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What Defines Success for an All-Diabetes Professional Cycling Team?

By Adam Brown and Kelly Close

What is most misunderstood and why winning races is not the whole story. Prepare to be inspired!

When most people hear the word “diabetes,” “inspiration” is the last word they think of. Phil Southerland has been striving to change that since 2005, using the bicycle as a platform.

Phil’s latest endeavor, professional cycling Team Novo Nordisk (TNN), is the first all-diabetes pro team in ANY sport worldwide, and boy do they have a lofty goal: racing in the Tour De France in 2021, the biggest stage in the world of cycling. As one of the most watched sporting events globally, it would bring tremendous visibility for diabetes, and fulfill a dream Phil has had since he was 12 years old.

Like any big vision, this one brings lots of pressure to perform – and for a pro cycling team, that means winning races. But it also presents a challenging conundrum: How does one quantify TNN’s true mission of providing hope and inspiration? What is a good measure of success for an all-diabetes cycling team?

Team Novo Nordisk has seen 15 of its 17 riders get injured this year, and as a result, its world ranking has gone from 83rd to the 90’s. That’s not exactly plummeting (it’s actually quite great, given the challenges!), but in terms of measuring “success,” it’s also not the steady upward trend that every leader wants to see.

But Phil has never been more proud of the team, and as you’ll see in our inspiring interview below, defining success for Team Novo Nordisk is actually easy – they see it on the faces of fans with diabetes every day. But quantifying it is a whole different story. Read on for more.

What Defines Success?

ADAM BROWN: What is your definition of success for Team Novo Nordisk (TNN)?

PHIL SOUTHERLAND: Our mission is to educate, empower, and inspire everyone affected by diabetes. For me, success is when we improve the lives of people with diabetes and provide hope to people with diabetes and their loved ones.

This professional team has inspired so many people around the world to dream big. We have kids with diabetes and their parents coming to meet us at every race, and they let us know that we are the reason they thrive with diabetes. Fifteen to 18-year-olds with diabetes are now winning races, and thanks to this team, they have a pathway to their dreams as professionals.

While race results matter to the team, the sponsor, and the athletes, when we meet a kid before a race start and see that we’ve changed his perspective before even pedaling a stroke, we’ve already won. 

KELLY CLOSE: We love that! How do you measure success on TNN’s mission?

PHIL: The qualitative impact is the 13-year-old boy who a day after diagnosis tells us his new dream is to race for Team Novo Nordisk and then earns a podium at nationals six months later. It is the mother or father in tears at the bus who let us know that for the first time since a diagnosis that they have hope. To me, that is priceless and also proof that we are achieving our single most important key performance indicator: improving the lives of people with diabetes.

In terms of quantitative metrics, we use:

  • Results from the Pro team;

  • Measure the progression of riders from the junior team to the development team, and then from the development team up to the pro team;

  • Media stories (1,800+ this year) and our reach on social media (245,000 followers on Twitter, 3 million followers on Facebook)  

The beauty of cycling is that there are many definitions of success. Milano-San Remo is a World Tour race, the biggest and longest one-day race in the sport and one of the five Monuments in cycling. We had Andrea Peron in the breakaway for five hours, and according to reports, we delivered €9,000,000 in media value towards Changing Diabetes [a Novo Nordisk initiative].

At the Tour of California – and thanks to a true team effort – Javier Megias took 14th place overall against one of the best fields to ever race on American soil. In June, we finished second overall at the Tour of Korea, which is the best result in the history of our team. These are sporting successes for any team and even more so for an all-diabetes team. 

ADAM: What metrics are misused to measure TNN’s success?

PHIL: I feel the most misused measure of success is the ranking, but that’s how we are judged. I knowingly agreed to this. However, there is a big difference between sports and traditional business. In the corporate world, numbers are everything. The dilemma this puts on us is that we finished the 2013-2015 seasons with rankings of 140, 130, and 83rd, respectively. That’s incredible progress. This year, we set the ambitious target of reaching the top 60. However, 15 of the 17 riders have had injuries this year. These are variables we couldn’t have anticipated and are out of our control. As a result, our current ranking is in the 90's.

