Phil Southerland started cycling for one reason – so he could eat a chocolate bar. “I started riding so I could eat,” he says. “I was just a young boy, exploring the neighbourhood, taking up time so I could go eat another bar.”
Junk food was banned in Phil’s house: he’s had type 1 diabetes since he was seven months old, so his body doesn’t produce insulin – the hormone responsible for enabling our cells to convert glucose into fuel. Organ failure and diabetic coma are the biggest short-term risks, while long-term complications include blindness, kidney failure, cardiovascular disease and nerve damage – sometimes leading to amputation.
These can be avoided with early diagnosis and good control – yet Phil’s parents were told by doctors it was unlikely he’d live beyond 25. And by 12, lured by the school snack machine, he had developed a potentially dangerous taste for Snickers bars. But he soon realised that cycling seemed to make his insulin injections work better – and what began as an innocent pedal around his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, led to a passion. By 19 he was competing for his university – and was in excellent health.
“In 2003, I’d just won a big championship, and another racer, Joe Eldridge, came over and introduced himself,” says Phil. “He said I was a real inspiration. He had diabetes and was struggling.” They became friends and, under Phil’s influence, Joe took control of his condition.
“His life changed, his confidence changed,” says Phil. “As he told me this, he said, ‘You’re my hero, and because of you one day I’ll see my grandkids grow up.'” Their meeting proved mutually inspirational. Phil had an idea – to set up a pro team consisting solely of cyclists with type 1. “I thought the bike could be a powerful platform to spread this message of empowerment,” he says. In 2005, Team Type 1 was launched, and a few years later they won Race Across America, a cycling competition covering around 3,000 miles.
The win made history. Not only was the team the first of its kind, but the fact they were doing so well in competition was also groundbreaking, as pro athletes with diabetes were practically unheard of until relatively recently. Last year, the team joined forces with Novo Nordisk, a healthcare company which marketed the first ever synthetic insulin treatment. Now Team Novo Nordisk, it has over 100 members from countries all over the world, including a women’s cycling team and triathletes, who will between them compete in over 500 competitions during 2013.
“Changing Diabetes” is emblazoned on their jerseys. Phil’s idea was to empower type 1 athletes, but also to raise awareness and highlight the importance of exercise, inspiring anybody with diabetes, athlete or not.
“When I was growing up, there weren’t really professional athletes with diabetes that I knew about, and having diabetes was an impediment to getting a professional contact,” says Phil. “Fast forward to 2013 and if you’re a really good cyclist and have diabetes, now your chances of getting a contract are just about the same as somebody without diabetes.”
The men’s pro cycling team, which has 17 riders, race full-time, on salaries. Others have day jobs, competing in their spare time. Some, such as 20-year-old Stephen Clancy from Ireland, were already serious athletes before their diagnoses. He was climbing the ranks when he found out he had type 1 last year. At first, he feared his dreams were shattered. “The doctors weren’t very inspiring,” he recalls. “One of them said cycling might complicate my blood sugar control, and suggested I try riding for a mile at a time.” After making enquiries, he was invited to spend two months with Novo Nordisk’s development team in the US and was signed up.
Glucose control, however, isn’t just about diet and insulin injections. Lots of factors, including temperature, general health, stress and activity levels, come into play – which is why frequent monitoring is so important. For racers, this poses the problem of monitoring during a race. The team use continuous monitors – small implants under their skin which transmit a reading to a credit-card sized monitor in their jersey pockets. It beeps if levels drop or spike and insulin is needed; the cyclists also carry insulin pens and simply administer a quick jab, all while pedaling. Aside from that, the team look after themselves pretty much the same way as any pro athlete would.
While their motivation – to win races – is the same as for any cyclist, the added bonus is that they’re beating diabetes at the same time. Phil’s evangelical about the wider benefits of exercise – that being fit is hugely important in warding off the complications associated with diabetes, and that the mood-boosting powers of exercise can help people with diabetes feel in control.
There isn’t much clinical data on exercise and type 1, but this is something Phil would like to see change. In 2011 he founded the Diabetes Sports Research Institute and is working with doctors to promote his message.
“We’re in a society where there’s a pill for everything,” he says. “I think every doctor should tell people, diabetic or not, to get out there and exercise.” Meanwhile, the team is going from strength to strength. It has just held its first junior development camp and, as its profile continues to rise, type 1 athletes from all over the world are knocking on the door. “Exercise is the drug that’s never prescribed,” says Phil. “We wear ‘Changing Diabetes’ on our jerseys, and that’s what we hope to do.”
• Not Dead Yet: My Race Against Disease: From Diagnosis to Dominance, by Phil Southerland and John Hanc, is published by Macmillan. Available now