A diabetic … and an inspiration to other cyclists

Dubai Tour racer shows he can lead a full life despite his health condition.

A diabetic teammate persuaded Kevin De Mesmaeker that he could overcome the condition and lead a normal life. Courtesy Team Novo Nordisk
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DUBAI // As the world's first all-diabetic professional cycling team complete day one of the Dubai Tour on Wednesday, a young rider's story stands out as an inspiration to others living with the condition.
The multinational team are not just competing against the world's best racers over the next four days but they are also showing what people with diabetes can achieve.
Belgian racer Kevin De Mesmaeker, 23, thought his dreams of becoming a professional cyclist were over when he had Type?1 diabetes diagnosed three years ago.
He is now an integral part of Team Novo Nordisk and has become an ambassador for the diabetes community.
"I have been a cyclist since I was 16 and had some amateur victories in Belgium," he said. "Everything was working out well, and then on Christmas Eve in 2011 I began to feel unwell.
"I had all the symptoms. I was very thirsty and was losing weight without any reason.
"I was eating a lot but still losing one kilogram a day."
Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition in which auto-antibodies attack the pancreas, causing it to fail.
When De Mesmaeker was given the diagnosis, he was relieved to find out what was wrong. But he was distraught at the thought that he might not be able to become a professional cyclist.
An amateur cyclist on his team at the time was also diabetic, and he convinced the Belgian that he could overcome the condition and lead a normal life.
"At that point I thought my dream of being a professional cyclist was over," he said.
"I knew there was a new diabetic team, Novo Nordisk, and they were winning races. It was proof to me that winning was still possible, even with diabetes.
"Being diabetic creates a bond. Anyone with diabetes can still chase their dreams."
Each rider has their own story of how they have defied the odds to perform at the highest level of international competition.
Team Novo Nordisk achieved success last year; members earned 21 top-10 finishes and eight podium appearances in global competitions such as the Tour of California, Tour of Denmark and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay.
Dutchman Ruud Cremers, 23, a team member who also distributes water and food to his teammates, discovered he was diabetic when he was 14 years old.
"Back in the early days it was different as I was dependant on medical support back home," he said. "Before I wanted to ride to stay healthy. Now it is about cycling at the top level. That is very different."
According to the International Diabetes Federation, the prevalence of diabetes in the UAE is estimated at 19 per cent of the population. That equates to about 803,900 people living with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.
The four-stage Dubai Tour, which covers 663 kilometres of the city, begins on Wednesday from the Dubai International Marine Club.
All eight cyclists and the other 10 members of Team Novo Nordisk have Type 1 diabetes.
Most people with diabetes in the UAE will suffer from Type 2 diabetes, brought on by an unhealthy, inactive lifestyle and weight gain.
It is not just crash injuries that the team's medical director, Dr Rafael Castol, has to deal with. He is also busy managing each team member's physiological needs and insulin use.
Although insulin is a banned substance under the anti-doping rules of the Union Cycliste Internationale, each Team Novo Nordisk rider has a therapeutic-use exemption.
"The team members are dependant on insulin for the rest of their lives to survive," said Dr Castol, a Mexican.
"The adjustment of their insulin regime plays a key role in their performance. But it is not a perfect science and they have all gone through a learning curve. This team are helping to educate, empower and inspire themselves and other diabetics."
The UAE is ranked 16th globally for prevalence of diabetes; the main causes are poor dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles in the country.
It is hoped that Team Novo Nordisk's participation in the Dubai event this week will help to spread the word about adopting an active lifestyle and making lifestyle changes to keep diabetes at bay.
The team's general manager, Vassili Davidenko, 44, is optimistic about the team's first Dubai Tour. "It is a big challenge to recruit riders for the team who are diabetic and good enough to perform," he said.
"We want to show people that you can not only race with diabetes but you can race successfully with diabetes."