Cycling with diabetes – Team Novo Nordisk


03.02.22 at 11:50 am

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The last week of January provided me with an interesting insight not only into the world of professional cycling, but also into cycling with diabetes. Invited by bike manufacturer Argon18, I joined round the world record holder Mark Beaumont on a four-day visit to La Nucia, located in a fruit valley between Benidorm and Callosa d’En Sarrià, on the Spanish Costa Blanca. For more than a week Team Novo Nordisk, the world’s first all-diabetes professional cycling team, chose the town as base for their training camp. Mark used the opportunity to get the first long miles on his new Argon18 Sum Pro road bike, which had just been released two weeks beforehand. It’s the same bike the team will be riding for the upcoming season and is described as a bike ‘for the classics, the crits, and the climbs.’ 

Riding with type 1 diabetes

We both thought we would leave the windy and wet weather of Scotland behind for a few days, but on our arrival this happened not to be the case. When we touched down in Alicante we were greeted by temperatures below the 10 degrees celsius mark and thick clouds. Arriving late on Sunday, the weather forecast for Monday wasn’t looking much better either, but the clouds made for dramatic pictures in the mountains on day one, when the team tackled the legendary Coll de Rates a few times as part of their lactate testing. In the following days we got to experience what attracts a whole bunch of pro teams to the region in the winter months – wall to wall sunshine, blue skies, stunning scenery and challenging roads.

With no time for research before the trip I didn’t know much about the team that welcomed us warmly and with loads of enthusiasm. I knew very little about pro cycling, let alone that it would be possible to compete on such a high level with type 1 diabetes. When Mark and I met the team on our arrival, we got introduced to Phil Southerland, co-founder and CEO of Team Novo Nordisk and Supersapiens, a sports technology company that launched an app to monitor real-time glucose levels. A very friendly and humble individual, Phil’s passion for cycling inspired him to build a world-class racing program based on a shared vision to inspire, educate and empower people around the world affected by diabetes.

riding with type 1 diabetes

‘Diabetes gave me purpose. The fact that I’ve got to do this sport I love in conjunction with helping people around the world has been just an amazing opportunity. I would not accept a cure to diabetes if it was offered to me right now, because I love this condition. It’s something for me to control.’ Phil Southerland.

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at just seven months old, doctors told his mother Phil would likely be blind or dead before the age of 25. In the UK, about 8% of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. It’s a serious and lifelong condition, and researchers are still not sure what causes the illness to develop.

When I met Phil I got to chat to a man full of life, who simply doesn’t allow his diabetes to stop him from cycling at the highest possible level. Phil began cycling at the age of twelve and climbed through the ranks of junior competitions. In 2006, he and Joe Eldridge assembled a group of eight cyclists with type 1 diabetes to take on the 3,000-mile Race Across America to raise awareness for diabetes. The team went on to win Race Across America in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010. 

‘I started riding bikes so that I could eat Snickers bars at 12 years old. Because I had a Snickers bar at school my glucose went to 350, and I could go blind from that. So you could say I can’t eat a Snickers bar, but it tasted good. So I rode my bike to a gas station, ate a candy bar and rode around the neighbourhood till my legs hurt and when I came home, my glucose was normal. I went the next day, did it again. And then the next week it was ride until my legs hurt, then get a second snickers bar and then go around the neighbourhoods again.’ Phil Southerland

In 2005, Phil combined his passion for the sport and his mission of raising awareness to establish Team Type 1, an organisation that included athletes with diabetes. Under his leadership, the dynamic squad rapidly grew from a cycling team into an enterprise of over 100 athletes, spanning the globe to inspire and unite people affected with diabetes. In 2012, Southerland began reaching out to every cycling federation in the world, looking to gather a full competitive team of cyclists living with diabetes. Soon after its inauguration Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk partnered with the American-registered team in December 2012 to create Team Novo Nordisk. The company manufactures and markets pharmaceutical products and services, specifically diabetes care medications and devices. It extended its commitment to 2023, the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin and the commercialisation of the production of it. 

Team Novo Nordisk’s pros race in two disciplines: the men’s pro team races in the International Cycling Union (UCI) ProSeries as a Pro Team and the two pro track stars race as part of UCI Track Cycling. The 17 pro riders represent 12 different nationalities, including the Finnish national champion Joonas Henttala, who achieved a landmark win with Team Novo Nordisk’s first-ever national champions jersey in 2021.

As the pros conquered the mountains of the Prebaetic System, with Puig Campana, second-highest peak in the province of Alicante, dominating the view, Mark got some proper training miles in his legs. After the first day of riding, which at 69 miles with 2,050m of climbing was a shorter ride for the team, he shared his experience from several successful world record attempts on two wheels in the evening. The riders took great inspiration from Mark’s endurance efforts, and a longer ride the next day, 93 miles with 3,000m of climbing, gave the riders the chance to chat to Mark individually, and me the opportunity to capture the beautiful landscapes they travelled through, at speed.  

‘I am a huge fan of athletes learning from different disciplines, so this idea of myself, an ultra endurance athlete, teaming up with a pro road team, so we can learn from each other, is genius.  For sure I was pushed hard, these guys climb like gravity doesn’t exist, but I could see that they also learned from my experience, especially when it comes to psychology.  And the common denominator was our bikes, the Sum Pro from Argon18, which is such a superb weapon, super comfortable for long rides, yet agile, fast, and light. Seeing Team Novo Nordisk break down barriers with type 1 diabetes was the highlight of the week for me, not letting anything stand in the way of their dreams.’ Mark Beaumont

Day three provided not only more great photo opportunities, but also a long awaited coffee stop in the newly opened Musette Cycling Café at Alcalali. Roasting their own organic coffee and serving one of the best carrot cakes in the world, Rach & James, two UK expats, have created a wonderful place to stop and unwind for a few moments. 

The last day of our visit was all about marginal gains. Two of the pro riders, 30-year-old Manxman Sam Brand and 22-year-old Australian Declan Irvine, got to test their new Argon18 E-118 Tri+ time trial bikes in a municipal velodrome. Fitted with a Notio Aerometer, a device which calculates the rider’s aerodynamic coefficient and on-bike performance in real time, both riders got the chance to make those tiny adjustments to their bike setup that will deliver better results in the upcoming season. 

‘All we have to do is help people realise that it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s hard to be perfect in anything and for diabetes it is impossible to be perfect all the time. When they see elite athletes succeeding, you often think that they’re just perfect at everything. But we’re just like the kid who wants to be like us. Or just like the adult who’s starting to ride a bike for the first time. Because of this team we all have our own journeys, and giving people permission to fail is also giving people permission to start. And I think that power to begin and realise it’s okay to fail inspires people to take action. That’s what it’s all about.’ Phil Southerland

And while I enjoyed experiencing the stunning landscapes, soaking in some sun and a brief insight into the world of pro cycling, it was the riders’ positive attitude and Phil’s infectious enthusiasm to dare to make a difference that I took home to Scotland. While I am sure Mark and I will share a good number of bike rides together this year as well, hopefully this wasn’t the last time to follow the wheels of Team Novo Nordisk.

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