Team Novo-Nordisk racing with Diabetes

By James Finch-Penninger @FishysCP

BrakeDown Podcast founder

Chris Williams and James Glasspool are the Australian face of the professional squad that only has diabetes affected riders, Team Novo Nordisk. 2016 has already been one of the biggest in the team?s history, with the riders competing in some of the biggest races in the World Tour, including Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo.

Despite ending up at the same spot, the paths Williams and Glasspool took to get there are very different. Williams, 34, came out of high school as a self-described ?overweight smoker? who made the decision to get fit after his wife made a comment about the fitness of the triathletes they were watching on television. He sold his car, bought a bike and started racing triathlon before transferring over to road cycling.

In 2009, at the Tour of Geelong, Williams collapsed during a stage, leading to his diabetes diagnosis.?? ?I actually thought I was going pretty well, I?d lost a lot of weight, which of course happens to a lot of people do before they are diagnosed with diabetes. My friend?s sister, she?s a nurse, was helping out with the team and we went to the supermarket to get some food. Before I left the supermarket I?d finished two litres of juice and then by the time we got back to the hotel another two litres. She joked, ?you?ve probably got diabetes?.?

?So in the racing I went terrible, got lapped in the criterium, then got dropped in the road race, started cramping up the You Yangs and then collapsed off my bike at the top. I went to the hospital, thinking that I was dehydrated and could get a drip, and that was when I was diagnosed with diabetes.?

?The doctor came in and said endurance sport like cycling and diabetes is a difficult combination and I?d have to give it up. I was devastated, in my mind, I?d sold my bike and thought about what I was going to do. I was lucky to have my friends and teammates around, within two days they had me on the bike for a ride round the block with a bumbag full of jelly bears and insulin. The first few weeks were definitely a learning curve, I found myself stopping at every servo to stock up on lollies and Coke. About a month and half afterwards I did my first race, the state time trial championships where I came 2nd.?

The adaptability and improvisation of those early stages is very much in contrast to the support that Novo Nordisk gives to its riders these days, with technology like the continuous glucose monitor, which sends an automatic warning to riders if they go above or below safe levels, and gives a constant readout of numbers for the squad to refer to. Williams reflects on how different things were back at the beginning.

?Looking back on those days, now that I have the continuous glucose monitor, I wonder how I did it. I?d finish races some days with my blood sugar so bad, but I?d have no idea, because there wasn?t the technology to test it. I wouldn?t consider it dangerous, I made do with what I had, but it?s not until later when you realise that there are better ways to do things.?

James Glasspool took a different road, with an earlier diagnosis meaning that he came into cycling with the condition, and knew throughout what he had to do, rather than having to change everything midstream. For the former track rider, the perks of riding a bike as a job far outweigh any negatives associated with coping with diabetes in an endurance sport.

?We never use the word disadvantage within the team, but I never thought of it as a hindrance or anything that was going to stop me. I just thought of myself as a bike rider that has diabetes. I never saw it as a problem, it was just something else I had to manage. Particularly when I was a junior, the others would have a coffee stop and have some cake, again it?s managing, you can still have those things but you have to adjust your insulin accordingly.?

?Last year there was a two and a half month period where every two weeks I?d be in a different country. It was a pretty hard period in terms of training and racing load but at the end of it you?ve experienced so many different countries and cultures. Obviously you get to travel to the massive sights of all of the countries you visit, but it is a privilege to get to see so much of the world.?

Both Glasspool and Williams both clearly take a lot of joy out of riding their bikes, and it is testament to their characters that they are out there proving that something like a diagnosis of diabetes doesn?t have to hold anyone back from achieving what they want in life. Williams takes pleasure in the simple joys of riding a bike, and getting to teach others about the sport.

?When I?m training, I see a lot more than if I were in a car. There?s places you get to see on bike that you would never get to in car, I enjoy that aspect, going a bit slower and getting outdoors and going on adventure rides and seeing what?s around.?

?I?m the oldest guy on the team, old man Williams, and it?s become clear to me that part of my role is using my cycling experience to teach some of the younger riders about team racing and racecraft. Teaching the guys about specific roles, when to do certain things, it?s something I really enjoy.?

For Glasspool, the younger of the pair, it?s about the contest and the drive for improvement, whether that in power output, results or simply gaining more experience in the tactics of the sport.

?I find the racing really enjoyable, there?s days where you feel the pain of riding your bike, but there?s those days where you look back and say ?that?s a good day?. I really enjoy the giant chess game of it, whether the break?s going to come back and what my role is, whether I?m helping teammates or working on the front.?

?For myself it?s still quite new, so I?m looking to get that experience, particularly in the bunch sprints. For me progression, both in results and experience is very important. When I see improvement, whether in power numbers or results in a race, that?s a big motivational factor for me. If I could finish the season with one win, I?d be a very happy boy.?

Racing with Novo Nordisk gives Williams and Glasspool the international platform to share their team?s message that diabetes doesn?t have to limit your ambitions. For the two Aussies, diabetes is just that other thing that they have to deal with, and it is more the dream of doing something that they love doing professionally rather than seeing themselves as ambassadors which motivates them.

By James Finch-Penninger @FishysCP

BrakeDown Podcast founder