British cyclists breaking new ground in the sport has been a regular feature of the past ten years – from world and Olympic champions to Grand Tour winners and several stops in between.
And Manx rider Sam Brand’s transition to the upper echelons of the sport certainly echoes that – the first Brit to race for UCI ProContinental outfit Team Novo Nordisk.
Brand’s maiden season with the second-tier outfit was one to remember – a World Tour debut at the Abu Dhabi Tour, a first Monument at Milan-San Remo, riding on home roads at RideLondon, finishing the season in China and all with a Commonwealth Games appearance in between.
It is not an ordinary debut season, but then neither Brand nor his team-mates can be considered ordinary riders.
Team Novo Nordisk are unique in the peloton in that all their riders compete with type one diabetes.
The team, sponsored by the Danish global healthcare company, rides with the stated aim to ‘inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes’.
Spend time with the team and you hear the same stories of both riders and supporters being told a type one diabetes diagnosis is an end-game for sporting ambitions.
Some were told to limit their sporting participation, others found themselves surplus to requirements at former teams after being diagnosed.
Brand, and his team-mates, are proof those knee-jerk reactions are premature.
The 27-year-old was lucky in many respects, in not being held back by the support team around him, but he is fully aware of how his place in the peloton can inspire others.
“Some of the guys in my team have been told, and you hear this quite often – and through other people, not just pro cyclists – that some support teams say, ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’, whereas my team were always so positive,” he says.
“It was always ‘let’s find a solution’. We’re wired as a society to be negative; it’s easy to say I can’t and I won’t, but my team and my parents always said, ‘let’s see what we can do’. I was never given a negative stimulus, I was never told you can’t.
“If somebody said I couldn’t, like a teacher, I would dig my feet in and show them that I can.
“It’s more of a competitive nature than anything else but being on the team now is great because it allows me to be that positive influence to the next generation.
“That’s my goal, to inspire the next generation; to show them that we’re doing this, and you can too – not necessarily be a professional cyclist but there are other things you can do and you shouldn’t be held back from it.”
Brand has eased seamlessly into the ambassadorial role he now holds, despite being a latecomer to professional cycling.
He initially competed in triathlon before turning to road cycling in 2016, after giving up a graduate job as a quantity surveyor to head Stateside.
If further proof was needed of his seamless transition, you only have to look at the shoes he wore for his Commonwealth Games bow in April emblazoned with the names of 50 people worldwide affected by diabetes.
“I have always embraced it and I’m a social person so I like to go out there and talk,” Brand explains.
“It’s easy to sit back and do nothing but then my position as a professional cyclist would just be for me, and I want to use my position as a professional cyclist to benefit others.
“When I decided to do the shoes, it was a case of I was going to the Commonwealth Games, I was going to be riding out of my Team Novo Nordisk kit and nobody’s going to know I’m representing Novo Nordisk and the 415 million people around the world affected by diabetes. That was my way of showing I’m doing it for them as well, and not just for me.
“I’m in this community and it means the world to me as a family, and I want to bring them along with it.”
Riding with type one diabetes might be a rarity in the professional peloton – certainly outside of Team Novo Nordisk – but there are other cases of how a high sporting profile can make a big difference.
Take Alex Dowsett, for example, who has haemophilia and has set up the Little Bleeders charity off the back of his success to inspire others with haemophilia to aim high.
The five-time British national time trial champion, Giro d’Italia stage winner and former UCI Hour Record holder has often spoken about the extra drive being an inspiration to other haemophiliacs can have on him.
And Brand says the same is true when it comes to riding with Novo Nordisk, and the impact it can have on people living with diabetes.
“A million per cent,” he replies. “You get lots of messages and you see that it can change people’s lives.
“One of our supporters is a young child in the UK and his dad found out I was riding Milan-San Remo and flew out to watch the start, so I welcomed them on the bus and you can visually see you are changing someone’s life, and that is so special.
“If you’ve had a bad day, and someone reaches out to you and says, ‘you’re amazing and you’ve changed the way I look at my condition’ it’s that much easier when you find out you’re not just doing it for yourself.”
Brand’s easy-going nature and eagerness to learn has ensured being held up as a role model so early in his professional cycling career has not overwhelmed him either.
The only major difference, in many respects, to other cyclists is the fact Brand and his team-mates use continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) when racing to keep their blood sugar levels under control.
Doctor Rafael Castol, the team’s medical director, explained as much when Team Novo Nordisk first arrived on British shores to race at the 2014 Tour of Britain.
Dr. Castol said recovery takes on an added importance for riders with diabetes, while a continuous education process on how to cope is implemented because no two people living with diabetes will respond the same way.
But in terms of the racing itself, and of the team’s global fan base, Brand says he just has to remind himself it is only cycling once he is in the thick of the peloton.
“The way I look at it is I’m having fun and doing the best job in the world,” he explains. “I just take it in my stride. There are somethings that can look a bit daunting at first but as I said you just break it down.
“It’s all cycling at the end of the day, just pushing pedals around in circles. I do what I’m told to do in terms of coaching and development. It can be daunting but I’m excited.
“I’m a fan of the sport. When you’re at races it’s like, ‘oh my God, Milan-San Remo’, you know? The occasion is so special that you just want to do your best.”
Nevertheless, he confesses his debut season as a fully professional rider with the ProContinental team exceeded expectations.
“It’s been incredible,” he adds. “I have to pinch myself sometimes. I came into the start of the year not really knowing what to expect in terms of how much they’d race me, and what sort of races I’d be in.
“What I pictured at the start of the year, and what I finished with, is completely opposite but in a good way.
“The step up has been massive but I try to take it in my stride and learn from every race; don’t let anything be daunting – if you think you’re racing in one of the biggest Monument races with some of the best riders in the world, you can get lost in that.
“For me, I had to break it all down, take it really simple and do what I know I’m capable of.”
Brand says his ambition is now to show himself more in races– to give himself a better opportunity to win, rather than just say he wants to win.
Novo Nordisk earned a single stage win in 2018 so it might seem a wild ambition – but then some of his team-mates were told simply racing was beyond reach, and look where they are now…
All images courtesy of Team Novo Nordisk.