How diabetes can be managed to fulfil your cycling dreams

Team Novo Nordisk shares nutrition and training advice

Pro cycling team Team Novo Nordisk inspires thousands of people living with diabetes worldwide, competing at a UCI Continental level despite each rider living with type-1 diabetes. We asked riders Gerd de Keijzer and Joonas Henttala, plus medic Justine Lyons, how they manage the disease to compete at such a high level.

The story behind Team Novo Nordisk

Team Novo Nordisk is aiming to ride in the 2021 Tour de France, which marks the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of insulin
Team Novo Nordisk is aiming to ride in the 2021 Tour de France, which marks the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of insulin

The team was created by Phil Southerland and Joe Eldridge, who assembled eight cyclists with type-1 diabetes to take on the gruelling 3,000mile (4,828km) Race Across America. The team went on to win the event in 2007, 2009 and 2010 — an incredible achievement.

Fast forward to the present day and Team Novo Nordisk has nearly 100 endurance athletes from over 20 countries on its roster. Most of them are cyclists with type-1 diabetes, but there are some triathletes and long-distance runners on the team too, and some endurance athletes with type-2 diabetes.

The pro cycling team has 18 riders and competes at a UCI Continental level in major races around the world. It racked up its first big win last year when Scott Ambrose (NZL) won stage 2 of Le Tour de Filipinas, and the team also earned two top-ten finishes last year at the Tour of Dubai.

“To inspire people affected by diabetes and race professionally at the same time feels like a dream come true,” says Dutch rider Gerd de Keijzer. “Sometimes when people are first diagnosed with diabetes, they focus on the negatives. I think this team has started to change that mentality.”

What is diabetes?

Joonas Henttala says it's all about routine when managing diabetes
Joonas Henttala says it's all about routine when managing diabetes

Simply put, it’s your body not managing its blood sugar levels effectively. Type-1 diabetes means that your body cannot make the hormone insulin, which helps sugar move from the blood into the body’s cells. Type-2 diabetes develops when the body cannot produce enough insulin, or the insulin that is produced does not work properly.

“Cycling is a very challenging sport and having a condition like diabetes doesn't make it easier,” says Finnish rider Joonas Henttala. “I’ve had diabetes since I was 10 years old, so I’ve accepted it, respect it and take care of it every day. I see it as part of who I am.”

How do Team Novo Nordisk riders manage their diabetes?

Gerd de Keijzer says it's easier to manage his diabetes during the race season
Gerd de Keijzer says it's easier to manage his diabetes during the race season

Team medic Justine Lyons has been with the team since it launched in December 2012. She had already worked at a diabetes clinic, and wanted to help the newly-formed team in its mission to “inspire, educate, and empower people affected with diabetes”.

Thanks to this routine, when the flag drops at a race, it's all about the legs and racing against the other riders. In the end, I’m a professional cyclist first; and I also race with diabetes

Lyons says that the medical staff encourages riders to develop a consistent habit of checking their blood glucose throughout the day, every day. “We do this to ensure they are in the best possible shape and work to keep their blood glucose within an optimal range.”

When a rider’s blood sugar level is outside this optimal range, they can make a correction. If it is much too high then they may take insulin, and if it is much too low, they may eat or drink something with carbohydrates.

“It is important for athletes to know their diabetes needs may change depending upon the intensity of their race day or their training workloads,” adds Lyons. “I would also recommend that riders try to learn from previous experiences about how their blood glucose responds to different types of training or intensities.”

That doesn’t mean a completely different diet for the riders though. Lyons says that the diet of Team Novo Nordisk riders is not very different from the rest of the riders in the peloton. “They may be more aware and careful about tracking how many carbohydrates they eat and when they eat, as this has a direct effect on blood glucose levels. As long as they are on top of that, they can eat the same foods as the rest of the peloton.”

Both riders also mention the importance of sticking to a routine, with Gerd de Keijzer saying that it’s actually easier to manage during the race season. “Now that I’m moving into the off-season, there is less of a rhythm because I get total days off the bike, spend days in the gym and even get some easy days. It’s during these periods when my routine begins to waver and I need to pay the most attention on how I manage my diabetes.”

Joonas Henttala agrees that it’s “all about routine”, adding that he simply sticks to the things that works for him, “then I don't have to worry about it as much. Thanks to this routine, when the flag drops at a race, it's all about the legs and racing against the other riders. In the end, I’m a professional cyclist first; and I also race with diabetes.”

The future of Team Novo Nordisk

Team Novo Nordisk competes at UCI Continental level
Team Novo Nordisk competes at UCI Continental level

So where next for this unique team of pro cyclists? Well some more major wins are an obvious target, but there’s a special anniversary to target as well.

Gerd de Keijzer says that the team’s overall goal is to race at the Tour de France in 2021. “This year is important because it commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of insulin. For me, my goal is pretty straightforward — to get a professional win.”

Jamie Beach

Deputy Editor, UK
Jamie's been addicted to bikes from the moment his stabilisers came off. Earliest cycling memory is the chipboard-ramp-on-bricks, but happiest one is bombing down a Mallorcan mountain pass that seemed it might never end. Always on the hunt for the perfect rain jacket, a keen collector of hats.
  • Discipline: Road, gravel
  • Preferred Terrain: Big mountains with long climbs, equally long and fast descents, the chance to get above the treeline.
  • Current Bikes: Genesis Croix de Fer, Brompton M3L
  • Dream Bike: BMC TeamMachine SLR01, Moots Routt
  • Beer of Choice: Augustiner
  • Location: Bath, Somerset, UK

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