Winning is only half the motivation for cyclist Stephen Clancy. Every time he gets on a bike he inspires others like him who fear, like he once did, that diabetes is the end of their world. writes
When Clancy discovered he had diabetes, back in 2012, he thought his cycling career was over. But he’s now competing in his sixth season with Team Novo Nordisk, the world’s first all-diabetes professional cycling team.
The Limerick native, who turns 26 this month, was a teenager at the time of his diagnosis. He had been racing at amateur level, on the domestic scene and was progressing through the ranks, with a view to ‘keep moving forward in the sport’. There was an award from Cycling Ireland, in 2011, when he was recognised with the ‘best domestic rider’ accolade. In that same season, he took a stage win, and overall victory, in the Charleville Two-Day event. Yes, 2011 had been a good year, on the bike, for the former Dan Morrissey-Speedyspokes rider.
However, towards the beginning of the 2012 season, Clancy began losing a lot of weight, without much of an explanation. Clearly, something was amiss. Following the subsequent blood tests, he was informed that he had abnormal blood sugar levels.
He later learned that he had Type 1 diabetes.
"Basically, when I was in the hospital, in Limerick, it was pretty depressing. They told me ‘you can cycle a mile’. They were saying that it was ‘good luck’ to my career, which was pretty tough to take,’’ Clancy explained.
The news was crushing. Aspirations of a career in professional cycling looked to be in tatters. But that was before he discovered Team Novo Nordisk.
‘‘Luckily, every cloud has a silver lining. When I researched diabetes in sport online — and cycling in particular — Team Novo Nordisk, formerly Team Type One, was the first result. Having watched some of the cycling races online, even the Tour of Ireland, it was that team that stood out. They didn’t just have bananas in their pockets. They had all the glucose monitors and all of these gizmos and gadgets. It’s kind of cool, to be aware of the team, and to get inspiration from it.
‘I reached out for some advice. When I reached out for information, Team Novo Nordisk were on the look-out for new, up-and-coming riders with diabetes. The team has a development squad, over in America. I did a three-week trial with them. I had to take time off college, as I was in UL studying PE and Maths and I was working in a bike shop. The trial went well. That was the end of the normal life,’’ he laughs.
The American-based Team Novo Nordisk, a global all-diabetes sports team spearheaded by its Pro Continental cycling team, takes its name from the team sponsor, a Danish multinational pharmaceutical company specialising in diabetes medication. The team prides itself on its mission; to inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes. There’s also the important slogan — ‘Changing Diabetes’ — emblazoned on the team’s jerseys. Taking all that into account, and considering the uniqueness of this sporting outfit, it is no surprise to learn that they are a very close-knit team. You get the sense that, sometimes, it really is the taking part that counts.
‘‘As is the case with most teams, you develop a really close bond. Every one of the riders having diabetes brings us closer together. While we are a sports team, it is not all about just winning races. It’s more about inspiration, empowerment and this positive message that we spread. It’s kind of unique. But it’s pretty special, I must say.’’
One might wonder just how difficult it is to manage the lifelong condition — caused by the lack, or insufficiency of insulin — as an elite athlete. Cycling is perceived as one of the world’s most gruelling sports, as it asks taxing questions of even the most seasoned athlete. But training for Clancy and his teammates at Team Novo Nordisk isn’t all that different to what it is for other cycling teams. Monitoring the disorder is the most important thing.
‘‘At first, I thought it was the end of the world. The words they used were that ‘diabetes is one of the most-complicated conditions to manage.’ And cycling is one of the more difficult sports. But the reality is, in my experience, that sport actually helps me. Of course, it takes a while to get your head around it all, because you can’t perform at a high level unless your glucose levels are in the target range. With the latest technology, a continuous glucose monitor that we wear, it will give us a live reading, of what your blood sugar levels are. Thankfully, as an athlete, you’re already aware of what you’re putting into your body and the impact it has. With diabetes, it is just one extra level. Over time, it just becomes second nature.’’
The Irishman does the majority of his training at his base in Catalonia, Spain, an area renowned as a hotspot for cyclists, given the lay of the land, the climate and the culture. Clancy had been living in Girona for two-and-a-half years and recently made the move 100 kilometres south, to Barcelona.
Since joining Team Novo Nordisk, he has enjoyed a fourth-place finish on stage three of the Tour of China I, in 2015, and he also earned the fan favourite jersey at the Larry H Miller Tour of Utah, in 2017. His first taste of competitive action in 2018 — somewhat delayed due to injury — came at this month’s Irish National Championships, in Sligo.
‘It’s been a pretty strange season for me. In my last race of 2017, I crashed and broke my collarbone. Just after I came back from that, in pre-season training, in January, I picked up a knee injury. That took me out of action for about two months.’
Clancy’s sights are now set on the rest of the season, with races in Canada high on his list of targets. Regardless of race results, however, his biggest goal is to continue to inspire over 400 million people living with diabetes worldwide.