According to the metrics, it would appear like we missed our goals. In actuality, I have never been more proud of my team. I have seen a new level of grit, tenacity, and fight in my riders to overcome the odds and compete against the best. We are nearing some major breakthroughs, and once those happen, I believe you will see a whole new team. Confidence is the key to success in the sport. Our season is not over, and we still hope to improve.

KELLY: Whoa! I’ve got to interject here. Isn’t that pretty great to only go to the 90s when you were in the 80s and had no injuries? What else is at work here? Can you talk about that grit and tenacity?

PHIL: Yes, in spite of the injuries, we have had a great year. Let me help add some perspective to the life of a pro cyclist. It takes about three months in the winter to prepare for the season: 90 hours on the bike in November, 100 hours on the bike in December, and another 100 hours in January with intensity. The goal of this progression is to gain fitness and lose weight, helping riders get to the best power-to-weight ratio possible (watts/kg). The legs ache everyday, and there are often hours and hours of time on the bike in the cold and in the rain – knowing if you want a chance at success, you have to suffer. There is no coach yelling at you to perform. It is only your own self-discipline and commitment that push you through. 

This means riding hours each day, recovering after rides, and typically going hungry every night.  It is the only way to lose weight. Then say a rider has a knee problem or broken bone: a week or two off the bike, and with the appetite of someone who has been exercising 30 hours a week for the past 3 months. It is so incredibly hard to maintain the body weight, while the fitness goes away. Then you are back on the bike, a little overweight, and a bit under-fitnessed, but because we have limited talent pool, at times we have to throw the riders right back into the races. 

It is tough to maintain a positive mentality when getting your head kicked in for three weeks before finally “feeling good” again. And in reality, when you feel good, it just means that you can suffer longer at higher speeds, and thus deal with more pain. But the cycle of having to maintain weight is the most challenging, especially for athletes with diabetes. 

ADAM: What else is underappreciated about TNN’s performance?

PHIL: I do not think everyone realizes the scope of the challenges to field an all-diabetes professional team. We’ve done this for four years, and some people still don’t realize that each and every rider is racing with diabetes on our team. This has never been done in any sport or with any disease. We are the first, and I am so proud of that. 

When I launched Team Type 1 eleven years ago, it was barely feasible to field a team for an amateur race: the Race Across America. Heck, even we were trying to get Kelly on the team before she and we found out she was pregnant with Coco! Fast forward to 2010 and we had only four pro athletes with diabetes on the team and we didn’t know of any other pros in the world. In 2013, we were barely able to fill a roster of 16 athletes with diabetes. 

Due to the strength of our partnership with Novo Nordisk and our social media presence, we now have a pipeline that most pro teams would dream to have. Our development team is highly competitive in every race it does, and taking podiums and top 10’s at major international races, and our junior team races at the same level as the US National team.  They go into every race with the goal of victory.

However, our talent pool is still extremely limited in comparison to any other professional cycling team, and it will take a few more years to level the playing field.

ADAM: As someone who dabbles in cycling (I ride about 50-80 miles a week in the Bay Area) I’m always floored by what TNN is doing. But I also think it’s pretty hard to understand the gravity and challenge of pro cycling with diabetes unless you’re actually into cycling. What kind of challenges does this present from a “measuring success" perspective?

PHIL: Cycling is a hard sport, period. The race begins, and six hours later at the finish line, there is one single winner. Everyone else has lost. There are no time outs, no half time, no stopping to eat or drink, all while the riders burn between 500-800 calories an hour. They race in the rain, snow, heat and wind against the best athletes in the world, and those other guys don’t have diabetes.

I cannot put into perspective how much pain and misery all cyclists go through during a race. Mental strength is key. Imagine racing at 32.5 miles per hour for two hours straight and not being able to check your CGM. While we will never use diabetes as an excuse, our athletes have challenging moments and days and these moments can make or break a race.  

