time in the corporate world, Kem learned that how you deal with the people around you is just as important as how good you are at your job, how productive you are, or how strong you are.
“I’m not the strongest guy, I’m not the guy who’s going to win races, I’ve been tested and coached, I’ve had coaches not wanting to work with me anymore because I don’t win races, and my ambition is to make the team successful and not necessarily be successful. While there’s been teams that have taken advantage of that, after being able to be with Glen and now Eric, they respect that kind of rider because that’s an element of the type of rider they were too, they were always that three quarter rider, they are there until the last climb and then the superstar does his thing.”
When Ben Jacques-Maynes joined in 2007, Glen Mitchell told Kem how strong Jacques-Maynes was even though he didn’t a lot of results at that point and his team leadership was unproven.
“Every race we went to, I told him you can win this race Ben, you’re capable, you can win this race , just stay with us, we’re a team, he’d never had a team that’s just ridden for you, and he had the best year of his career and while he’s obviously an insanely talented bike racer, I think he was finally in an environment that was all about seeing him succeed.”
And it’s the same for Tom Zirbel and Burke Swindlehurst. “I think that Burke going to step it up again this year, and that’s what we’re here to do, that what’s I’m here to do.”
The ultimate teammate Kem is ready to teach the younger members on his team the skill of being a domestique. “I’ve got a couple of young guys on the team that I’m going to whip into shape, and they’re going to give to and we need to have a team, and we need to have people that are there to make our leaders successful.”
“I like my life and that’s probably a big reason I’m still doing this, there’s not a lot of glory, there’s not a lot of money especially for a guy like me, but I’m happy because I like my life, I like the guys I race with.”
Follow Omer Kem on his blog and I’ll catch up with him after his first race back in late April.