Leading the way: Novo Nordisk’s Javier Megias on racing with diabetes
Go to any pro race and you’ll see hordes of fans standing outside team buses or at the finish, straining to see their favourite riders. It’s understandable – the lifestyle may appear glamorous to many, although it’s undoubtedly harder than is first imagined.
Being the best at a sport is also a big lure to those who are passionate about it, and the sight of pro riders speeding up mountains, flowing over cobblestones or going shoulder to shoulder in the hustle and bustle of a sprint finish can be mesmerising.
However for another group of riders, there is another reason why fans will regard them as big role models. The competitors on Novo Nordisk are all people living with type 1 diabetes and, as a result, are serving as an example and an inspiration to the huge number of people worldwide with the condition.
Once seen as something which can impose severe restrictions on lifestyle, greater understanding has led to a change in the way of regarding the disease. One major aim of the team is to show that success in sport and other areas of life is still possible for those with diabetes; once the condition is managed well, there is no reason to avoid a top sporting career.
Javier Megias is a clear example of that. The Spaniard turned professional with the Saunier Duval team in 2006 and after four years there, moved to the Team Type 1 squad in 2010. He has been there since, remaining part of the setup when the title and main sponsor changed.
He finished tenth in the recent Tour of Turkey, far ahead of many riders without such a disease, and this plus other strong results have shown his team-mates plus others with the condition that much is possible. Thus far this year he’s taken that placing and also netted seventh in the Gran Premio di Lugano and tenth in the Trofeo Laigueglia; he’s not just a strong rider with diabetes, he’s a very strong rider full stop.
“Javier has been with us for five years now and each year he has shown signs of brilliance,” Team Novo Nordisk’s CEO and co-founder Phil Southerland told CyclingTips. “I think we have grown to understand each other and this past winter I let him know that consistent performance and leadership was key for 2015.
“He has worked super hard and delivered just what was asked. He is the only rider on our team to have ridden a Grand Tour and the riders look to him as an example. This year he showed up fit from day one and has been ready to fight at each race.”
“If I manage my diabetes really well, I don’t have problems”
Megias is from Madrid in Spain and took to the sport approximately two decades ago. “My father was riding a bike,” he told CyclingTips at the Tour of Turkey. “I remember I played football but I broke my arm. Then the next year I decided I wanted to be a cyclist like my father. I was second in my first race and I decided to keep riding until now.”
Trim and built like a climber and peppering his conversations with laughs and smiles, Megias is 31 years of age. His taking up of cycling 20 years ago means he was a very young rider at the time, and since then he has developed well as an athlete.
However there was a complication to deal with along the way; at 14 years of age he discovered that he had diabetes. It was a diagnosis that might have put some off, but he kept going with cycling and grew into the sportsman he is now.
Megias is very matter of fact about the condition and how he dealt with it. “It took a couple of months to realise it, but nothing special,” he said, downplaying things. “I just had to learn about diabetes, how to manage diabetes. It was easy, no problem.”
Megias is relaxed and easygoing, but appeared to become slightly more reserved when talking about the condition. He deals the subject in a matter of fact kind of way; in all likelihood, he probably doesn’t want to dwell on it too much.
He may be influenced by diabetes, he may have to manage his lifestyle in a certain way, but he doesn’t want to be defined by it.
He’s a pro bike rider first and foremost.
“If I manage my diabetes really well, I don’t have any problems,” he said. “It is fine.”
Asked what he does to control the condition, he is matter of fact. “I can say the sport is good for diabetes. Be healthy, do sport, it is not more mysterious. [Have a] healthy life,” he said.
Keeping blood sugar levels under control is important for avoiding complications. Megias explains that the riders use a continuous monitor during the race, tracking the levels in the blood. “And we inject insulin if my sugar is high,” he continued.
“Sometimes I need to inject insulin as I need to eat. Otherwise I can’t eat,” he said, smiling.
The team’s medical director Rafael Castol elaborated on the process in an interview carried out by CyclingTips in Turkey; that can be heard below.
Interestingly – but logically – the Novo Nordisk riders are the one group which has an exemption to WADA’s no needles policy. Taking control of the condition requires those legal insulin injections on and off the bike, after all, and so that exemption is completely understandable.
The obvious question is: is it tricky to be able to administer insulin while racing?
Megias smiles in response. “No…[but] on these kind of roads, sometimes,” he said, referring to the at-times bumpy terrain in Turkey. “But no, it is not difficult.”