Our athletes sacrifice so much of their personal lives to ensure a strong performance on the bike, and they do it wholeheartedly because they want to change lives. We are all humans, and I realize that at times we might make diabetes look easy, but please realize each of these riders works so hard on his diabetes management because otherwise, he has no chance at success. This is one extra thing my guys have to do that no other pro team does.    

KELLY: How are you feeling about the 2021 goal to race in the Tour De France?

PHIL: I feel confident about it, although I would give it a 50/50 chance. There are no guarantees, but this is about the journey, not the finish line. Either way, we fully aim to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin and life for people with diabetes. I hope we can do it from France in July. If we miss that mark, it won’t be a failure, it will be a speed bump. I have had one consistent goal in my life since I was 12 years old and I plan to achieve it. With the 17 to 18-year-old talents we now have and the possibility of there being a superstar athlete who has yet to be diagnosed with diabetes, I have no doubt that we can be there one day. My big bold X is marked on July 2021 where we have the opportunity to bring diabetes the global visibility it so desperately needs. 

Everyone who has ever raced a bike has dreamed of racing in Le Tour de France, period. I feel it would be hypocritical to not strive for the single biggest sporting event in the world, or to limit our targets because we are “an all-diabetes team.” It was not the goal when we launched in 2013, but my athletes have inspired me to believe. They have already proven so many doubters wrong, and it is my goal as the CEO to facilitate their dreams coming true – and ensuring we have the runway ahead of us to do so. Every day we get notes from fans and people with diabetes in all corners of the earth, who we have inspired to dream again, and each race we compete is another chance to build on that.  

On Working with Novo Nordisk

ADAM: What do you tell naysayers who might quip, “TNN is just a marketing trick for a pharma company?

PHIL: That is the sport of cycling. Each and every team is a marketing project for its sponsors.  Most of the other teams are selling a product while Team Novo Nordisk has only one objective: to improve the lives of people with diabetes. We achieve this by educating, empowering, and inspiring people affected by diabetes. The product that Team Novo Nordisk markets is HOPE and I applaud Novo Nordisk for taking this altruistic view on behalf of people with diabetes.

I think we all can agree that people with diabetes need hope and encouragement when it comes to motivation. But looking beyond people with diabetes, we need societal changes to delay the onset of diabetes and its complications. I see the sport of cycling as the best way to achieve these goals on a global scale due to the sheer volume of lives we can reach. We are proud to promote Novo Nordisk and highlight their long-term commitment to people with diabetes and the immense support they give this project.

KELLY: Novo Nordisk has the Triple Bottom Line - how does that fit with TNN’s mission and goals? What have you learned on that front from your partner? What have you taught Novo Nordisk?

PHIL: One of the three pillars of Novo Nordisk’s Triple Bottom Line is social impact. Maybe we can’t truly quantify the direct ROI of their investment into Team Novo Nordisk, but from a social impact perspective, this team is making a difference. We already know that we’ve changed the future outlook for so many people around the world. Our goal is to reach Le Tour de France by 2021 and by achieving that, we will show the world what it means to live a diabetes-empowered life. I think we have helped show the employees at Novo Nordisk the incredible impact and meaning behind their work; they are making a difference.

The journey to Le Tour will be filled with many challenges, and these successes and struggles will have a unifying effect on the diabetes world. I am proud Novo Nordisk has invested in my dream, which has enabled the dream of all the athletes in our program, and now we are inspiring dreams in people with diabetes around the world. 

There is a saying, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” This quote really resonates with me, and I try to define my life by giving back. Novo Nordisk has allowed me to further my own social impact goals by continuing to grow the Team Type 1 Foundation. Currently, we provide nearly 100 college scholarships to athletes with diabetes in the US and provide all the blood glucose strips for the Rwandan Ministry of Health. Team Type 1 is the team’s foundation partner and an aspect the whole organization takes pride in. I think this is very similar to what Novo Nordisk does with its social impact projects, such as the World Diabetes Foundation.

