Which professional cycling team has the biggest following on social media? Team Sky, surely? Tinkoff (RIP), perhaps? How about Etixx-Quick Step? Or Movistar, ranked UCI top finishers four years on the trot? All wrong. Try Team Novo Nordisk for size.
Co-founded by bike racer and type 1 diabetic Phil Southerland in 2012, the US-registered team attracts a staggering 3.7 million ‘likes’ on Facebook, wiping the floor with the combined totals of all four WorldTour squads. They also kick the backsides of Quick Step on Twitter, by the way. If you saw that one coming, you are truly a connoisseur of cycling statistics.
With an estimated 415 million people living with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes globally, the team backed by the Danish-based healthcare company attracts massive worldwide support with its message by backing several sporting disciplines, headed by the men’s pro team.
All of Novo Nordisk’s 18-man professional squad have developed type 1 diabetes at some point in their lifetimes, a fact that often takes fellow members of the peloton aback, so Stephen Clancy tells me. The Irishman from Limerick approaches his fifth season with the team having been first diagnosed at the age of 19 – a life-changing moment.
“I didn’t see it coming at all. It can be genetic – it wasn’t in my family – but the usual symptoms are increased thirst, frequent urination, weight loss. As a cyclist, I was thinking, ‘Awesome! I’m a mountain goat!’ But I blamed it all on training too hard. Then I was getting cramping muscles, increased fatigue… all are symptoms of elevated blood sugar levels, but being a guy, I just put them down to over-training.
“I was part of the Irish under-23 development squad at the time. The coach recommended I get some routine blood tests done, and that’s when it showed up. Two weeks later it was confirmed. It was a big shock – I immediately thought that it was the end of cycling. One of the nurses gave me a list of all the jobs I wouldn’t be able to do anymore. That had me in tears.”
It got worse. The consultant recommended that, as a keen cyclist, Clancy should try riding a mile for starters… The teenager’s dream of a pro cycling career was seemingly in ruins, as the medical profession’s standard response to problematical issues – if it hurts, don’t do it – hit home.
“Setting the record straight” is the Novo Nordisk tagline used for World Diabetes Day this week, encouraging normalisation of what can initially seem like a dramatic change of lifestyle. Diabetes does not mean the end of the road. Far from it.
Clancy looked beyond his consultant’s recommendations and found the answer. “I remember seeing the team on TV after I was diagnosed, did some research, got Phil Southerland’s autobiography, and turned it around straight away. I thought if these guys can do it, maybe I can too, you know?
“Six months later, I was with the development squad, then signed for the team a couple of months after. It turned around pretty quick. My ambition was always to make a living on the bike, and the diagnosis ended up fast tracking it. Every cloud has a silver lining!”
Last year’s race programme took the Girona-based Irishman from Dubai to Strade Bianche, to tours of California, Utah, Poland and the Algarve – all good level racing. “I prefer stage races,” says Clancy. “I’m not much of a climber though – I suffered in Utah, with the climbing and the altitude combined.”
The practicalities of racing with diabetes are slightly complicated, but far from insurmountable. I assumed energy bars and drinks might be a problem area. Not so, Clancy tells me. “In actual fact, we still have the same nutrition bars and gels as the rest of the peloton – we are sponsored by Honey Stinger. The difference for us is we have to know exactly how many grams of carbohydrates are in each item consumed, and when you eat is a calculated decision, based on your sugar levels.”
So much like any other pro cyclist, only more so? “You are more tuned into your body. If you don’t do it right, you are going to have consequences. It sounds like a big deal, but we get used to it.
“We wear a sensor on the body that transmits wirelessly to a device that most guys keep in their pockets, or mount it on their stem, just like a Garmin. That informs your decisions: if you are on the way up, you are going to need some insulin; if you are on the way down, you’re going to need something to eat. We will check every ten to 15 minutes during a stage.”
The entire squad obviously has TUE’s in place to cover their insulin injections. Knowing the peloton’s twisted sense of humour, I imagine whipping an Epipen out of your back pocket and injecting mid-race must produce a few amusing comments?
“For sure! There’s a lot of jokes. We play up to it sometimes. They will joke, but they are always impressed that we race with diabetes. It is cool to send out a positive message about what can be achieved.”
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