In late January 2017, I flew into Alicante together with photographer Matt Randall for an extended weekend as guests of Team Novo Nordisk at their winter training camp. Spending a few days at the heart of this professional cycling team as they prepared for the coming race season, we left inspired by their dedication and sense of shared dreams. By an overwhelming sense of ‘family’.
The hotel parking lot is busy with mechanics, management and medical staff. For the riders, gathered next to service vehicles that will shadow the various groups, a 5 hour loop into the nearby mountains awaits. Clues to the various nationalities are provided by each individual’s choice of cold weather gear and I notice that some of the lesser experienced junior riders take numerous trips back to their rooms as layers are adjusted. While some are wrapped from head to toe in leg and arm warmers with a neck collar pulled up to meet mirrored eyewear – there’s a keen wind blowing and this is January – others from hardier climes stand quietly and relax under the winter sun.
Similarly attired in their team kit, I find it’s easy to forget that for Team Novo Nordisk this sense of identity is taken one step further in that every rider on its roster has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. And having raced on the UCI Professional Continental Tour for the past five years with a team mission to inspire, educate and empower everyone affected by this condition, these athletes explode perceptions that it precludes sporting pursuits and success.
At this level of competition, however, it’s not simply a matter of rolling up to the start line buoyed by a sense of zeal and determination. Success doesn’t come easy and requires considerable planning and preparation; the reason the team has come together to train on the roads surrounding Altea, 30km to the north of Alicante on the Spanish Costa Blanca.
There’s a palpable sense of energy that pervades the team camp and it’s only after scrolling down the personnel listed on the team’s website that you begin to understand the sheer number of individuals needed to take a professional cycling team on the road. As the groups ride out each morning, they do so with the hard work, long hours and encouragement of a support team with individual responsibilities but a sense of shared goals; perhaps best illustrated when the whole team gathers over breakfast as greetings, laughter and conversation animate the dining room.
Overseeing the camp, general manager Vassili Davidenko is responsible for building a roster of strong riders but, unlike other professional racing teams where recruitment is determined primarily by budget, the requirement that all Team Novo Nordisk athletes have type 1 diabetes naturally imposes constraints on their marketplace. ‘When we first decided to pull this team together,’ explains Davidenko, ‘we sent out 180 emails to various cycling federations and governing bodies as we thought they’d know of riders with this condition. We got one reply. So what we look for is a big engine. Even athletes that might have a background in another endurance sport. You take Brian Kamstra, for example. He competed at the European cross-country championships before his diagnosis. He rode the Diabetes Classic – a charity bike event created by Team Novo Nordisk pro rider and fellow Dutchman, Martijn Verschoor – after which he was invited to our winter camp in January 2015. Kamstra competed in his first bike race a few months later before his professional debut at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. It just illustrates the extraordinary determination and physical ability of the riders that race for our team.’
Kamstra – exuding enthusiasm and obviously relishing the opportunity he’s been given to race professionally – describes the loss of performance that led to a doctor’s appointment and a blood test: ‘Two days later I’m told I’ve got type 1 diabetes. Then they say it isn’t possible to continue with my cross-country running. That I’ll need to search for something else.’
Finally understanding the reason for his poor form, his diagnosis was in some way a relief. ‘You’re searching for something. You feel there’s something wrong with your body and it’s really hard when you don’t know what it is. The diabetes, it doesn’t have to hold you back if you have everything under control. And that’s another way that we’re professionals because we’re good at it. Managing your diabetes is like the training we do on our bike. You see what is right and what needs more work.’
A member of the medical team helping the riders manage their condition, Dr. Mark Greve underlines the skills that each individual needs to develop: ‘The young riders coming through the Talent ID and Junior Team pipelines have a myriad of different starting points in terms of their ability to manage diabetes. That’s why we have a diabetes educator who literally walks them through the process of buying groceries at the local store, teaches basic food preparation techniques and aspects of portion management. They’ll also show the young riders how to monitor using a CGM and methods of injecting insulin. Very much a ground-up educational model.’
Referring to the Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) that constantly tracks blood glucose levels, Greve explains, ‘Often the CGM display isn’t on show but can be kept in a back pocket with an alarm that vibrates if certain levels – either high or low – are measured. The riders will carry insulin pens and some form of carbohydrate so they can react independently and alter how they’re trending. Sometimes they might fade back to the team car where we’ll use a glucometer. Quite a coordinated effort at speed during a race.’
As all the riders on Team Novo Nordisk require a long-term Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for the insulin needed to control their diabetes, Greve sets this against the recent media storm relating to the practice of seeking approval for the use of otherwise prohibited substances. ‘There are some extreme views that concern whether an individual can be on any sort of medication and still race. But we need to acknowledge that our riders have a particular condition that’s treated with a particular medication. We simply provide the support and resources they need to race. And there’s also the opposing perception that our athletes have it easy because they all this support. But you need to remember that they’re the ones dealing with this condition. Day in, day out.’
A viewpoint echoed by Davidenko in reference to the permanent US-based camp acting as a talent pipeline to Team Novo Nordisk’s race squad. ‘We all have to cope with adversity and face challenges throughout our lives. If you strip away the diabetes, we’re just another race team fighting for their place in the peloton.’ Softly spoken – a 13-year professional cycling career that included numerous Grand Tours and 20 national titles means there’s no need to shout – Davidenko continues, ‘World Tour events like Milan-San Remo act as the perfect platform for communicating our message as they are surrounded by media. The TV coverage they receive means that, when one of our riders gets in the break, it’s an inspirational story. It’s an inspirational story even if you haven’t got diabetes.’
