Mark Suprenant remembers the worst time he ever went low. He was at the base of the final climb of the Mount Wachusett road race when he felt his feet go numb. He didn’t have any food, nor did any of the other riders in his group. Suprenant decided to suck it up and ride to the top.
“It took me 10 minutes to get up. Even the guys who had gotten dropped earlier caught and passed me,” said Suprenant, a New Hampshire rider who is now a member of the Team Type 1 elite/amateur cycling team. “When I got to the top I couldn’t talk. A friend who knew what was going on gave me a Clif Shot.”
Phil Southerland’s worst bout with going low came during the third stage of Ireland’s Milk Ras in 2002. It came on quietly — Southerland just thought he was becoming fatigued from racing. Then he got dropped.
“No matter what gear I was in, it felt like the hardest gear,” said Southerland, one of Team Type 1’s four diabetic professional riders. “The following morning I had a seizure and almost died. I had the lowest blood sugar I’d ever seen. Three hours later after some food I was on my bike and at the starting line.”
To Southerland, Suprenant and the millions of other individuals who suffer from Type 1 diabetes, “going low” refers to a sudden drop in one’s blood-sugar level. In its most harmless scale, going low leads to tingling in the fingers and toes, and perhaps a bad headache — kind of like a bad bonk. At it’s most serious, going low can lead to seizures, amputation or even death. It’s something that athletes with Type 1 diabetes must deal with on a daily basis.
Bringing awareness to the trials and tribulations of diabetic athletes is the goal behind the Team Type 1 cycling team. Southerland and fellow racer Joe Eldridge founded Team Type 1 in 2004 to compete in the Race Across America, and have expanded the program since. Last season Team Type 1 launched its domestic pro team, comprised of riders with and without diabetes. For the future, Team Type 1 hopes to put a squad in the Tour de France by 2012.
“People initially told me that is a pipe dream. When we wanted to win RAAM people said it wouldn’t work,” Southerland said. “The people in the diabetes industry have been our biggest believers. They’re believing in a pipe dream, but we’re getting there.”
To clarify, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks and destroys cells that produce insulin, the hormone that converts sugars and starches into energy. Type 1 diabetics generally learn of their malady as children or young adults, and must constantly monitor their blood sugar and food intake, and inject insulin. Type 2 diabetes is the more common form, and occurs when the body cannot produce enough insulin or properly use insulin to convert sugar into energy. It generally affects individuals who are overweight, and can be regulated by diet.
The 2009 season marks a huge step up for Team Type 1. For the first time the domestic pro squad has grabbed a coveted slot in next weeks’ Amgen Tour of California. Moises Adalpe, Ricardo Escuela, Chris Jones, Valery Kobzarenko, Darren Lill, Matt Wilson, Southerland and Fabio Calabria will take the line in Sacramento. Directing the squad are two former cycling greats, Vasili Davidenko and Gord Fraser.
That’s not the only step up for Team Type 1. The program has added the elite/amateur men’s squad to compliment the professional team. It has also added a women’s professional team, headlined by U.S. national riders Alison Powers and Kori Seehafer. The program has also added a triathlon team and Team Type 2, an eight-person squad of Type 2 diabetics that will compete in the 2009 Race Across America.
“We’re a more dynamic program now. We can cover all of the bases,” said Eldridge. “Adding the women’s team adds a whole new platform for us to talk to people about the message we’re trying to promote. We have people with diabetes and without on the team, but everyone is there to promote the message.”
That message? Those who suffer from Type 1 diabetes can still live active, athletic lives. The team receives the lion’s share of its $3.5 million budget from pharmaceutical companies that manufacture products for diabetics. The team’s jersey bears the names of the products, such as the rapid-acting insulins Apidra and Lantus, as well as the OmniPod insulin management system. Team Type 1 is a way for the companies to reach their customer base.
All of the riders with diabetes agree that the products have helped them live and race with their disease. Take the Omnipod. The handheld device has a wireless sensor that attaches to your arm. It displays real-time blood-sugar levels on its screen without the need to prick a finger.
“It’s pretty amazing. I can see if I’m on my way down or if my levels are staying put,” said Matt Brooks, a rider on the elite/amateur squad. “If I’m going low I can stop and have a coke or a gel and I’m good to go.”
Another arm pod holds an insulin pump, which slowly releases the hormone into a rider’s bloodstream, eliminating the need to stop and inject. Both products have revolutionized the way all those with diabetes — not just athletes — live.
“We’re checking our blood sugar. We’re using these products to manage our diabetes and we can train just as hard as the best in the world,” Southerland said. “The technology has really changed things for (Type 1 diabetics).”
It’s a noble cause, and one that will be bolstered by the team’s California invite. Team Type 1 does not have a designated GC rider, but will attack the race looking for stage victories. Talented opportunists Adalpe, Kobzarenko and Wilson could prove capable of getting in early breakaways.
The team’s newest addition, South African Lill, is one of the most talented climbers racing in North America. Lill could be a factor on the stage 8 ascent of Palomar mountain, which climbs 4200 feet.
But the real eye will be on Southerland and Australian Fabio Calabria. Both men suffer from Type 1 diabetes, and will be the first ever diabetics to compete in the race. That, Southerland believes, is a huge step in the right direction for the Team Type 1 program.
“We’re racing against the best in the world (in California). We have a global platform,” Southerland said. “We want to show people (with diabetes) that they can achieve their dreams, whether it’s to race bikes or do a triathlon or just be fit and healthy.”
Email Fred Dreier