Team manager interview: Team Novo Nordisk is unique, the only all diabetic cycling team in the peloton, but there is so much more to the set-up than the UCI registered ProTeam. Ed Hood caught up with the CEO and co-founder Phil Southerland to hear the latest team developments.
‘For guys like Sir David Brailsford at INEOS or Doug Ryder at Qhubeka ASSOS all the stress comes in the last five kilometres when they’re thinking; ‘can we win this?’ For us it’s the first kilometres of the race where we try to get our riders in the break.’ It’s not that Phil Southerland isn’t ambitious – but like Sir David said to him in 2019; ‘set achievable goals.’
Because the thing about Phil’s Novo Nordisk ProTeam is that it’s not just all about winning races; all of the athletes in the team are diabetic and their presence in the peloton at the highest level is a source of inspiration to fellow diabetics all over the world.
Andrea Peron and Charles Planet in Milan-Sanremo
It’s been a wee while since we last chatted to Phil but the presence of Andrea Peron and Charles Planet as part of the break of the day in Milano-Sanremo was the nudge we needed.
PEZ: How many years have you had the team now, Phil?
Phil Southerland: It was founded in 2005 as, ‘Team Type 1’ so that’s 15 years now.
PEZ: As Team Type 1 before the squad was comprised 100% of diabetic athletes you were staring to get some big results; the 2011 Presidential Tour of Turkey won by Alexander Efimkin comes to mind – do you miss those days?
No, absolutely not, what we have now is more than a team, it’s a culture, a family growing together. I miss those last five K situations where I was thinking; ‘we can win this’ but the stress for us now is in the early kilometres where we’re trying to get riders in the break to gain exposure. I remember what Sir David Brailsford said to me in 2019; ‘set achievable goals.’
PEZ: Given the current situation with the pandemic it must be even more challenging than usual to run a professional cycling team?
Challenging for sure but having Novo Nordisk behind us providing our health care provides a lot of comfort. But it’s not just that aspect; in the middle of a pandemic they extended our sponsorship by one year and then came back to us with a three year extension. Whilst other teams were cutting salaries we had no such worries. Of course the pandemic means a lot of testing which uses up a sizeable part of our budget and takes all the fun out of travel. As diabetics we have to be even more careful about our health in these difficult times. We had Andrea Planet and Charles Planet test positive for the virus but thankfully they’ve both made full recoveries and are fit and healthy.
PEZ: The team still managed a pretty cosmopolitan programme in 2020?
Yes, we started at the Tour Colombia 2.1 in February then went straight to Africa for the Tour du Rwanda – maybe we over-stepped the mark with all that travel – then on to Greece and the International Tour of Rhodes. After lockdown we were in Italy, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia so given the circumstances, it was a good year.
PEZ: The team is pretty ‘cosmo’ too with 11 nations represented, how do you recruit?
Guys come up through our development team and we now host virtual opportunities for youngsters. We have a really strong pipeline; it’s not like we can do what the other teams do and just go out and ‘pick off’ stars. We try to spark the dream in the 14 year-olds, if they join us through our development programme they’ll have access to the best technical and educational support available for their condition.
PEZ: How do you frame your programme?
We’re aware of the markets where our sponsor are most active and we can often bring Novo Nordisk in to partner the race. And remember we have some nine million fans on social media so if we’re in a race then we’ll bring a lot of interest with us. Then, of course, there’s our General Manager, Vassili Davidenko who’s been in the sport some 30 years with 15 of those years as a professional rider, he’s very well respected and connected.
PEZ: Is the World Tour still the dream?
Of course, perhaps the biggest advantage of being on the WorldTour is that you know exactly what your programme is so planning becomes so much easier. Then there’s the aspect that you’re riding the biggest races on the planet with the most exposure. It’s our dream to compete in the Giro and one day races like the Tour of Flanders, which may be savage but they’re also awesome. We have to be patient though, ready for that level and our three year extension with the sponsor is all part of that process.
Hitting the start of Milan-Sanremo
PEZ: A three year extension of sponsorship must be a huge comfort?
I was pleased with a one year extension in May but when they came back in August with a three year extension I really didn’t expect it. Our relationship with the sponsor is very close, we’re proud to be part of their process of changing diabetic’s lives. But it’s not just a name on a jersey, take the lead up to the Japan Cup; we’re out there for two weeks before the race doing road shows and involving Novo Nordisk’s Japanese affiliate company, their staff meet the team, the riders, the soigneurs, mechanics. . .
PEZ: It’s not just the ProTeam though, you have a development team, a women’s team, MTB and cyclo-cross involvement and a triathlon team – a huge undertaking to manage.
We have good people, most of our employees have been with us for a long period of time – our triathletes are great ambassadors; they compete in all the corners of the earth and really connect with people. They, along with our cyclists are a huge inspiration to folks. There’s an English kid called Louis Evans on our development team, he was laying in hospital having been diagnosed with diabetes; his mother was standing beside his bed, crying because her son had this illness but Louis was laying there saying; ‘great, I’ll be able to apply to join the Novo Nordisk team now!’ I think that in dark days our team provides a bit of light.
PEZ: And you’re still on those nice Colnago machines for 2021.
Our connection with Ernesto goes back some 40 years to when Vassili first rode a Colnago; Senor Colnago has been a great friend to the team. They’re terrific machines, I love mine.
With Ernesto Colnago
PEZ: Do you still get to races, Phil?
I was in Rwanda last year then my next race was Milan-Sanremo just last month; a good day for us with Charles Planet and Andrea Peron in the break – really boosting awareness. Andrea’s performance was particularly inspiring given he’s twice had Covid; and he didn’t just join the break, he initiated it and was in the lead for 250 kilometres.
Andrea Peron leading the Sanremo break
PEZ: What’s still on the Phil Southerland ‘to do’ list?
Getting to the World Tour!
# Thanks to Phil for his time and the best of luck! #