And this theme of stories is continued by sprinter Quentin Valognes. After growing up in a cycling family and having recently moved up to the Professional Team, he describes how he came to terms with his diagnosis in his book ‘Diab, un ami pour la vie’. Referring to his diabetes by a childhood nickname and describing it as a ‘friend for life’ perhaps best exemplifies the journey this young man has documented. ‘Before joining Team Novo Nordisk I felt I was fighting against my diabetes. Every time I started a race it wasn’t 50 or 100 opponents. It was one – my diabetes. Now it’s totally different as this team is like a family. They know what we need and where we need to be.’
With a powerful physique suited to his role, Valognes acknowledges the challenges of racing with this condition but chooses, instead, to equate these to the discipline and focus of any other professional athlete. ‘People ask me if it’s hard to race with diabetes but, to me, it’s the job of a cyclist to be a cyclist. And that means you do your job 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The rigour, the discipline, eating well and resting – are what every professional cyclist needs to do. I’m lucky to have this job and to live this life.’
A sentiment shared by Development Team rider Sam Brand who came to cycling by way of triathlon after an early diagnosis at the age of 10. Accepting that he was fortunate in never been made to feel that his diabetes was a disability when growing up on the Isle of Man, he states: ‘I was a runner and then got into triathlon when I was at university. Really as a way of doing something positive with my diabetes. In a sense, I grew up with it and I can’t remember a single day where it was considered as a negative or when I felt it stopped me from achieving whatever goal I’d set myself.’
Obviously comfortable talking about his condition – together with Valognes he regularly speaks to the media in his advocacy role for the team – Brand has now completed a year at the development camp in Athens, Georgia. ‘I’m new to this world of cycling; a year ago I’d still to do my first race,’ he explains before adding, ‘But it feels like all the pieces are starting to come together and click.’ Gesturing to the various groups gathered around tables quietly discussing the year’s racing objectives, Brand is clearly enjoying his time at the camp. ‘I’m like a sponge and speak to everyone; constantly asking questions. Often, looking at what gets reported in the racing media, it can seem like the soigneurs and mechanics can get forgotten. I’m very conscious of the role they play and make it a point of saying please and thank you. We shouldn’t take them for granted as we’re all part of the same team.’
As a young, relatively inexperienced rider, Brand naturally looks to the older riders in the Professional Team for advice and support with Martijn Verschoor perfectly placed and happy to embrace an informal mentoring role. With a career best result at the 2016 Tour of California where he sprinted to fifth place behind riders that included Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, Verschoor understands the skills younger riders need to develop. ‘The first part of joining Team Novo Nordisk,’ he suggests, ‘is that everyone needs to manage their diabetes. It you can’t do this properly, you can’t race. Then you look at your diabetes and training before focusing on diabetes and racing. There are so many factors that need to be considered: altitude, nerves, stress, if it’s cold or wet, if you’re very tired. And all these things affect your dosage of insulin. That’s why the CGM is so important because it shows your trends. But then, when the race is approaching the finish and it’s full gas, you also need to depend on the instincts that you’ve developed as you’ve trained. You need to understand your body.’
A veteran rider with Team Novo Nordisk – he was originally a speed skater before making the switch to cycling – after his diagnosis at the age of 13 Verschoor felt the need to challenge the advice to stop competing. Asked whether he was proving something to himself or to others, Verschoor considers before replying, ‘At first, to them, but now for myself. Every time someone tells me I can’t do something I want to prove them wrong.’
Not only happy to endorse Team Novo Nordisk’s mission to inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes, in 2013 Verschoor launched his own cycling tour in the Netherlands, the Diabetes Classic, that enjoys enthusiastic support from the 15,000 riders that take part each year. ‘It’s an important message we need to communicate,’ he explains. ‘From the outside, sometimes people think that we have everything easy. We look healthy and we’re racing hard. They just don’t see all the effort and work we put in to manage our condition. You always live with diabetes; every day, every minute, every second.’
In terms of racing and the all important results, Team Novo Nordisk look to Spaniard Javier Megias following a 2016 that saw his best season to date with a 14th GC place at the Tour of California and a second overall at the Tour of Korea. With a quiet stillness that comes from 12 years riding as a professional, he perfectly understands the media value that race results bring. ‘Every year we grow stronger and the results improve with that strength. When we’re in the breakaway or on the podium, every time we win; it helps spread the message of the team.’
It’s clear, however, that although Megias is happy to spend time speaking with the team’s extensive fan base at races or media events, he’s also eager to emphasise that they have identical goals and ambitions to all the other teams on the start line. ‘We want to communicate this important message to the people we meet but I don’t believe my diabetes defines or limits me as a professional cyclist. I was a cyclist before I was diagnosed and I’m still a cyclist.’
And, as the riders return from their training ride – leaving their bikes with the waiting mechanics before heading into the hotel for a massage – Dr Greve acknowledges that it’s this sense of definition that underpins the team as a whole. ‘They might have some unique challenges and needs,’ he points out, ‘but they’re just bike racers.’
To some extent shouldering the burden of the coming season’s racing ambitions, the last word is perhaps best left to the veteran Megias. ‘I love my job. I love to ride every day. Sometimes I think that when I finish my career I won’t know what I’m going to do. It doesn’t bother me to train every day. But maybe not so much in the rain, no?’
Images by kind permission of Matt Randall.
Thanks to Team Novo Nordisk for the warm welcome and generous support.