ADAM: What question most keeps you up at night?

PHIL: Right now, it is my 2-month-old son who gets me up at night! From a business perspective, I have to hope and believe that the impact we have on people with diabetes will be enough to justify the cost to continue this project. Every business has challenges, and there is currently not a quantifiable ROI on the people who we have empowered to live their best lives possible with diabetes because of this team. I feel lucky to work with a company like Novo Nordisk who have the vision to believe that our impact has value.

ADAM: How long is your contract with Novo Nordisk?

PHIL: As of now, Novo Nordisk’s commitment goes through the end of 2017.

Broadening the Impact

ADAM: As you think about TNN’s experience on a global scale, what can it teach people with diabetes?

PHIL: YOU CAN DREAM! Dreams don't have to be huge; they just have to be meaningful. I hope that we can help every person with diabetes find motivation to take control. For our athletes, good diabetes management equals better performance on the bike, but trust me, they’ve all made mistakes to get their systems worked out.

Don't get discouraged by the tough diabetes days, but rather, try to learn from them and make the next day better. I have had diabetes for 34 years now and I definitely still make mistakes. There are good days and bad days with diabetes, and your numbers don’t mean you are a bad person or a failure. It's part of the diabetes game that we all get to play. 

For 84 years, people with diabetes were told all the things they could not do. Then we launched Team Type 1 and tried to portray people with diabetes as winners. We then launched Team Novo Nordisk, and an all-diabetes team is competing against the best in the world.

12 of the 18 guys on my pro team were told at diagnosis, "You can never race again.” But they did not listen, and now they are heroes. We need every person in the world, and especially every healthcare professional, to believe in people with diabetes.

KELLY: What can companies in diabetes learn from TNN’s athletes?

PHIL: Not to see us as “patients”; we are “people with diabetes.” I would encourage companies to invest in people with diabetes. In the last 11 years, I’ve had the opportunity to see a tremendous growth in diabetes advocates, the diabetes online community (DOC), and more. These are the people who will never give up and never stop because they have a purpose and meaning in their lives: diabetes.

As the advocacy grows, we will reach a tipping point where diabetes has power with the policymakers, similar to what happened in the HIV community years ago. This is what I see as the major ROI opportunity for companies: investing in the great people working on diabetes will come with rewards. I know how grateful I am to all who have helped us to this point.

KELLY: What do policymakers need to hear?

PHIL: When you give people with diabetes access to products and treatments, we are a very work-capable population. I see this as either incremental investments now or an enormous cost later.

ADAM: Two years ago, you told us “empowerment” was the biggest unmet need in diabetes care. Do you think that is improving? If so, why? If not, what should change? What should healthcare providers and organizations do differently? What can TNN do?

PHIL: I do think it is improving. You see the connectivity between people thanks to the digital world. People are no longer as afraid to say that they have diabetes, and you are seeing more people taking pride in having diabetes. I feel like The diaTribe Foundation has played a crucial role here, as has Team Novo Nordisk, Diabetes Hands Foundation, TCOYD, JDRF, ADA, Team Type 1, and many more (very sorry if I did not mention you).

KELLY and ADAM: Phil, thank you enormously for talking with us. Your drive to help people with diabetes is inspiring and infectious – keep it up!

PHIL: Kelly and Adam, huge thanks for this opportunity. But more importantly thanks to you and the diaTribe team, who work so tirelessly to ensure people with diabetes have access to education. Your team is amazing, and because of your work any person with diabetes anywhere in the world has access to all the latest and greatest information. Your team is so inspiring, and we are all smarter because of them! And I LOVE how you invest in the young professionals. TEAM!!

diaTribe is an online publication that is part of The diaTribe Foundation’s mission to improve the lives of people with diabetes. We seek to empower our readers with useful, actionable information that gives them hope for a better future, and helps them live happier and healthier lives. Sign up here and be the first to receive our latest articles. 

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