The other day I was taking my car for its yearly wash when I spotted a cyclist coming into the garage. He looked the part, but why would a Team Type 1 rider be here in Spain at this time of year? He left his Colnago outside so I thought I could make a joke about it being stolen, like when the team lost 25 bikes in Italy at the Coppi e Bartali, this broke the ice and making contact through Facebook was easy enough to set up a meeting with Martijn Verschoor in the seaside Mecca for training cyclists; Calpe.
We settled into the Tango bar/cafй, which is his favourite place to take in the sights and use the Wi-Fi. “I love this place!” Martijn repeated, and I could see why.
PEZ: You are on a ProConti team and you have diabetes, how do you manage to race and train at that level?
Martijn Verschoor: When I was young I started skating and I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was 14 years old, then I became interested in cycling, so I went from speed skating, which is a short distance, maybe 2 to 5 minutes and it’s not a problem for the diabetes, to cycle racing at over 80K’s and you can have problems. You burn more energy, you can have more stress, the change in the weather, the speed and intensity is very difficult with diabetes, and the best way to cope with this is a lot of training and testing on your fingers (of the blood), and the more you test the more you know how you react. I now use this machine, the CGM (Constant Glucose Monitor), you can see it on our TT1 web-site, it’s a sensor on the arm and it tells how you are with your sugar. In a race it’s perfect, you can see if the sugar is good or not good, if you need to eat or not eat, it’s a great guide to control your diabetes like this.
PEZ: Would you wear the CGM every day?
Martijn: No not every day, in races yes, but I know my body well after 14 years of diabetes, so today I didn’t wear it for training. I know how my body will react to 5 hours training, today I checked 3 or 4 times and it’s OK. But if you need to do something different, like get up early or travel, like spend a day on an aeroplane or if you have one intense day (training) and then an easy day followed by another intense day or altitude, well, they can all affect you differently so it’s good to wear the CGM then.
PEZ: So travelling can be a problem?
Martijn: Yea, like on the aeroplane I have to check more. Your body needs a little insulin to burn sugar, so I have the 24 insulin and the short action also, so when I have a little sugar, in my coffee for example, I get a little reaction, but maybe I don’t need to take any insulin, if I’m between the level then it’s OK. I have this all day, every day, its 24 hours a day, if I have a bad day then I can’t sleep if the sugar is too high or too low, it’s like a roller-coaster.
At this point a Mariachi band came through the cafe! But we carried on as best as we could.
PEZ: Have you ever got into a big problem when racing or training?
Martijn: No Big problems. But there are some people have big problems, they black out, I’ve never had that, but I’ve had a big hunger flat that lasts maybe 1 or 2 hours. The other problem can be when I have eaten too much in the morning and I have taken my long lasting insulin and at the start, after 5K’s, you go down, down, down and it’s too late and your race is over. It has happened to my twice, it was before I had the machine, these are new, about 2 or 3 years and its expensive to buy if you are not a professional. Then you had to guess a little and I preferred to be a bit high with sugar in the legs, because you don’t want a hunger flat then it’s over, but you do have bad legs. The kidney takes it out, so you need to pee a lot.
In the team car they carry an emergency syringe in case it was very bad and you would need to be injected, if you went so very low. I’ve never needed it.
PEZ: Do you eat a normal diet?
Martijn: Yes, and sometimes an ice cream! In 40єC after 6 hours training you can eat everything. But sometimes you get too high in the race and then you have to inject 1 or 2 units and then you go down.
PEZ: What about sports drinks and energy bars?
Martijn: I have the same as any anyone, maybe I mix the energy drink with a little more water and I drink more water that other (normal) riders. With the electrolyte the sugar goes up and also with the bars, so I eat a little slower.
PEZ: You have lived and cycled with diabetes for a long time now so you know how your body reacts?
Martijn: Yes, there are much worse diseases than diabetes, I can take part in sport and I have a normal life, I just have to remember, I always have to think ahead.
PEZ: Does anyone else in your family have diabetes?
Martijn: Only my Grandfather, just in the last 3 or 4 years. As people get older they get Type 2 diabetes which is more dangerous that mine. You can have Type 2 and not feel it and every day it’s getting higher and before you know it you are in trouble and your organs are going bad!
PEZ: You have to inject during a race sometimes, which must be difficult?
Martijn: Sometimes, but if the race slows up then I can do it. The problem can be if the race slows up then I go high, take an injection and come down and that can start the roller coaster and that can get out of control. I need to start with my sugar in a level situation; I can’t start on the roller coaster.
PEZ: Do people ever comment on you taking injections?
Martijn: People get the wrong idea when they see you injecting before a race, but I think it’s a good idea to let people see you injecting, maybe they say bad things about it, but when they find out more about diabetes and they see me race then they think; “oh! It’s possible to be an athlete with diabetes.” In the case of Type 1 diabetes it is impossible to live without the injections of insulin, we have the exemption form (TUE) from the UCI for insulin and being on a ProConti team we have the bio passport also.
PEZ: What is on your race programme for the year?
Martijn: I started in South Africa with a small (10 day) stage race, before that to India and then to Belgium, then after this (in Spain) I go to the Tour of Turkey. Then after Turkey we will decide if I go to California or I do a different race. California is a now big race for the team, because it’s an American team and there are lot of people want to see us winning and the American riders all want to ride in California. We don’t do the Giro d’Italia this year, which was the 1st plan, now we have the 2nd plan and that is to do a good ride California. It’s a very important race, maybe too important for me, I know I’m ready for the shorter races, they might be better for me.
