Omer Kem of the BISSELL Pro Cycling Team is facing a tougher end of season than ever before, as he is now being hit by the age rule as he pursues a contract for next year.
“Oh man. No, I don’t know yet. I think that the real problem is the fact that the age rule is reeking havoc with rosters.” replied Kem when asked about his plans for next year.
One of USA Cycling’s rules for UCI Continental teams specifies that the majority of riders must be under the racing age of 28. Well, Kem just hit that number as he will turn 27 in October, making him that dreaded racing age.
“Up until this point, I never really worried about it but I know that BISSELL is going to do everything they can do to keep me or at least I would like to hope that. If there’s downsizing going on, if it’s going to be a smaller team or if it’s going to be a more focused direction, maybe I don’t fit into that scheme.”
Kem is looking at all his options. “As a rider you always have to look around. I think if BISSELL does not work out for me, I will be okay.”
He’s not only looking at other teams but also exploring the real possibility of a role change. “I’ll definitely go another year, I may not be in the same role that I am now and that’s something to think about for sure. I like my job, I like the fact that I am on a team that wins bike races, that we get to defend but there’s always something else out there, something different.”
At the same time, Kem has a full racing schedule for the next two months, starting with the Tour of Missouri, followed by races in Australia and New Zealand such as the Sun Tour and the Tour of the Southland.
Some riders might be tempted to focus on personal results at these races to help with the hunt for a contract but not Kem.
“I would never change who I am or sacrifice that for a job and I think that’s really what it boils down to. “ Kem said emphatically. “I want to think that if I were to just go out and do my own thing at these races for the rest of the year, I would lose respect in the eyes of other riders and in the eyes of the directors and it’s not worth it. If my career is over at Tour of the Southland on November 9 then it’s been a good run.”
45 days. The last time we chatted, Kem was still on pain killers following a violent crash on a descent at the Tour of California where he fractured his pelvis. Only 45 days after the crash, he was back racing. “It wasn’t all my choice, it was just the way the season worked out.”
With races being canceled, it worked out that Kem had a packed April and a fairly light May so he had to go back a little bit earlier to be in good form for the Tour of the Gila.
“I suffered my way through it and I made up a little bit for the lack of preparation in May by doing a lot of training – having a lot of free time or spare time in Boulder.”
Gila is known for not only its tough climbs but its very tricky descents but that didn’t concern Kem even though his crash happening during a descent on a rainy day in February. “I think the key was that I never really thought about it like that, I figured it wouldn’t be raining, and the rain would probably have frozen me out more than anything.”
He was able to overcome most if not all fears related to the crash during his recovery and training period in Boulder where he could do 45-minute long descents with switchbacks. And crashing is just a reality for professional cyclists.
“You crash so many times, if I got to the point where it bothered me or I couldn’t descent any more then that’s kind of when you know that you are done, you can’t move beyond that crash because the reality is that you’re going to crash again. I’m going to crash again at some point.”
This injury was the worst one “by far and away” for Kem as it took away his ability to pedal and also the toughest one to come back from. Not just physically but mentally, as it took a long time to get back to form.
“I knew that I could be better than I was but I had to give myself a chance to get there.” said Kem who couldn’t just do a race just to increase his fitness. “I had to be one hundred percent for the races I go to, so trying to be home training and not being able to take advantage of racing to make me better, it’s really hard.”
He was also faced with the reality of not making it on a team for a specific race even if his form was good, a reality faced by many riders this year as races were canceled.
“I knew that coming out of Gila, I would have been good for Joe Martin but we have such a big roster that there’s nothing I could do to get there.”
Afterwards his season followed the same schedule as last year. Mt Hood where the team won the overall general classification with Paul Mach, Tour de Nez “which ended up pretty well” as his teammate Graham Howard finished fifth in the omnium with only a couple of riders there and Nevada City Classic. After another break from racing, Kem relocated back to Oregon from Boulder to be closer to his ailing mother and then raced the Cascade Cycling Classic, followed by the Tour of Utah after an altitude training camp and the US Pro National Championships.
Altitude: good and bad. One new thing that Kem added to his training this year was living at altitude by moving to Boulder, Colorado right at the beginning of February.
“I definitely felt the good and the bad. I think it’s going to make you much more efficient as a rider but there are some things that you can’t train because of the altitude that were I think almost more detrimental to me than what I gained by being there.”
Kem found this his explosiveness and his ability to accelerate and recover suffered during his stay there as most of the training rides were sustained climbing or descending, making it seem as if it was just tempo, be it high or low, all the time.
“It’s tough to do that explosiveness training and I’ll be the first one to admit that my sprint is horrible and I’m not a very explosive rider to being with so being somewhere that just continue took away from that, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Next time will be different. He thinks that he can get the same benefit of being in Boulder or anywhere else at altitude for five months by doing a series of ten day to fourteen day training camps over the course of the season, especially leading into an event that is at altitude.
Juggling act. Kem knew that he was facing a tradeoff “but I was put into situations racing where I needed to be more focused on that explosiveness or that ability to accelerate, recover, accelerate and recover.”
He found that the BISSELL team changed throughout the year and being able to just ride tempo at an altitude stage race wasn’t going to be enough to be selected for races or to be able to perform or race the way that the team wanted to race.
“I wanted to do well at those altitude races, that wasn’t the only thing that I had to be good at. And that changed as the season progressed, the dynamics of the team changed with some different people being involved.”
It is a juggling act training for both altitude and explosiveness. “The nice thing about doing this job, especially the more years you do. You not only learn about yourself but you learn about training in general.”
Kem has worked with many different coaches throughout the year and has been able to learn and takeaway something from each of them. “There’s only a couple of ways to make the body fit or race ready and everybody tries their own way of getting there and so if you can look at it from a really logical standpoint ‘what is going to make me perform best at the races that I need to go to’. Boulder didn’t work for me.”
But suffering at altitude was good for building fitness for upcoming races, starting with Missouri which is a really important race for sponsor BISSELL. “I’m going to take that into Sun Tour and Southland which are both races that I really like and would like to do well at. It’s never a bad thing to go and suffer at a really hard race like this, you hope you can perform, regardless of what happens you take that to the next thing.”
For Kem, examples of that were Mt Hood Cycling Classic and Cascade Cycling Classic. He suffered a “shock to the system” in April and after downtime in May, hit June running with his form back.
“We won Mt Hood and I think that was a good showcase but really there was only me and one other rider there to defend.” said Kem who can’t say if his form is good “because I haven’t won to say that my form is amazing but at the same time I’ve been able to perform beyond expectations with what the team needed from me.”
Domestique. “That’s always been my role and you have to balance that with a lack of personal results with the fact that we won the tour.” said Kem about Mt Hood.
He then pointed the Cascade race as a good example where he had the face a hard day of defending the leader’s jersey after his teammate Ben Jacques-Maynes made his way into the right break on the first day.
“I have to say that the day we had to defend was probably one of the hardest days of my whole career and I think that the fact that we had all eight guys going into the base of that last climb and giving our guys Ben, Tom, Burke, the best chance possible to have a good ride, I think that proves that I’m where I want to be.”
Kem also participates in the team strategy along with the leaders in the team. “I think that we all contribute to the general plan. Sometimes riding at the front is not the best way to defend a leader’s jersey and it’s not what we want to do but there is a certain amount that goes into honoring the fact that you have the jersey.”
If the team has to defend a lead, “I would hope that I’m the guy that my teammates want to have to do that.”