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Novo Nordisk Extends Partnership with First-Ever All-Diabetes Professional Cycling Team

by Alexander Wolf and Adam Brown

Twitter Summary: All #diabetes pro cyclists @TeamNovoNordisk + @NovoNordisk extend partnership to inspire #T1D athletes + race in Tour de France by 2021

diaTribe was excited to learn that Novo Nordisk has extended its partnership with the professional cycling Team Novo Nordisk (TNN) for an additional two years. Founded by diabetes advocate Phil Southerland, Team Novo Nordisk is the first professional team in any sport to be made up exclusively of athletes with type 1 diabetes. We are big supporters. The team is made up of 18 professional type 1 athletes from 11 countries with an addiontal 30 athletes competing under TNN’s development and junior programs. TNN has its sights set on racing in the Tour de France, the world’s toughest cycling race, by the year 2021 – in honor of the 100 year anniversary of the discovery of insulin.

While the team is incredibly serious about winning races – indeed, they had 21 top-10 finishes and eight podium appearances in 2014 professional cycling events – a major goal of this partnership is to inspire, educate, and empower people with diabetes. As Phil put it in our interview – “We have the ability to truly change the mindset around what may be possible for people with diabetes.”

Phil was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at just seven months old, and was told he would not live past 25 years old. He has since dedicated his life to inspiring others affected by diabetes and bringing access to insulin globally though the Team Type 1 Foundation. We had an exclusive interview with Phil and Jakob Riis (Executive Vice President of China, Pacific and Marketing, Novo Nordisk) to discuss the ongoing partnership and their dreams moving forward, the challenges of running an all-diabetes sports team, and their messages to all aspiring type 1 athletes around the world.


ADAM: What are you most proud of that TNN has accomplished in the past three years? 

PHIL: I am most proud of our athletes. The majority of the athletes on this team had never raced on this level prior to putting on the Team Novo Nordisk jersey.  They had to first fight to earn a place on our team, then fight to survive racing at the highest level, and then fight to earn basic respect amongst the other professionals. Now, they are fighting for victory in every race that we compete in. Today, we are a team with confidence and a team that believes we will, one day, race in The Tour de France for Team Novo Nordisk. These athletes have one of the most beautiful, yet one of the most physically demanding jobs in the world, and they do it with diabetes. It truly is amazing.

I am also so grateful that Jakob Riis and Novo Nordisk believed in our dream. Without that initial belief, we would not be here today. Jakob took a chance, helped us become the team we are today, and is one of the best advisors I have ever had.

ADAM: What is the biggest area of opportunity for TNN in the coming two years? 

PHIL: I think the biggest opportunity through our sport is to rally the diabetes community around the world to become a part of our journey to The Tour. We have a goal of putting an all diabetes team into the single most difficult bike race in the world. If we can get the support of the 387 million people living with diabetes and be part of the inspiration for their motivation to exercise and live healthier lives, then the mission will have been accomplished. We have the ability to truly change the mindset around what may be possible for people with diabetes, along with the way we are perceived by the general public. Our athletes are born fighters and they are now fighting on behalf of each and every person with diabetes in the world. They take on this fight with pride and see it as a great responsibility, which is amazing and something we hope the diabetes community can get behind.

ADAM: What is most misunderstood about TNN?

PHIL: I still believe it is not fully understood that each and every one of our athletes lives with diabetes. We’ve created the first professional sports team in history where every athlete lives with the same condition. This is truly unprecedented. I also think that many people assume diabetes management is easy for our athletes, but diabetes management is a 24/7 job, on top of their training. They work very hard to manage their diabetes successfully, as it is the only way they can compete at the sport’s highest level. 

ADAM: What has been the biggest surprise in the past three years of this partnership?

PHIL: The biggest surprise has to be the overwhelming support and engagement by Novo Nordisk affiliates around the world. We have worked so hard as partners to ensure we don't just go to a country to race; rather, we race in these countries to inspire, educate, and empower the people with diabetes. The employees of Novo Nordisk have become our extended family, and are driven to use Team Novo Nordisk as an additional tool to improve the lives of people with diabetes. 

ADAM: What is the most challenging part of an all-type 1 cycling team?

PHIL: Initially, the most challenging part was finding the first group of athletes to launch the team and put a system in place to build the next generation. The majority of teams can watch the races, see who does well, and make a contract offer. We do not have that luxury, and have had to become quite systematic about our recruitment and developing our type 1 athletes. 

In 2013, we hosted our first “Talent ID” camp, and brought 23 kids from 10 countries to try out for TNN. This created our junior program, which now feeds into our development team. Similar to Novo Nordisk and other pharmaceutical companies, we have our own phase 1, 2, and 3 of development. In 2014 we had 40 type 1 athletes from 15 countries, and to date we have nearly 50 registered for our 2015 camps. It will most likely take 10 years to bring the 14 year olds who dream of racing for TNN to the professional level, and help them reach their dream step by step. We are not so different from the world of pharma in that regard, yet it is slightly less expensive to create a hero versus creating the next blockbuster drug!

ALEX: What main lessons do you hope to teach aspiring type 1 diabetes athletes?

PHIL: We want to inspire people to dream. We want parents of kids with type 1 to see...that by working with their healthcare provider to create a plan for diabetes management, exercise and nutrition, they can pursue any dream they want. With talent, hard work, and perseverance, those dreams may just come true. 

ALEX: How does Novo Nordisk measure success with the TNN partnership? What would a home run look like in 2017?

JAKOB: A typical way of measuring a sponsorship is to look at brand and logo exposure. We also pay attention to this, but for Novo Nordisk, the value goes much further. We are aligned with the team’s mission of inspiring, educating and empowering people affected by diabetes, and we are very glad about the great results we have seen so far. And needless to say: The better the team does on the bike, the more attention they get in the media, and the more people are exposed to their story and mission. In 2015, the team participated in their first ever World Tour race, Milano-Sanremo in Italy, and did well with a rider in the breakaway most of the day. A home run in 2017 for me would be to have more participation in the biggest races and to not just see the team compete, but to end such a high-profile race with a good result and perhaps even on the podium! I’m sure this would create a lot of awareness and put great focus on diabetes and what may be achieved despite living with this condition.

ADAM: Professional cycling is not as popular in the US as other areas of the world; how does Novo Nordisk think about that balance?

JAKOB: The team is based in the US, but they are a truly global team with a global mission, competing in races all over the world with riders from more than ten different countries – success is measured both in and outside US.

We see increasing popularity of cycling in the US, and what really matters are the encouraging stories that we hear every day – thanks to Team Novo Nordisk, people with diabetes are inspired and decide to make changes to their lives; to take control of their diabetes; or to start physical exercise. Cycling is a great way to exercise, but you don’t need to be a fan of professional cycling to be inspired by what the team is achieving.

ALEX: Is there any connection between the Novo Nordisk sponsorship of TNN and the Team Type 1 Foundation? 

PHIL: There is no connection between the sponsorship of TNN and the funding of the Team Type 1 Foundation.  Team Type 1 stands on its own and I am excited for the amazing work we are doing. At Team Type 1, we still use sport as a platform – all sports! – and I feel very privileged that we can invest in college scholarships for NCAA athletes with type 1 diabetes. We are creating some amazing global ambassadors through our scholarship program. In 2014, we awarded 18 scholarships, and this year, we plan to give more than 50. Ideally we want the kids to focus on school, sport, and inspiration, rather than worrying about the cost of diabetes care.   

For more information on Team Novo Nordisk, please see our past coverage of the US Pro Cycling Challenge or the organization’s website.