The last time we talked with Omer Kem, back in September 2009, he like many other professional cyclists was playing the contract game. The 27-year old faced multiple challenges in his quest to find a team including the economic impact to the cycling world, the age rule and also his own personal constraints.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2010 where “life has completely changed” for Kem. After two years with BISSELL Pro Cyling and one year with Priority-Health, the Salem-native is now racing with an amateur team and has taken on coaching, a junior cycling team and is now working for OBRA to “run the membership side of things.”
“It’s going to be a new year for me in 2010, cycling is still a huge part of my life but the racing side of it is not the highest priority or at least what it was in 2009.” explained Kem. “ I’m still going to be racing but it’s just going to be a little bit lower key and something that I’m actually pretty excited to be a part of but at the same time the program is definitely not going to be the size of what the programs I’ve been involved with the last couple of years.” said Kem who has signed on to be co-captain, along with Aaron Tuckerman, of the Rubicon-ORBEA; Benefiting the Lance Armstrong Foundation team.
The Portland-based team, known as the UCI Continental LandRover-ORBEA team last year, lost their title sponsor but that didn’t stop Norrene and David Godfrey from continuing with the team. Their goal has always been to develop young riders and to raise funds and awareness for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
“For me, if I was going to take not a step back bit a step aside as far as programs, it was going to be involved in something that was good for the sport whether I was going to be developing younger riders or it was working for a charitable organization or something like that. I needed to feel at least good about what I was doing and the young guys that they’ve got coming over this next year are really really talented riders. It’s going to be fun working with them and also help them in their first year at the NRC level.”
Getting here from there wasn’t easy however. “I’m happy to be where I’m at, but it was a struggle, the last four or five months have been rough in my personal life for sure.”
Contract game. One of USA Cycling’s rules for UCI Continental teams specifies that the majority of riders must be under the racing age of 28, which Kem hit this year.
“I think that the age was less of a problem and just my own idea about what I wanted to be doing or especially where I wanted to be living. And also being out of the country from the middle of September through the end of November really didn’t help in finding a team. ” said Kem who was racing in New Zealand during the job hunt period last fall.
“My impression of 2010 and the cycling world is that the teams are becoming very regionalized, the majority of these new teams or the incarnation of a smaller team that’s merged with another team, they all would like most of their riders to be centrally located or from a geography standpoint be close to where the team’s base is.” explained Kem who, via emails and across multiple timezones, was in discussion with a few pro teams.
Kem went on to add that he noticed that the teams are becoming more selective as to which races they target especially with having less and less overlapping races on the calendar.
“So from a director’s standpoint, they don’t want to deal with riders that don’t get to race so it’s really really hard for everybody to find who they want with the money they have and then deal with the age rule and also deal with the fact well you can only go to so many races and so how does the goal of the team reflect the roster. I think it’s a lot of different things that put me in the situation that I’m in but really it made me grow as a person in a lot of ways, it’s been hard but at the same time I think it was something that I needed to go through.”
Kem was not willing to relocate to either Northern or Southern California or North Carolina in order to join the teams and that became the snag in every contract discussion. Kem wants to stay in Oregon to be close to his ailing mother.
“It’s a day by day process,” said Kem about his mother’s health, “but at this point with the team situation that I’m going to be in, I can over to my parents’ house every night for dinner which is important to me. I don’t know, I sacrificed so much for the last 6 years always thinking about being a bike racer first and what was the best thing for racing, whether it was go live in a host house in California for 4 months or 5 months or do this or do that, it just wasn’t working anymore so I talked to all these new pro teams and all these new teams and everybody I think was interested but I wasn’t willing to make the concessions that I used to be willing to make and it just doesn’t work.”
Another option on the table was pursue a position as a directeur sportif. “The easiest to do would have been to take the paycheck, get behind the wheel and stop racing. But it would have limited me in a lot of other opportunities that since then I’ve been able to pursue and also there were some things from a family standpoint that I needed to be here for and I just didn’t have in me to quit racing or give up every outlet that I had just to take a paycheck and I’m glad I didn’t because the paycheck wasn’t big enough for the sacrifice that it would have meant.”
Value off the bike. For Kem, to attract and keep sponsors, teams will need to offer more than results to keep or get sponsors. “Whether it’s charitable organizations or it’s public service work, anything that can make you more valuable than just being on the bike will really help any team that’s looking for find sponsors or keep their sponsors.”
