Diabetes team fights the good fight in bike race

Kiel Reijnen celebrates as he wins the men's race in the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 2, 2013. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer )
Kiel Reijnen celebrates as he wins the men's race in the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 2, 2013. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer )
Posted: June 03, 2013

Vassili Davidenko had pulled over a Team Novo Nordisk car after the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic when a man with two young girls knocked on the window.

The man wore a shirt from a charity run for diabetes. He wanted to know how the team did.

It didn't win the 120-mile race this year, as it had in 2012, explained Davidenko, the team's general manager. It was a hectic day: The team's lead rider for the course was out with a stomach illness. The next option crashed and withdrew. The remaining sprinters weren't built for the climb up the course's steep finish. Their first rider across the line, Martijn Verschoor, finished 16th, 31 seconds off the lead.

"OK. Well, hey, good race," the man said before walking off. Davidenko said that this has happened before. Team Novo Nordisk is, after all, the world's first all-diabetic professional cycling team.

"All respect to other teams, but what we do, we change people's lives," said Davidenko, a former cyclist who was born in the Republic of Georgia. "We inspire people with diabetes, and everything is possible, even with diabetes."

A team that began with a chance meeting between two diabetic cyclists has boomed into a professional organization with more than 100 riders, a developmental team, and a junior program. Rider Joe Eldridge and founder and CEO Phil Southerland, who both now live near the team's headquarters in Atlanta, had never met until they happened to enter the same race while in college. After Southerland won, Eldridge saw him checking his blood sugar. Until then, Eldridge didn't know there were other diabetic cyclists.

The two grew friendly, and on a 300-mile bike ride home for winter break from school, Southerland had a thought. Eldridge had improved his times steadily since meeting Southerland and taking control of his diabetes. His confidence grew. His attitude improved.

"So I just thought the bike would be a great platform to spread that message to other people," said Southerland, 31.

The next semester, Southerland developed a business plan in a management class. By 2006, the pair recruited six other diabetics to ride, nonstop in two groups of four, in the 3,053-mile Race Across America. They finished three minutes off the lead. The next year, they set a race record.

"All the people without diabetes couldn't beat us," Eldridge, 30, said. "And from there we said, What's the next biggest thing?

He answered himself: "The Tour de France."

Alexander Serebryakov won last year's TD Bank Cycling Championship with Team Type 1, which has since become Team Novo Nordisk.

It is in Division II, the second tier of professional teams. Its leaders have set a target date of 2021 to qualify for the Tour de France. It will be the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin.

The team faced several issues Sunday, but none involved diabetes. That's typical, and for Southerland, that's the whole point.

"Our gene pool has only survived for 92 years now," he said. "Who knows how many Tour de France super-athletic phenoms with diabetes didn't make it?"

Contact Zach Helfand at zhelfand@philly.com.

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