Once again, he’s matter of fact. No problem. Manage the condition, then get on with things.
“He’s mentally tougher than ever before”
Megias inked his first pro deal with the Saunier Duval team, having first raced for its amateur squad in 2005. He won two stages in the Vuelta a Extremadura that year and then clocked up two stages plus the points classification in the Vuelta Chihuahua Internacional.
Those results helped secure that pro contract and in his debut season in 2006 he recorded a series of solid results such as 11th on a stage and 21st overall in the Tour de Pologne plus 18th in the Vuelta a Burgos.
One year later he placed sixth in the Gran Premio de Llodio event in Spain and secured a place on Saunier Duval’s roster for the Vuelta a España. That first Grand Tour went well; he was sixth, 12th, 13th and 16th on stages and finished a very respectable 50th overall. His ability was clear.
Megias’ move to Team Type 1 in 2010 has prevented him being able to chase results in more Grand Tours as it requires the team to secure an invite to those events. However riding three week races is a big target for the team and is something that he and it are aiming for in the future.
Southerland sees him as being vital in showing the way.
“To see him finally sneak into the top 10 at Turkey was awesome. The entire first half of his season was building towards Turkey and California. He fought hard and this year didn’t let the bad moments get to him.
“He is mentally tougher than ever before and that toughness has paid dividends. The young guys believe he can win and so do I. That belief drives them to be better and our entire team has improved because of it.”
Last season Megias picked up 14th overall in Turkey and then went on to net seventh in the Philadelphia Cycling Classic, sixth and eighth on stages of the Tour de Beauce and then sixth on stage one of the USA Pro Challenge.
Southerland and others encouraged him during the off season, motivating him for 2015. Megias worked hard and also made a change to his programme which has worked out well.
“I started later, in Dubai, as my daughter was born in January,” he said. “It is the only difference. I started later and I think it is better. Not much travels, not across the season for Argentina. Last year I crossed [the Atlantic] two times in the beginning, Mexico and Argentina, and that killed me. So this year I think this is better.
“This year I am riding really well. I hope I can win this season, I need it!” he laughs. “We will see. Hopefully in California I can do well. We will see.”
Megias bided his time on the first two stages, conscious that they suited the sprinters in the peloton. He then tried to make a move on Tuesday’s third stage, but crashed. “I’m really sad that it happened today of all days because I felt even stronger than I did at the Tour of Turkey,” he said afterwards.
He noted that the final climb suited him well but because of the fall, he had lost any chances of a high general classification result. Still, he isn’t deterred, and said that he will try again on Thursday’s stage. Saturday’s Mount Baldy stage is also a major target.
Talking about the Tour of California at the Tour of Turkey, he was clear as to its significance. “It is the most important race for the team this year. I want to do my best there. I will try to get a good result,” he said.
Beyond that, he will keep aiming high for the rest of the season and also in the years to follow. Set to turn 32 in September, he believes he can race for six or seven seasons more.
Megias will use that time to aim for big results for himself, but also for the team. He’s aware that he is in a position to be a positive influence, both for his team-mates and also for those outside the squad who are seeking encouragement as they deal with diabetes.
He knows the best way to do that. “I want to do a Grand Tour with this team,” he said, articulating the same target laid out by Southerland and others.
Although the squad was unable to secure a wildcard this time around, Megias knows it is just a matter of time. As the team strengthens, as its profile builds, it will be more and more likely to get the nod from a Grand Tour organiser. The best case scenario is that this will come in 2016. “Hopefully next year we can try,” he smiled.
Southerland is of the same opinion, and has an even bigger target laid out on the horizon. Taking part in the Giro or the Vuelta is important for the team but, in terms of symbolism and also making maximum impact, riding the Tour de France is the ultimate goal.
“I am hopeful that Javi will be one of the big reasons we reach our goal to compete at the Tour,” he said. “He has two dream races. First is the Tour and then there is Lombardia.
“I owe it to him to help make those dreams a reality, and I plan to do everything I can to do so.”
Megias aside, Southerland also knows that being in the Tour will be massive for the diabetic community. Riding the world’s toughest sporting event is hugely symbolic, and would completely obliterate any notion that diabetes can block an active lifestyle.
It would also be a huge draw for fans of the team; 387 million people around the world live with the disease, and having riders so closely associated in cycling’s biggest race would be a very powerful message.
It would also ensure a huge huddle of diabetic supporters outside the team bus every morning, and plenty of opportunity for those to see the competitors, their trailblazers, up close.