Stephen Clancy was hit with a wave of negativity when diagnosed but with Team Novo Nordisk he has proven that sufferers can compete
Back in January of 2012, things were going very well thank you very much for young Limerick cyclist Stephen Clancy.
Having gone from third category to first category in his first year as a senior rider, the teenager had just ended the previous season with a stage win and overall victory in the Charleville 2-Day, had made it onto the Irish U-23 squad and had been awarded Domestic Cyclist of the Year by Cycling Ireland.
A routine blood test suggested by renowned coach, the late Paddy Doran, before heading into the new season as part of the Irish U-23 set-up, however, revealed all was not as well as it seemed.
When Clancy’s blood sugars came back high, the doctor advised him to look after his already strict diet for two weeks before doing another test. When the results were similar, a trip to hospital was advised.
“It looks like he has diabetes.”
When the diagnosis was confirmed that night in Limerick Hospital, it was a bolt from the blue for the then teenager.
“That was a shocker,” Clancy admits. “I really didn’t understand what was going on at the time. At the time, I thought diabetes was just for lads who ate too much sugary foods. I didn’t know that Type 1 diabetes isn’t self-inflicted. It’s an auto-immune condition. It was all confusion. How is this possible? Is this really happening?”
Unlike Type 2 diabetes, Type 1 diabetes cannot be fixed with exercise or a change of diet and medication was required immediately.
“I had to start taking insulin jabs, testing my blood, straight away,” recalls Clancy. “That was a complete shock. From that night on, I was a Type 1 diabetic, insulin-dependent for the rest of my life.”
Looking back now, he can see the warning signs he missed back then; the fatigue, the weight loss, the cramps, the lack of energy. He was a classic example.
“I was tired the whole time. I had no energy, my muscles were cramping. I was thirsty, hungry. I was using the toilet a lot during the day and throughout the night.”
After his diagnosis, he experienced something all too many diabetics experience. He was immediately hit by a wave of negativity and told everything he couldn’t do, from jobs to racing a bike.
“I was just in tears,” he admits. “Cycling was my sport. I loved it and to be told I couldn’t do it was devastating.”
Ten years later, however, Clancy is still cycling. In fact, racing his bike all over the world is his job with Team Novo Nordisk, a professional cycling team made up entirely of riders with Type 1 diabetes.
Having read about the American-based team on the internet, Clancy contacted them and they offered him a trial before handing him a professional contract which has stretched to almost a decade. “When the team was first founded, the perception of having a team made up completely of diabetics was that we were mad,” says the affable Dooradoyle native.
“How are you going to manage the condition? There was no data, no studies or anything from a medical standpoint about managing diabetes and performing professionally, but that’s all changed now. We’re not only at the point where we can achieve that, we can also put out information to help others do the same, maybe not at a professional level, but to allow them have an active lifestyle in general.”
While the team’s early goal was to show everyone that ‘it was a professional cycling team who all just happened to have diabetes, rather than a team of diabetics that owned bikes and wanted to go racing’, they have earned their place in the pro peloton over the past decade and although they ride in the third division, or pro continental level, they regularly punch above their weight in much bigger races.
“Our goals have gone from basically getting through races in the early years to focussing on getting into breakaways and in the big World Tour races and getting victories in smaller races. We are progressing every year.”
In the past decade, Team Novo Nordisk have ridden some of the biggest races in the world including, Strade Bianchi, the Tours of Utah, Colorado and Poland and the epic 300km one-day classic Milan-San Remo, a feat once thought impossible for diabetics.
“Every year we’ve been there, we’ve put anywhere from one to three riders in the break,” says Clancy of the legendary Italian race. “For us, that’s a huge talking point anywhere we go. When someone asks if they can manage their condition for a 90-minute soccer game or a 10-minute swim event, we can say we just rode a 300km race. If that’s possible with Type 1 diabetes, then pretty much anything is.”
As the team has progressed, so too has the medication for diabetes, which also makes things a little easier for diabetic athletes.
“One of the big advances are the continuous glucose monitors you can wear to see your glucose levels on a bike computer, or a wristwatch,” says Clancy.
“We wear a tiny flexible needle that goes under the skin and monitors the blood sugar levels and gives a live reading. You can wear that for up to two weeks before putting on a new one. The previous technique would have been pricking your finger for a blood sample, which obviously is not ideal in the middle of a bike race, so the monitor makes a world of difference.”
Even professionals, though, have sugar highs and lows and insulin sometimes needs to be taken during a race.
“It happens from time to time. Diabetes is super individual and everyone manages it differently. If the sugar levels go too high, either from overeating or maybe if the race calmed down when you expected it to be harder, then you might go out of your target range and at that point it starts to impede your performance physically. Some of the guys use insulin pumps, that deliver the insulin through a reservoir in a tube that goes under the skin, whereas I always carry an insulin pen.
“At the start, it kind of freaked me out doing it on the fly but now it’s only a matter of seconds, a quick jab. If your sugars are low it’s also going to impede your performance but the fix is just to get some carbs in and the preventative measure is to always have some food on you; energy bars, gels or whatever and keep fuelled up. I suppose every other bike rider is the same in that respect.”
As well as racing, the team take part in awareness talks wherever they go and visit local clinics to inspire people with diabetes and show them what is achievable when the condition is managed well.
“We’ll usually meet up with the local Novo Nordisk affiliate at a race and we will meet fans of the team and also go to local clinics and meet patients and spread the message that way. When I was diagnosed ten years ago, the message was definitely that, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that’.
“The main goal of the team is to reach as many people as possible with diabetes and make it a ‘yes you can’ message. That’s a huge part of the team.
“If you win a bike race that’s great but the message that you can have a very active life with diabetes, to the point of being a professional athlete, is really the mission.”
“Back in the day, there was nobody really to look up to with diabetes but now there are diabetic athletes in multiple sports and it’s less common that people avoid sport because of the condition. Obviously, I’m not the best or strongest rider in the world but, for other reasons, you have a fan base and you’re making a positive impact on people, which is pretty cool.”
While diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes can be stressful for a parent or even an adult, Clancy is adamant that with good management you can still live a full and active lifestyle.
“I was still living at home when I was diagnosed and my Mom was waking up in the middle of the night any time she’d hear my monitor buzzing and vibrating with high or low glucose alarms. It is a big shock to parents to have a child diagnosed or even for an adult to be diagnosed but nowadays you have the access to remotely monitor your child or loved one and it’s a lot easier.
“I’d say your attitude and your mindset in how you approach diabetes in general makes all the difference. Don’t let it get you down. It could be so much worse. The technology is progressing. Not so long ago it was a death sentence and now we can manage it and live a perfectly normal life. A lot of diabetics are afraid to exercise for fear of negative things happening, but you won’t know until you try. Even if something does go wrong then you can learn from that. You can ask, ‘Why did that happen? What can I do differently with my insulin, my food, my preparation?’
“Obviously, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but there are worse things than diabetes. Most people would see diabetes as something that holds you back whereas I feel it opened up all these doors and opportunities, so many things in my life have come as a result of the diagnosis.
“I never thought when I was diagnosed back in Limerick that I’d be living in Spain now, married with a kid, have a professional cycling career and be able to help and inspire other people with the condition. Anything is possible with diabetes you can, definitely pursue your dreams.”