PEZ: Your are from Holland, but you list your address on Facebook as Cumming, Georgia, where do you live?
Martijn: I did live in America, I’m back in Holland, but last year I lived in Georgia. I finished my studies in Holland as a gymnastics teacher and I was racing well, the team said “come to America and do a racing programme, first ride some smaller races and see how it goes,” I now have a two year contract! I’m 24 and to go to the US it’s a new World from Europe. Some great times and not many bad ones.
PEZ: You have also ridden in Africa a lot, what’s that like in comparison to Europe?
Martijn: I rode in Rwanda in October; it was a hard race for the end of the season. I rested a little after that, and then went to South Africa. It was their National Championships the week before and in Rwanda there were these steep climbs of 16% and 20%, we were not in the best condition for these races, but it was more for awareness of diabetes for the people there, it’s a small project, but it’s getting bigger. It was very interesting to see how the country is trying to improve from what it was like years ago. The Tour of South Africa was a beautiful race, but all the races were all well organised and the hotels were good. Its great riding between elephants and the mountains!
PEZ: You come to Spain quite a lot and go to Africa and you lived in America, so when are you ever in Holland?
Martijn: Well… this year only two and a half weeks! This year I have been here (in Spain), then Africa and India and then back here again, then Turkey and then maybe California (I hope) and now in Belgium they are training in the rain!
PEZ: So how can you put any address on your Facebook? You don’t live anywhere!
Martijn: Err..No. But that’s the life of a cyclist!
PEZ: Where you in Italy when the team bikes were stolen?
Martijn: No I was in Belgium, but to replace those bikes is very hard because Colnago sells many bikes and you need a lot of new bikes and from Shimano you need all those parts and they all need building. Have you seen our Facebook page, lots of photos of the bikes there!
PEZ: Team Type 1 is very international; are there any problems with say language or anything?
Martijn: The team has two languages; English and Italian. Italian is a little like Spanish, so I can manage. But there are riders from the Ukraine and a Manager who is Russian and another that is Italian; it was a little problem maybe at the beginning. When the team is in Italy it’s mostly an Italian team, so…I can speak Italian a little bit and some Spanish so I’m OK.
PEZ: There are some riders who are not diabetic on the team this year…
Martijn: Yes, but we are not just Team Type 1, there is also a triathlon team and Team Type 2 and a woman’s team and also a development team and running etc. They want to have one or two riders every year to move up the Pro team from the development team and the development team is diabetes riders only. One day there will be a diabetic rider in the ProTour, but you need very good riders in the ProConti level also. We had good riders last year, riding big races in Europe and everywhere. The team signed Laszlo Bodrogi, Rubens Bertogliati and Alexander Efimkin (recent winner of the Tour of Turkey) who are not diabetic; I hope they don’t get diabetes! The Spanish rider on the team; Javier Mejias Leal, is diabetic, he rode for ProTour team Saunier-Duval for three years, so it’s possible.
Martijn in Turkey
PEZ: What about the team sponsor?
Martijn: The team sponsor is a pharmaceutical company and some people frown at that, you know what I mean, but the team is all about diabetes riders. It’s very hard for us, I always have the heavy legs, and I have to rest more than a “normal” rider. In the team it’s important to win, but it’s more important to be healthy, you win today or you don’t…it’s OK…well tomorrow is a new challenge; I think in the other teams with the big sponsors they have a lot of pressure. We show the World we have diabetes, we do our thing and that’s good.
PEZ: You would be crazy to take drugs?
Martijn: Our team is like family, if it collapsed, that would be it. Insulin is stable on its own, but with other medication it changes and would be dangerous for me, even caffeine. It would be very dangerous; you would not have the same feelings. If I take alcohol it possible that I wouldn’t realise I was getting low on sugar, then during the night your sugar would go very low.
PEZ: Do you think you would be a better rider without diabetes?
Martijn: It’s my life! But say we were at the same level and we both wanted to get to a high level (in cycling), I need to do more work to keep to the same level as you and to rest more than you. I also have to do my blood testing and I have to think ahead more, it’s possible, but with more work. People sometimes say maybe I’ve got an advantage in the race because I get a lot of sugar, but if I have a lot of sugar then I need to inject, so I come back down again. I always have worse legs than everyone else.
PEZ: What kind of rider are you?
Martijn: I like the single day races, the Classics. Not because of the diabetes, but I like to think each day is a new challenge. The stage races are good, I like them too, but at the moment I want to do everything, I love the Classics and I like the stage races, I’ll have them both! I can climb, but I’m a sprinter and I like the cobbles. In the Netherlands you ride more Classics and not so many stage races. I’d love to ride the Worlds and Milan-San Remo and also Paris-Roubaix and Flanders.
PEZ: Would riding a long stage race be a problem, like three weeks at the Tour?
Martijn: No not really, you can look at it from two sides. One there is more travel and changes etc. but also you are in a controlled environment with everything organised well. You get your bottle and your food at the right time; I don’t think it would be problem.
PEZ: And the future, Holland, America…Africa?
Martijn: I definitely want come back here (Spain)! I like nice weather, but it’s nice to go home too, I have many friends in the Netherlands. I went to University in Holland to learn to be a gym coach and love to see people getting better. I’d love to be the best coach, but I need to specialise and study, maybe 10 years more cycling and then who knows.
Life is for living!
Martijn Verschoor is living with diabetes and it’s not getting in the way of his wish to be a Pro cyclist. He has bad legs all the time, but he has the hunger to succeed. He impressed me! Check out the Martijn Verschoor web-site.
I’ll buy the ice-cream next time Martijn.