Health

The all-diabetic pro cycling team in the Tour of Britain

Cyclists from Team Novo Norodisk Image copyright BrakeThrough Media

A team of professional cyclists competing in the Tour of Britain this week is united by more than just their team colours - they all have diabetes.

No athlete admits to weaknesses, especially when they are involved in one of the world's toughest sports, but one professional cycling team has turned chronic illness into a strength.

Phil Southerland, co-founder and CEO of Team Novo Nordisk, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was just seven months old.

Doctors told his parents he would probably be blind or even dead by the age of 25.

He was also warned off sport - but Phil developed a love of riding his bike from a young age and cycling became a big part of his life.

"I realised that exercise was helping me manage my diabetes," he says, now 32.

When he started winning races, he inspired a diabetic friend to take up the sport by showing him how he could manage his blood glucose levels.

He then decided to do the same for others with the condition, but struggled to find anyone else with diabetes to compete alongside him.

"When people are diagnosed, doctors tend to say 'your career is over' or 'you can't do this with diabetes'.

"There's no malice in it, they want their patients to live safely, but for years people believed them and gave up their dreams."

Phil says he wants every doctor to know that people with type 1 diabetes can do anything if it is managed properly.

No insulin

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body is unable to produce any insulin, a hormone which helps the body use glucose in the blood to produce energy, which we all need.

Image copyright BrakeThrough Media

Without insulin, glucose builds up in the blood and the body cannot get any fuel. Instead, it tries to get energy from elsewhere, such as stores of fat and protein, which can cause weight loss and other problems.

About 10% of all adults with diabetes have type 1. The condition is treated with daily insulin injections, a healthy diet and regular physical activity.

But for professional cyclists who spend several hours in the saddle during a race such as the Tour of Britain, managing that regime is far from easy.

Mr Southerland explains that the team monitors the riders' blood sugar or glucose levels every 15 minutes in the hours before a race.

They also closely monitor their food intake. After the start, it's up to the riders.

Using a small glucose monitoring system on their body, the riders keep an eye on their glucose levels by checking a receiver in their pocket.

Each rider has a different way of dealing with their diabetes, Phil says, but they all have insulin pens in their pockets which can be used to provide a quick injection of the hormone to reduce glucose in the blood and release energy.

"Some are eating food constantly and don't take any injections, while others give themselves three or four injections during the race."

Big plans

Leading a life as a professional athlete with type 1 diabetes is not impossible, but it is much more difficult.

Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical company behind the team, have been producing insulin in a variety of forms for many years.

Their backing of the team is part of a push to educate and inspire people with diabetes.

With Phil Southerland leading the search for talented cyclists with type 1 diabetes, the team has big plans - to qualify for the Tour de France before the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, in 2021.

In the meantime, the Tour of Britain provides an opportunity to show they can compete with the best.

But there won't be any excuses if they don't.

"What most perceive as our greatest weakness has become a unifying force," Phil says with feeling.

"If you're prepared to learn from your mistakes, you can do anything."

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