Last month's news that Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk had re-upped its sponsorship of the namesake all-diabetic Pro Continental team ended months of anxiety for team founder and manager Phil Southerland, who has been running the program since its inception in 2008.
Novo Nordisk took over sponsorship of Southerland's 'Type 1' pro teams in 2013 on the condition that all the athletes on the team would be diabetic. The sponsor renewed for two more seasons in 2015, taking them through the end of this season, but until recently the team's future was up in the air.
"There've been a lot of changes at Novo Nordisk, and we went through a period of challenging unknowns together," Southerland told Cyclingnews in a telephone interview shortly after the team announced its new two-year deal.
For a team that has scored only one UCI win since Novo Nordisk put its name across the jersey in 2013, renewing the sponsorship contract was not a slam dunk, and Southerland had to fight to make his case with the company's executives.
"It was tough for them and it was tough for us. We really had to prove our value as a team and how do we drive value to Novo Nordisk as a company," he said, adding that the team and the corporation came out of the recent negotiations with an even stronger relationship.
"We worked really hard with a small group of people to prove our case, and the CEO and executive management team for the first time in the past five years had unanimous support for the program going on," Southerland said. "So we've come out on the other side a lot stronger together as partners, and we've got some ambitious goals for how we're going to change diabetes in 2018 and beyond."
'High-visibility' calendar will get some tweaks
Although the team's mission is centred around empowerment, inspiration and awareness for the diabetes community, results in races still matter for the pro cycling team.
The US-registered team scored its first and only UCI win in 2015 when Scott Ambrose took stage 2 at the Tour of the Philippines. Since then there have been multiple top 10s and high-profile days in breakaways, but wins have proved elusive.
Southerland said he's happy with his team's overall development, but he's not satisfied with the current ranking. Novo Nordisk is 47th in the UCI Asia Tour, 114th in the Europe Tour and has no points in the America Tour, Oceana Tour or Africa Tour.
"I'd say the middle core of our team has made really strong improvements. I think we had 13 WorldTour breakaways this year, out of 28 or 29 days racing in the WorldTour, which was a huge jump for the team. So looking at our results or our ranking, those don't reflect the growth of the team."
Southerland said team management made a strategic decision this year to seek out more high-profile races to increase the team's visibility as it sought more sponsors in a contract year. With sponsorship in place for two more seasons, the calendar will get tweaked again.
"We know we're not going to win stages in Tirreno Adriatico, it's like playing a lottery for a WorldTour rider to do that let alone where we are, but we could make the breaks at Tirreno-Adriatico, make the breaks at Tour of California and Tour of Poland, and increase the visibility of our team," he said. "And against that goal we succeeded."
Southerland admitted there were disappointing performances during the season, but he knows that wanting more from the team and its riders is his default position. He tries to keep the team's results in the context of how far the effort has come in five years.
"When you take a step back and look at the program, we have made some really good progress," he said. "We're bringing a couple of fresh faces to the team next year, which I'm really excited about. The development team continues to get stronger and deeper. The junior team has done really well. But at the end of the day, we're judged on the performance of the pro cycling team and how those guys do.
"It was a visible year, but a year I think we could have gotten a few better results. We'll reshape the program again next year and make a few adjustments. We need to win some races to boost the morale on the team."
Novo Nordisk in the team time trial at Tirenno Adriatico
Stocking a deeper talent pool
Having a roster of only riders with Type 1 Diabetes has obvious limitations, most notably the number of eligible athletes in the available talent pool. It's an issue Southerland and the team have long addressed with an amateur U23 development team, a junior team for riders 17-18 and 'talent ID' camps open to even younger riders. Multiple current Novo Nordisk riders started out at the talent ID camps.
"To continue as an all-diabetic team means we have to invest in the pipeline, and these talent ID camps for us have been arguably one of our most successful programs," Southerland said. "This year we had kids who I met when they were 16 years old at the talent ID camps who were racing in the WorldTour, getting top 10s in UCI stage races. And if it weren't for those camps, then they never would have come into our fold."
This summer the team hosted 53 kids from 26 countries at the camps, and Southerland said every year the riders show up more prepared to work hard and prove their mettle.
"I remember riding at the talent ID camp in 2013 fresh off a broken leg, just got married, overweight, and I could still ride around no problem with these kids," Southerland recalled, pointing out how the talent level at the camps has steadily improved. "This past summer, we did 85 miles in three hours and 50 minutes, and I was eating my stem the entire time trying to hang on."
Although the camps and the junior team have been a high-point in the team's development, their funding is no longer secured in the new sponsorship deal. Southerland said he and management are working to bring in new revenue sources to keep the programs afloat.
"We're currently in search of naming-rights partners for our pipeline development. It's been fun to have those discussions, because people really see the value in investing in the youth and getting kids on bikes at a young age, and really giving kids with diabetes a purpose in life that they never had before," he said.
"So while they're not signed, sealed and delivered, I am committing that these camps will go on and some company is going to get a really cool experience to be a part of this program."
Andrea Peron gets a bottle from the Novo Nordisk team car
Developing talent that will eventually chase wins is the goal of any professional sports team, but the ultimate goal with this team is to spread the message of Novo Nordisk's "Changing Diabetes" initiative, the company's global commitment to improve conditions for the 415 million people living with the disease.
Aside from providing a travelling billboard, the team touches the lives of individuals and families in very real ways. Southerland relays the story of an 11-year-old boy in Japan who was devastated when he was diagnosed with diabetes.
"In the Asian culture there is great shame to have type 1 diabetes, so he was depressed, and at 11 years old he met Team Novo Nordisk when we were doing the Japan Cup. He got inspired and started riding his bike," Southerland said.
"I got to ride with him last year at the Japan Cup when we did one lap of the circuit. I said, 'What's your dream?' And at 12 years old he said his dream was to make the talent ID camps. I said, 'Alright, you'll have to work hard because it's not easy to qualify; we're looking for very serious athletes.'"
Fast forward to June or July, and he and his father rode 900km in five days through Japan raising awareness about eliminating the stigma from people with diabetes – about being proud to have diabetes and having purpose. My friend Justin Morris got to ride with him, and he said the kid was strong. He's working really hard, and his dream is still those talent ID camps."