When I was a kid, we took our bikes on family holiday to France every year and I’d try to cover as much distance as possible on the local mountain biking trails. Before I settled on road cycling, I tried a lot of different sports like soccer, golf, rugby, surfing and mountain biking. But in the end, I loved the freedom and independence of two wheels, I just wanted to go farther and faster. So I traded the fat mountain biking tires from my family vacations for some skinny racing wheels.
It wasn’t long before the competitive nature in me took over and I wanted to race. I pinned my first race numbers onto my jersey at the age of 16, which I obviously hadn’t mastered yet because they acted more like a parachute than anything else! I was terrified at first, but I loved it. Soon I realized I had found my passion. Each year, I took the season more seriously and progressed to represent Ireland at the Junior and U23 level. In 2011, I had my best results, won races and was awarded the best male rider in Ireland. Subsequently, I signed with the top team in the country for the following season. Things were looking good, and it seemed like I was going in the right direction to achieve my goal of becoming a pro cyclist. Then things took an unexpected turn.
Over the winter, I was feeling my best ever during training; I had never been so strong. In the lead up to my first season with my new team, I started losing weight. At first, I thought this was a good thing because it meant I could climb hills faster! But then came the cramping muscles and thirst. Initially, I simply thought it was dehydration and severe tiredness from possibly training too hard. During that period, I had an explanation for everything. While I had all the usual symptoms, it wasn’t until a routine blood test prescribed by my Irish National Team Coach that I found out something wasn’t right.
At the time, I was in university studying physical education and mathematics teaching. At first, I was told to watch my diet for two weeks before the doctors could run a second round of tests. This was surprising because I already ate healthily and exercised because I was a competitive cyclist. Then the results from the second test came back and I, currently known as “student teacher Mr. Clancy,” was sent directly from the classroom to a hospital bed.
The news was shocking: I had Type 1 diabetes. I couldn’t believe it at first. I thought it was unfair and asked, “Why me?” I didn’t know what it meant. I was shown how to check my blood glucose and give injections, but I was also told combining endurance sports and diabetes might be too challenging to manage. The recommendation I received was to cycle only one mile at a time. That’s when the tears came. I had been riding 100 miles the week before. I couldn’t help but think this was the end of my cycling career.
Then, I remembered watching a unique cycling team racing on TV. The reason they stood out from the rest was because they didn’t just have food in their pockets, they also had some sort of glucose monitoring systems. I did some research and found out these guys also had diabetes. Immediately, I was inspired. I thought, if they can do it, so can I. After consulting with my healthcare provider on a diabetes management plan, including nutrition and exercise, I went home from the hospital and went cycling. After that, I decided I wasn’t going to let this obstacle stop me. I contacted Team Novo Nordisk CEO, Phil Southerland, and began working toward joining the team.
Soon I was back on the road trying to get back to the level I had been at before. In one of my first races back, I came in fourth, which still stands as the most meaningful result of my life. I crossed the line and burst into tears. It was such a joyous and emotional moment to see it wasn’t the end. Some of the spectators probably thought I had won because of my reaction. For me, I had. It felt like a victory. Diabetes didn’t have to hold me back.
Not long after, I was invited to join the Team Novo Nordisk Development Squad in America. What was initially a 3-week trial turned out to be the beginning of my professional cycling career. I went on to sign my first pro contract with the team, showing that dreams can still come true. They say every cloud has a silver lining and I certainly believe that is true in my case.
For the last three years, I’ve never looked back. I’ve learned so much about diabetes and I enjoy the support of my teammates both on and off the bike. It’s clear that everyone with diabetes is very different. What works for one person might not work for another. But all the athletes on Team Novo Nordisk are working together to inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes worldwide.
For me, Team Novo Nordisk is a very special group. Not only are we the world’s first all-diabetes professional cycling team, but the understanding and unique bond between all of us is incredible. It motivates us to work hard and be the best athletes we can be. I’m very proud to be part of a team that is showing the world what may be possible with diabetes.
Read Type 1 Training Tips from a National Champion Cyclist by Mandy Marquardt.