Bissell sport director dishes on working with devo riders

Omer Kem says leading the young Bissell Development Team this season has been “rewarding”

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (VN) — The other team cars have left. The voice coming from the megaphone is counting down the moments to start. But Bissell sport director Omer Kem sits in the driver’s seat, door open, relaxed.

This isn’t his first rodeo. And that’s what the Bissell Development Team is banking on. Coupled with Axel Merckx, who came over from the Bontrager squad in the switch from Bissell as a stalwart, standard domestic team to one focused on young rider development, the outfit has two savvy directors and riders with plenty of potential. Kem took a few minutes to talk with VeloNews Thursday morning in Colorado Springs.

VeloNews: What’s it like to be the first stop now instead maybe one of the last for riders?

Omer Kem: This year’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a change because you’re working with younger riders, and they don’t need motivation because they’re so hungry and driven and competitive. And that just comes from their whole career being in front of them. So it’s been rewarding, and fun for me in that regard. The biggest change for me has probably been just in how I deal with positive and negative things. And the guys do well, that positive reinforcement is really important. You need to make sure that they feel encouraged. Like they made the most of the opportunity that they had. And if they struggle or have a bad day you really need to give them a pat on the back and make sure they know there’s going to be another opportunity. And that they are young and they are learning and it’s a mistake that they don’t want to make again. But at the same time, it’s OK. As long as they try to do the best they can, then that’s really what Axel and I are looking for.

VN: What just makes you slap your head when you see these kids do it?
OK: If somebody makes the same mistake over and over again no matter how many times we’ve talked about it. To be honest with you, this is a great group of guys. They’ve all been racing for a long time, but you have that 18-year-old and all the sudden you’re at a pretty big race, maybe the biggest race he’s ever done, and you know, coming back for bottles and he’s never really come back for bottles before. And you’re like, “It could be so much easier than it is.” And you have to wait and say, “OK. I can’t get mad at him about this. I have to make sure this is a learning opportunity.” Because negative reinforcement is not going to make him learn or be better the next time.

VN: What are they great at that surprises you?
OK: Well the best thing they have going for them is that they have no idea what they’re good at. And so there’s nothing in their minds saying, “I can’t do that. Or I can’t be in the breakaway and sprint at the end. Or I can’t climb with best guys.” I’ve got this classics rider. He’s 21 years old, from Germany [Ruben Zepuntke]. Was like top 20 going up to Monarch. He didn’t get dropped ’till the very end. He’s a 160-pound German classic kid. He has no idea, and he’s not afraid of anybody or of anything. When you’re dealing with older guys who have maybe 10 years of experience instead of two or three years of experience, they get it in their head what they can and can’t do.

VN: Are the older guys good to the kids? Do they get pushed around a bit?
OK: The ProTour riders have a lot of respect for them. For what they’ve done, and where they’re going. They know that these guys coming from this program, they can be the future of cycling. From a domestic standpoint these guys spend a lot of time racing in Europe. They do the biggest races in the United States. They don’t spend a lot of time in that domestic peloton. So maybe they don’t have the relationships with some of the other smaller teams. And I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. If I can do anything for them, if Axel can be the voice that the ProTour teams hear when talking about these riders, if we have someone who maybe isn’t quite ready, I can talk to any domestic team director. I’ve known these guys forever. And they trust where I’m coming from because I have nothing to gain. I’m not making any money off of it. I’m not trying to steal their riders because I only work with 19- to 22-year-olds.

VN: You can only do so much, though, right? They still have to take their lumps?
OK: Absolutely. Nope. Cycling is hard. It never gets any easier. Maybe you go faster. Maybe there’s more results. But it never really gets easy.