The route of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge makes it one of American cycling’s most difficult professional races. Colorado’s elevation, combined with the grueling climbs throughout seven days of competition, means the competition is a true battle of attrition. But Team Novo Nordisk is used to battles: Every member of the squad is living, training, and competing with type 1 diabetes.
With type 1 diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone needed to convert food into energy. But through careful management of insulin injections and monitoring of blood glucose levels, those diagnosed can continue to live long and healthy lives. Team Novo Nordisk is comprised of more than 100 type 1 athletes—including cyclists, runners, and triathletes. The men’s pro cycling team is the first of its kind and has riders from all around the world.
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Kevin De Masmaeker, 23, a two-year member of Novo Nordisk from Belgium, is competing in the Pro Challenge for the second time. “I was here last year and it was a big guess for me because I didn’t know how my body would react to the altitude,” he says. “Now, being here for the second time, I’m looking forward to doing this race. The people here are very nice and we get a lot of support when we’re riding here. It’s a very beautiful race, too.”
De Masmaeker earned Novo Nordisk its first podium finish at a major U.S. stage race when he finished third on Stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California in May. Diabetes or not, he’s meeting the goals he set for himself when he first started competitive cycling. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in January 2012, shortly after signing his first pro contract with a team in Belgium. “It was my first year, I was going to ride for this team and I wanted to prove myself,” De Masmaeker says. “I was ready to make the step to professional cycling.”
But in the weeks leading up to his diagnosis, De Masmaeker’s condition wasn’t looking good. He was shedding weight, almost 22 pounds in three weeks, and had lost much of the power in his legs. When his diagnosis came, there were doubts that a professional cycling career was still possible. “The first moments were like, yeah, maybe my career will be over,” De Masmaeker says. “But after a few days, I wanted to show everybody around me that it was possible to be a professional cyclist, even with diabetes.”
And he did. His friends in the cycling community introduced him to Team Novo Nordisk, and he reached out to team member Martijn Verschoor from The Netherlands. De Mesmaeker signed a contract and joined the team in 2012. “We have a pretty good bond. We support each other managing our diabetes,” De Masmaeker says. “On the training rides, we take care of each other. It’s a really special feeling to ride for this team.”
And the team doesn’t just qualify; it competes. So far this season, Novo Nordisk has earned 16 top-10 finishes while also providing immeasurable benefits to others. “I get a lot of reactions from people who have diabetes, and they come to tell me how great it is that a team like this exists,” De Masmaeker says. “It’s really inspiring for people, but it’s also a really special feeling for me that people look up to me. I’m just happy to be part of this team. It’s a great feeling.”