For Kem, Rubicon-ORBEA is an example of a team delivering that value. “The sponsors that they have would never stop working with them because they know that they are dealing with good people,” said Kem about sponsors working with the Godfreys. “It seems that that becomes rarer and rarer in a sport where most teams will jump ship or walk away from anybody or anything if a better opportunity comes along. And if I never race for a supposed big team or something like that but I work with David and Norrene for the next 4 or 5 years of my racing career, I’m fine with that because I think that they’re two really really nice people and I would really like to help them be successful or achieve a level of success that they can be proud of. They’ve got a good idea about what they want to do with their team, they want to develop these young guys so especially with the fact that they’re based here in Oregon, I can’t imagine not being part of it.”
The goal this year is to showcase the team. “If Rubicon-ORBEA can be the best team in the Northwest and then go to a few NRC races that suit the guys and be successful and then that’s something that they can sell to the sponsors because they’re also good individuals off the bike.”
One thing that Kem is looking forwards to is to use his experience and knowledge to take advantage of the teams battling for NRC points. “I know how those teams race, if I can go to a young guy that has the capability of beating them and saying ‘this is how I think we can do it’. I think that’s going to be one of the most fun thing of being on Rubicon is taking this young group of guys that have the capabilities to surprise but only if they really pick their battles and take advantage of these big teams and the fighting that’s going to happen. BISSELL is going to be looking at UnitedHealthcare and Jamis/SutterHome and making sure that they don’t score points but at the same not caring who does.”
Coaching. “I really wasn’t until I needed a paycheck,” laughed Kem when I said that I never knew he was interested in coaching, “but I think it was just more of the Salem cycling community which is the town where I grew up, it didn’t really have anybody to tap into the blossoming racing community.”
From a few cyclists, his coaching grew to 20 athletes in a one month period from Thanksgiving to the end of December.
“It’s opened up so many doors and possibilities, from a couple of guys it’s snowballed into working with the entire team which has turned into this junior team which helped funnel into the Willamette kid and then the people in Portland, it’s good. The cycling community has been really receptive and they’re all really excited that I’m home and that I’m back.”
Not only is Kem now coaching individuals from Salem and Portland, he has also started a junior cycling team for male and female riders aged 10 to 16 and is coaching individuals from the Willamette University Cycling Team.
His coaching philosophy is an amalgamation of everything he’s learned from his previous coaches. “I hope that none of them would mind that I take an idea from one and I combine it with an idea from another and I take my own experiences because I really really made some bad mistakes training in my years of racing. To teach a Cat3 racer how to think like a bike racer and how to train like a bike racer instead of just training to win the local group ride that’s something that’s fun for me so it doesn’t really feel like work even though it’s time consuming which I guess is the best kind of job.”
“I really like my life, Lyne.” Throughout our conversation, that sentiment came across loud and clear. While the journey to get where he is was admittedly tough, Kem is happy with his current situation.
“If I was still on BISSELL and collecting a paycheck and doing my job in 2010, I don’t think I would have complained in the least but it also wouldn’t have opened up all these other doors or all these other opportunities.”
And what if a professional team comes calling?
“If someone comes knocking on my door at the end of this year because of results or something like that then I’m never going to just say no because of who it is but at the same time I don’t see the cycling world changing from that perspective.” said Kem who is also involved in testing cycling products for a Portland-based company. “They really like being involved with me as an individual and that helps me get on a team well that’s probably more likely. But am I going to win Redlands? Am I going to win Tour of the Gila or Cascades this next year especially with the team of riders that’s coming over? That’s going to be tough and so really what would it take for a United-Healthcare, for any of these teams to hire me to race? When I think about like that, I guess I could quit now but I don’t really want to do that. I’d like to help the Godfreys be successful and I don’t know, I’d like to get some results this next year but I want to do it for me, not for any dollar signs that maybe I see at the end of the tunnel.”
Co-captain of the Rubicon-ORBEA team, coach and more for 2010, all the while still living in Salem.
“I really like my life, Lyne. I love coaching. I’m doing membership work for OBRA, they’re all these little things, it’s a good living. I’m not in it for anything more that…. I have four or five hours a day to train, I have weekends to go race so I think I’m going to have a lot of fun this year but it’s not the thing that’s paying me. It’s changing my perspective on racing in general.”