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by Shane Stokes
November 13, 2015
Photography by the Vatican and Cor Vos
It’s been quite a week for Team Novo Nordisk’s Phil Southerland.
On Tuesday the team CEO and co-founder, plus Senior Vice President of Athletics Vassili Davidenko, met with ASO about the team’s goal of riding the Tour de France. On Wednesday, the duo and rider Javier Megias chatted with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
One meeting was to mark what the team has done and what it symbolises. The other is about where it wants to head; namely, bringing an all-diabetic team to the world’s biggest cycling race, and thus proving that diabetes can be controlled and challenged.
For Southerland, a diabetic himself who founded the team with that latter goal in mind, those two days marked another milestone.
“It was really cool,” he said, speaking by telephone from Rome about that meeting with Pope Francis.
“At first we were just in a general audience. Then the woman from the Danish embassy who was our chaperone said she had got better seats. We went there. Then we went to an even better set of seats. Then she goes, ‘okay, this is a place where you are guaranteed to shake his hand.’
“So I got to get up close and personal and present a signed Team Novo Nordisk jersey to the Pope, and shook his hand. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am really, really pleased.”
The meeting happened in the run up to World Diabetes Day, which takes place on Saturday November 14.
Francis is a progressive pope who has shown a greater awareness of modern life and its customs than his predecessors. While it’s uncertain how closely he follows a sport like professional cycling, he’ll understand the significance of the goal of taking a team of nine diabetic riders to the Tour.
“We had an Italian representative, Frederico, from Novo Nordisk who told him that this was the first all-diabetic professional cycling team, and that we are racing to empower people around the world,” Southerland explained to CyclingTips.
“He said congratulations when we shook hands, which gave me goosebumps.”
Javier Megias (Team Novo Nordisk)
If and when the team rides the race, it will mark a milestone in both the event itself and also in the centuries-long battle against diabetes.
Lining out with nine diabetic riders in the Tour has never been done, and it will prove what Southerland has been saying all along: with the right information, lifestyle and treatment, diabetes ceases to be something that can curtail a full existence.
He’s long followed that philosophy, and founding the team was very much about spreading that message.
ASO understands what he is trying to achieve. Getting to the race is still some time away, but the French company has been speaking with Southerland about how it might be done.
“I met with Christian Prudhomme at the end of 2012, right after our first training camp,” he explained. “I introduced the programme, what we were doing. He was receptive, he liked it, but at the time, like most of the world, he had no idea if we were going to be able to race.
“You know how it is with ASO – if you don’t perform, you don’t get invitations.”
This week, Southerland and Davidenko were pleased to be able to talk to him about the progress which has been made.
“We have come a long way in two years. We showed Christian and Jan Le Moenner [ASO’s Marketing, Strategy and Business Development Director – ed.] what we had done in the past couple of years, and clearly explained that our objective is the 2021 Tour de France.
“We spoke about working with them to get there, and also changing the world in the process.”
Formed in 2005 by Southerland and Joe Eldridge, the team gradually expanded. Initially titled Team Type 1 after the type 1 diabetics that made up part of the squad, it became a UCI Continental outfit and then, in 2011, stepped up to the Pro Continental level.
In 2013 it changed sponsors and its approach. Novo Nordisk came on board and, rather than having a mixed roster, it decided to work only with diabetic riders.
Since then it has continued to progress. It made its WorldTour race debut in 2014 in Milan-San Remo, placing Andrea Peron in the day’s break. This year it won stage two of the Tour of the Philippines with Scott Ambrose, placed a fine second on day six of the USA Pro Challenge with Javier Megias and also took top ten results in races such as the Trofeo Laigueglia, GP Citta di Lugano, Presidential Tour of Turkey and the Vuelta a La Rioja.
One difficulty for the squad is that it is working from a much smaller pool of talent than most teams. In being able to only draw from diabetic riders, its task is immediately more difficult than that of squads without such a restriction.
By educating young diabetics that a top sporting career is possible, that pool of talent will grow, but it is going to take time.
It means the project needs to be a long-term one. Riding the Tour is not something that will happen this year or next.
“It was a productive discussion,” Southerland continued, talking about the ASO dialogue. “They challenged us on some items. They want to see us perform better in some of their stage races, in places like the Tour of Yorkshire, the Arctic Race and others. But it was a much more receptive meeting than we had two years ago.
“There is some real positive synergies between the ASO and Novo Nordisk and issues in Africa. Our social media platform, their social media platform. The full package makes sense…their races have the biggest visibility in the world, so why not be there?”
Saturday November 14 is world diabetes day, and Southerland’s meeting with ASO and the Pope ties in with that. He, Davidenko and the Novo Nordisk company have laid out a timeframe that they hope will eventually lead to the Tour.
“We did our first WorldTour race last year in Milan-San Remo. We had Andrea Peron in the break all day and four of my guys went through the 300 kilometres,” he said.
“Next year we would like to probably target a minimum of two, possibly three WorldTour races. To continue to increase our exposure at the HC races. To develop our young riders. We have got to keep making progress in both the results and, by consequence, the ranking of our team.
“Right now, depending on which website you look at, the team is ranked 83rd to 85th in the world. We were 122nd last year, so there has been a real improvement. We were 37 times in the top ten in 2015, we had some good GC performances for the first time. It was also the first time we did a full stage race programme, as compared to 2014 when we did criteriums in the States and primarily had one team racing the stage races in Europe, with some exceptions.
“We have just got to continue on that trajectory. My hope is that we can make it into the top sixty next year. It is not going to be easy. It is going to take hard work, it is going to take an improvement in team-work, leadership within our team.”
Phil Southerland and Team Novo Nordisk rider Javier Megias meet Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday November 11, 2015
With 18 WorldTour teams getting automatic selection to the Tour and only a small number of wildcard invites, he knows that Team Novo Nordisk needs to keep climbing the ladder of performance in the sport if it is to be considered for that race.
He believes it’s possible. “The guys have shown they have got the talent. We have seen the numbers in comparison to other riders. We do have the talent in the programme. Now it is just a matter of our riders having the confidence to fight for victory and to present themselves in position to win on a more consistent basis.
“Right now we have got a lot of young guys…most of these riders are new to professional cycling in the past two years. They have made a lot of progress. I am really, really proud of the team and the way they rode this year. But also their success and the way they rode has raised the ambition and expectation for next year.”
He’s got an idea as to when the team might be ready to line out in the Grand Tours.
“Our target and our long term plan is to do the Giro or Vuelta by 2018,” he said. “We have already been in discussions with some organisers.
“As regards a Grand Tour debut, it is really contingent upon how our guys ride in the first half of this year. If we have strong performances February through May of this year, we will start working on a potential Grand Tour entry in 2017.
“But I will leave it to the riders to decide if we are ready or not to go.”
As for the Tour itself, a date of 2021 has a significance that he believes is logical to work towards.
“That’s the 100th year of the invention of insulin. I want to celebrate the 100th year of life for people with diabetes with what would be one of the greatest defining moments in the history of diabetes.
“But that is not to say…I let them [ASO] know that if we got the invite earlier, we wouldn’t say no. We all had a chuckle at that one, but 2021 is my personal deadline. That’s my singled-minded focus.
“Before then, we have got to work with all the races out there to get us to the point where we are deserving of the Tour de France entry.”
ASO is well aware of the headlines that would generate, and also about the boost in television audience that the 366 million diabetics worldwide might bring.
Providing the team keeps working hard, keeps building the pool of talent and keeps improving year on year, it won’t require a papal miracle for it to achieve its goal.